The Legend of the Female Pope in the Reformation

Pope Joan depicted in a 15th-16th century manuscriptThe Legend of the Female Pope in the Reformation

By Valerie Hotchkiss

Acta Conventus Neo-Latini Hafniensis : proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of neo-Latin studies : Copenhagen, 12 August to 17 August 1991 (1994)

For reasons which remain unclear, a titillating legend arose among thirteenth-century monastic chroniclers that a woman had once ascended to the papacy. This papa mulier not only became an established figure in papal lists, but also found notoriety in art, literature, theological disputes, and historical writing. According to most accounts, she was a young woman of English or German descent (variously named Johanna, Agnes, Glancia, Gilberta, or Jutta), who assumed male identity in order to attend a university with her lover. Her scholarly diligence led to rapid advancement through the clerical ranks until she reached the pinnacle of the ecclesiastical hierarchy by being unanimously elected pope. After a two-and-a-half-year reign under the name Johannes, the pope’s true nature was made manifest when, during a ceremonial procession, she fell to the ground and gave birth to a child. The outcome of this revelation varies in the numerous accounts. Some say an angry mob killed the impostor, others that she was imprisoned or simply deposed and exiled; the majority, however, claims she died in childbirth. Although the legend was conclusively debunked in the seventeenth century by David Blondel, the authenticity of the papess remained largely undisputed throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.


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See also: Pope Joan: a recognizable syndrome