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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 332-334
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The Myth of Pope Joan
The Myth of Pope Joan. By Alain Boureau. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2001. Pp. x, 385. $60.00 clothbound; $22.50 paperback.)
Joan refuses to go away. If she had lived—and Boureau states early and often that this is highly unlikely—she was, presumably, an English woman educated at Mainz who ran off with a lover to Athens, secured a superb education, traveled to Rome, began a teaching career, and then, unrecognized as a woman, was elected pope in 855. According to the usual telling of the story, after she had reigned for two years and some months, while crossing Rome from St. Peter's to the Lateran, she gave birth to a child in a street near San Clemente and died immediately. Thereafter, for many centuries, newly elected popes were subjected to a physical inspection to prove their sex. Of course, there is no actual gap in the papal succession between Leo IV and Benedict III, so on occasion Joan has been identified with John VIII, or else with one or another of the tenth-century Johns (several of whom were sufficiently unattractive figures to evoke later ridicule). Joan's story was not told until it began circulating, especially in Dominican circles, in the thirteenth century, and then it proliferated with astonishing speed and breadth. Boreau devotes some space to telling the story in its familiar guise. It is not his intention to recapitulate the history of Joan but instead to tell and analyze the history of the Joan-myth. This he does brilliantly in a book that is learned, packed with keen observations on numerous aspects of [End Page 332] the West's cultural history, a self-conscious essay on historical methodology, and, because of its compelling subject and luminous prose, a great read.
The book proceeds through a series of chapters that tackle various aspects of the Joan-myth. The first three explore the fascinating tale of the supposed rite by means of which the cardinals assured themselves that the newly-elected possessed "pontificals" (i.e., male genitalia). Boreau notes that one writer after another took his account of this supposed ritual from someone else and that, in the end, centuries' worth of alleged eye-witnesses turn out to be anything but that. He also shows that no liturgical evidence ever was, or could be, adduced. Finally, he observes that once a man has been elected, he is pope: period. No subsequent ceremony can make or unmake him. Commentators for a thousand years ought to have known this. Boureau's discussion is too complex and interesting to attempt a summary of it here, but I might say that Roman politics, the increasing sophistication and clericalization of ecclesiastical ritual, and the simultaneously light and dark comedy of the carnival were all at work. These chapters are characteristic of the book as a whole: The story, albeit untrue in the most basic sense, was repeatedly recounted, and so it acquired truth, so to speak, in other senses. These senses reveal patterns of meaning in medieval life and thought.
The next two chapters explore the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, the time when the story of Joan was most frequently told and, on all available evidence, most widely believed. Once again, it is impossible in a review to do justice to the range of issues raised by Boreau. Joan was initially and repeatedly popularized by Dominicans: Jean de Mailly, Etienne de Bourbon, Martinus Polonus, Jacopo da Voragine, Arnoldus of Liège, Bernard Gui, and Tolommeo da Lucca (among others). This is food for thought, and Boureau sits long at the table. He also asks about Franciscan propagandists whose views on the authority of the papacy in general tended to track with papal attitudes toward the more rigorous among the Friars Minor. In 1294 (the date of Celestine V's abdication) Joan was appropriated to show how to get rid of an illegitimate pope or to prove how...