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  • Die Päpstin Johanna: Biographie einer Legende
  • Thomas F. X. Noble
Die Päpstin Johanna: Biographie einer Legende. By Max Kerner and Klaus Herbers. (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag. 2010. Pp. 173. €20,50. ISBN 978-3-412-20469-3.)

Near the end of this brief, bracing book the authors ask if we need Pope Joan. A reviewer might well ask if we need another book about her. But to answer their question as they do:Yes, we need Joan because, since the thirteenth century, succeeding generations have needed her, or found her useful, for various ideological and polemical reasons.

The authors leave no doubt that by any standard of historical scholarship there was no Pope Joan. Joan's medieval inventers and later defenders situate [End Page 765] her 2.5-year "pontificate" after Leo IV (847-55), but the record is clear: Benedict III succeeded Leo, and there is no gap in the succession. The idea occasionally floated that the Vatican expunged the record is nonsense.

Treatments of the Joan story usually begin in earnest with Martin of Troppau in the thirteenth century. Max Kerner and Klaus Herbers deal extensively with Martin but also add a good deal of material from the ninth century to the thirteenth that has not always found a place in the discussion. For instance, John VIII (872-82) was seen by Cesare Baronius (1538-1607) as a pope of "womanly weakness" because he recognized Photius as patriarch of Constantinople. This may have been an inchoate local Roman legend. Then, too, Onofrio Panvinio (1529-68) quoted a letter of Leo IX (1049-54) to Patriarch Michael Cerularius, alleging that there had once been a woman patriarch. Panvinio believed that such a charge could not have been entered if there was a risk that it might have been hurled back at Rome. Once again, however, there were apparently legends swirling in Rome.

The authors pick major periods—quarrels over papal authority in the thirteenth century, Avignon and schism, humanism, reformation, enlightenment, democratization, secularism, feminism—and then representative writers from each period to show how Joan was used, or misused, to score debating points. Their writers range from famous to obscure, and their material includes novels, plays, and operas. Kerner and Herbers explicitly write the biography of a legend and use the legend to shed light on contemporaneous debates. At the end, they observe that since Durckheim and Weber began teaching us to see reality as socially constructed, the boundaries between fact and fiction have been steadily eroded. The enduring legend of Pope Joan, therefore, makes new and more interesting work for historians to do.

Thomas F. X. Noble
University of Notre Dame


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