The Myth of Pope Joan
By Michael B. Landres
Herodotus: The Undergraduate Journal of History, Vol.10 (2000)
Introduction: It is commonplace today to find popular myths and legends that have become so deeply ingrained within the folklore of society that the historical bases of their origins, if ever they existed, have become lost or confused with the passage of time. An example of this trend can be found in the common belief that Cleopatra VII, the Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt, possessed remarkable physical beauty which she used to seduce noble Roman men. On the contrary, an examination of historical facts reveals not only that Cleopatra was rather homely in appearance but also that the basis of her reputation as a beautiful temptress comes almost entirely from Roman imperial propaganda. Another more recent example of such a myth can be found in the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, a tale which any American has known since childhood. As it is said, the young George Washington cut down a prized cherry tree in his father’s yard. When several days later the felled cherry tree came to the attention of the father, he asked young George if he happened to know who had cut it down. Rather than shy away from the truth, the future president of the United States of America exclaimed, “Father, I cannot tell a lie. It was I who cut down the cherry tree.” While the majority of the American population most likely believes this story to be true, the fact remains that the tale does not have any sound historical basis.
One could spend a lifetime cataloguing hundreds of myths just like these, that have, at one time or another, come to be accepted as historical truth. This paper, however, will focus on the popular medieval legend of Pope Joan, with a particular emphasis placed upon the origins of the myth. The hypothesis that underlies this reflection is that the legend of Pope Joan is a myth whose origins can be traced to papal politics in the thirteenth century. However, before advancing this argument any further, it is necessary that one become acquainted with an archetypal versions of the Joan legend.
See also: Pope Joan: a recognizable syndrome
See also: The Woman who Ruled the Papacy