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The Afterlife of Pope Joan

Deploying the Popess Legend in Early Modern England

Craig M. Rustici

Publication Year: 2006

Amid the religious tumult of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, English scholars, preachers, and dramatists examined, debated, and refashioned tales concerning Pope Joan, a ninth-century woman who, as legend has it, cross-dressed her way to the papacy only to have her imposture exposed when she gave birth during a solemn procession. The legend concerning a popess had first taken written form in the thirteenth century and for several hundred years was more or less accepted. The Reformation, however, polarized discussions of the legend, pitting Catholics, who denied the story’s veracity, against Protestants, who suspected a cover-up and instantly cited Joan as evidence of papal depravity. In this heated environment, writers reimagined Joan variously as a sorceress, a hermaphrodite, and even a noteworthy author. The Afterlife of Pope Joan examines sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates concerning the popess’s existence, uncovering the disputants’ historiographic methods, rules of evidence, rhetorical devices, and assumptions concerning what is probable and possible for women and transvestites. Author Craig Rustici then investigates the cultural significance of a series of notions advanced in those debates: the claim that Queen Elizabeth I was a popess in her own right, the charge that Joan penned a book of sorcery, and the curious hypothesis that the popess was not a disguised woman at all but rather a man who experienced a sort of spontaneous sex change. The Afterlife of Pope Joan draws upon the discourses of religion, politics, natural philosophy, and imaginative literature, demonstrating how the popess functioned as a powerful rhetorical instrument and revealing anxieties and ambivalences about gender roles that persist even today. Craig M. Rustici is Associate Professor of English at Hofstra University.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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p. ix

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pp. 1-39

In the sixteenth century, worshippers in the vast medieval cathedral in Siena who cast their gaze far above the inlaid floor, higher even than the striped black and white marble columns supporting the Romanesque arches, could view a sculpture that was stunning, if not for its artistry, then for its subject. ...

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1. Debating Joan: Images, Ceremony, and the Gelded Text

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pp. 40-61

Writing in 1697 and looking back on more than a century of debate concerning the Pope Joan legend, the skeptical French Huguenot philosopher Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) observed: “I believe that some traditions, which are advantageous to the Popes, and supported by as strong reasons as those are which support ...

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2. Comparing Joan: The Whore of Babylon and the Virgin Queen

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pp. 62-84

In March 1592, at the Rose Theatre, Lord Strange’s Men dramatized the career of Pope Joan. Unfortunately, no copy of the play they performed, which the impresario Philip Henslowe (ca. 1550–1616) recorded in his diary as “poope Jone,” has survived (Henslowe 22; Patrides 169; Pardoe and Pardoe 84). ...

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3. Diagnosing Joan: The Hermaphrodite Hypothesis

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pp. 85-105

At the 1992 annual meeting of the Endocrine Society, Maria I. New, a physician at the New York–Cornell Medical Center, delivered the President’s Address, entitled “Pope Joan: A Recognizable Syndrome.” In her lecture, New posed a question germane to this study: “If Pope Joan was a legend”—as New insists she “undoubtedly” was ...

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4. Canonizing Joan: Necromancy, Papacy, and the Reformation of the Book

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pp. 106-125

In 1548 Pope Joan became an English author and a magician. That year, at least, the English Protestant polemicist and antiquarian John Bale credited Joan with writing a book on necromancy and therefore included her story among the brief literary biographies presented in his Illustrivm maioris Britanniae scriptorum . . . summarium, ...

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5. Playing Joan: Popish Plots in the Theatre Royal

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pp. 126-152

On the evening of November 17, 1679, as many as two hundred thousand Londoners witnessed a spectacle that reportedly cost its Whig sponsors twenty-five hundred pounds. The torches carried by 150 hired porters illuminated a float bearing a pope in effigy, embraced and counseled by the devil ...

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pp. 153-158

In 1972, seven hundred years after Jean de Mailly first committed it to writing, the popess legend entered a new medium with the release of a film entitled Pope Joan (or alternatively The Devil’s Imposter). As originally conceived and shot, this film portrayed a troubled, twentieth-century woman’s attempt to appropriate the popess legend ...


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pp. 159-180

Works Cited

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pp. 181-198


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pp. 199-209

E-ISBN-13: 9780472024698
E-ISBN-10: 0472024698
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472115440
Print-ISBN-10: 0472115448

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 10 illustrations
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 647889041
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Afterlife of Pope Joan

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Women -- History -- Middle Ages, 500-1500
  • Popes -- Legends.
  • Catholic Church -- England -- History.
  • Joan (Legendary Pope).
  • Church history -- Middle Ages, 600-1500
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