Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/Antichrist and Pope Joan

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Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring-Gould
Antichrist and Pope Joan

FROM the earliest ages of the Church, the advent of the Man of Sin has been looked forward to with terror, and the passages of Scripture relating to him have been studied with solemn awe, lest that day of wrath should come upon the Church unawares. As events in the world’s history took place which seemed to be indications of the approach of Antichrist, a great horror fell upon men’s minds, and their imaginations conjured up myths which flew from mouth to mouth, and which were implicitly believed.

Before speaking of these strange tales which produced such an effect on the minds of men in the Middle Ages, it will be well briefly to examine the opinions of divines of the early ages on the passages of Scripture connected with the coming of the last great persecutor of the Church. Antichrist was believed by most ancient writers to be destined to arise out of the tribe of Dan, a belief founded on the prediction of Jacob, “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path” (conf. Jeremiah viii. 1 6), and on the exclamation of the dying patriarch, when looking on his son Dan, “I have waited for Thy Salvation, O Lord,” as though the long-suffering of God had borne long with that tribe, but in vain, and it was to be extinguished without hope. This, indeed, is implied in the sealing of the servants of God in their foreheads (Revelation vii.), when twelve thousand out of every tribe, except Dan, were seen by S. John to receive the seal of adoption, whilst of the tribe of Dan not one was sealed, as though it, to a man, had apostatized.

Opinions as to the nature of Antichrist were divided. Some held that he was to be a devil in phantom body, and of this number was Hippolytus. Others again believed that he would be an incarnate demon, true man and true devil; in fearful and diabolical parody of the Incarnation of our Lord. A third view was that he would be merely a desperately wicked man, acting upon diabolic inspirations, just as the saints act upon divine inspirations. S. John Damascene expressly asserts that he will not be an incarnate demon, but a devilish man, for he says, “Not as Christ assumed humanity, so will the devil become human, but the Man will receive all the inspiration of Satan, and will suffer the devil to take up his abode within him.” In this manner, Antichrist could have many forerunners, and so S. Jerome and S. Augustine saw an Antichrist in Nero, not the Antichrist, but one of those of whom the Apostle speaks—“Even now are there many Antichrists.” Thus also every enemy of the faith, such as Diocletian, Julian, and Mahomet, has been regarded as a precursor of the Arch-persecutor, who was expected to sum up in himself the cruelty of a Nero or Diocletian, the show of virtue of a Julian, and the spiritual pride of a Mahomet.

From infancy the evil one is to take possession of Antichrist, and to train him for his office, instilling into him cunning, cruelty, and pride. His doctrine will be not downright infidelity, but a “show of godliness,” whilst “denying the power thereof,” i.e. the miraculous origin and divine authority of Christianity. He will sow doubts of our Lord’s manifestation “in the flesh,” he will allow Christ to be an excellent Man, capable of teaching the most exalted truths, and inculcating the purest morality, yet Himself fallible and carried away by fanaticism.

In the end, however, Antichrist will “exalt himself to sit as God in the temple of God,” and become “the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place.” At the same time there is to be an awful alliance struck between himself, the impersonification of the world-power, and the Church of God; some high pontiff of which, or the episcopacy in general, will enter into league with the unbelieving State to oppress the very elect. It is a strange instance of religionary virulence which makes some detect the Pope of Rome in the Man of Sin, the Harlot, the Beast, and the Priest going before it. The Man of Sin and the Beast are unmistakably identical, and refer to an Antichristian world-power; whilst the Harlot and the Priest are symbols of an apostasy in the Church. There is nothing Roman in this, but something very much the opposite.

How the Abomination of Desolation can be considered as set up in a Church where every sanctuary is adorned with all that can draw the heart to the Crucified, and raise the thoughts to the imposing ritual of heaven, is a puzzle to me. To the man uninitiated in the law that Revelation is to be interpreted by contraries, it would seem more like the Abomination of Desolation in the Holy Place if he entered a Scotch Presbyterian, or a Dutch Calvinist, place of worship. Rome does not fight against the Daily Sacrifice, and endeavour to abolish it; that has been rather the labour of so-called Church Reformers, who with the suppression of the doctrine of Eucharistic Sacrifice and Sacramental Adoration have well nigh obliterated all notion of worship to be addressed to the God-Man. Rome does not deny the power of the godliness of which she makes show, but insists on that power with no broken accents. It is rather in other communities, where authority is flung aside, and any man is permitted to believe or reject what he likes, that we must look for the leaven of the Antichristian spirit at work. However, this is not a question into which we care to enter, our province is myth not theology.

In the time of Antichrist, we are told by ancient Commentators, the Church will be divided: one portion will hold to the world-power, the other will seek out the old paths, and cling to the only true Guide. The high places will be filled with unbelievers in the Incarnation, and the Church will be in a condition of the utmost spiritual degradation, but enjoying the highest State patronage. The religion in favour will be one of morality, but not of dogma; and the Man of Sin will be able to promulgate his doctrine, according to S. Anselm, through his great eloquence and wisdom, his vast learning and mightiness in the Holy Scriptures, which he will wrest to the overthrowing of dogma. He will be liberal in bribes, for he will be of unbounded wealth; he will be capable of performing great “signs and wonders,” so as “to deceive—the very elect;” and at the last, he will tear the moral veil from his countenance, and a monster of impiety and cruelty, he will inaugurate that awful persecution, which is to last for three years and a half, and to excel in horror all the persecutions that have gone before.

In that terrible season of confusion faith will be all but extinguished. “When the Son of Man cometh shall He find faith on the earth ?” asks our Blessed Lord, as though expecting the answer, No; and then, says Marchantius, the vessel of the Church will disappear in the foam of that boiling deep of infidelity, and be hidden in the blackness of that storm of destruction which sweeps over the earth. The sun shall “be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven;” the sun of faith shall have gone out; the moon, the Church, shall not give her light, being turned into blood, through stress of persecution; and the stars, the great ecclesiastical dignitaries, shall fall into apostasy. But still the Church will remain unwrecked, she will weather the storm; still will she come forth “beautiful as the moon, terrible as an army with banners;” for after the lapse of those three and a half years, Christ will descend to avenge the blood of the saints, by destroying Antichrist and the world-power.

Such is a brief sketch of the Scriptural doctrine of Antichrist as held by the Early and Mediæval Church. Let us now see to what Myths it gave rise among the vulgar and the imaginative. Rabanus Maurus, in his work on the life of Antichrist, gives a full account of the miracles he will perform; he tells us that the Man-fiend will heal the sick, raise the dead, restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb; he will raise storms and calm them, will remove mountains, make trees flourish or wither at a word. He will rebuild the temple at Jerusalem, and make the Holy City the great capital of the world. Popular opinion added that his vast wealth would be obtained from hidden treasures, which are now being concealed by the demons for his use. Various possessed persons, when interrogated, announced that such was the case, and that the amount of buried gold was vast.

“In the year 1599,” says Canon Moreau, a contemporary historian, “a rumour circulated with prodigious rapidity through Europe, that Antichrist had been born at Babylon, and that already the Jews of that part were hurrying to receive and recognize him as their Messiah. The news came from Italy and Germany, and extended to Spain, England, and other Western kingdoms, troubling many people, even the most discreet; however the learned gave it no credence, saying that the signs predicted in Scripture to precede that event were not yet accomplished, and among other that the Roman empire was not yet abolished. … Others said that, as for the signs, the majority had already appeared to the best of their knowledge, and with regard to the rest, they might have taken place in distant regions without their having been made known to them; that the Roman empire existed but in name, and that the interpretation of the passage on which its destruction was predicted, might be incorrect: that for many centuries, the most learned and pious had believed in the near approach of Antichrist, some believing that he had already come, on account of the persecutions which had fallen on the Christians; others on account of fires, or eclipses, or earthquakes. … Every one was in excitement; some declared that the news must be correct, others believed nothing about it, and the agitation became so excessive, that Henry IV., who was then on the throne, was compelled by edict to forbid any mention of the subject.”

The report spoken of by Moreau gained additional confirmation from the announcement made by an exorcised demoniac, that in 1600, the Man of Sin had been born in the neighbourhood of Paris of a Jewess, named Blanchefleure, who had conceived by Satan. The child had been baptized at the Sabbath of Sorcerers; and a witch, under torture, acknowledged that she had rocked the infant Antichrist on her knees, and she averred that he had claws on his feet, wore no shoes, and spoke all languages.

In 1623 appeared the fallowing startling announcement, which obtained an immense circulation among the lower orders: “We, brothers of the Order of S. John of Jerusalem, in the isle of Malta, have received letters from our spies, who are engaged in our service in the country of Babylon, now possessed by the Grand Turk; by the which letters we are advertised, that, on the 1st of May, in the year of our Lord 1623, a child was born in the town of Bourydot, otherwise called Calka, near Babylon, of the which child the mother is a very aged woman of race unknown, called Fort-Juda: of the father nothing is known. The child is dusky, has pleasant mouth and eyes, teeth pointed like those of a cat, ears large, stature by no means exceeding that of other children; the said child, incontinent on his birth, walked and talked perfectly well. His speech is comprehended by every one, admonishing the people that he is the true Messiah, and the son of God, and that in him all must believe. Our spies also swear and protest that they have seen the said child with their own eyes; and they add, that, on the occasion of his nativity, there appeared marvellous signs in heaven, for at full noon the sun lost its brightness, and was for some time obscured.” This is followed by a list of other signs appearing, the most remarkable being a swarm of flying serpents, and a shower of precious stones.

According to Sebastian Michaeliz, in his history of the possessed of Flanders, on the authority of the exorcised demons, we learn that Antichrist is to be a son of Beelzebub, who will accompany his offspring under the form of a bird, with four feet and a bull’s head; that he will torture Christians with the same tortures with which the lost souls are racked; that he will be able to fly, speak all languages, and will have any number of names.

We find that Antichrist is known to the Mussulmans as well as to Christians. Lane, in his edition of the ”Arabian Nights,” gives some curious details on Moslem ideas regarding him. According to these, Antichrist will overrun the earth, mounted on an ass, and followed by 40,000 Jews; his empire will last forty days, whereof the first day will be a year long, the duration of the second will be a month, that of the third a week, the others being of their usual length. He will devastate the whole world, leaving Mecca and Medina alone in security, as these holy cities will be guarded by angelic legions. Christ at last will descend to earth, and in a great battle will destroy the Man-devil.

Several writers of different denominations, no less superstitious than the common people, connected the apparition of Antichrist with the fable of Pope Joan, which obtained such general credence at one time, but which modern criticism has at length succeeded in excluding from history.

The earliest writer supposed to mention Pope Joan is Anastasius the Librarian, a contemporary (d. 886); next to him is Marianus Scotus, who in his chronicle inserts the following passage: Sebastian MichaelizA.D. 854, Lotharii 14, Joanna, a woman, succeeded Leo, and reigned two years, five months, and four days.’ Marianus Scotus died A.D. 1086. The same story is inserted in the valuable chronicle of Sigebert de Gemblours (d. 5th Oct. 1112): “It is reported that this John was a female, and that she conceived one of her servants. The Pope, becoming pregnant, gave birth to a child, wherefore some do not number her among the Pontiffs.” Hence the story spread among the mediæval chroniclers, who were great plagiarists. Otto of Frisingen and Gotfrid of Viterbo mention the Lady-Pope in their histories, and Martin Polonus gives details as follows: “After Leo IV. John Anglus, a native of Metz, reigned two years, five months, and four days. And the pontificate was vacant for a month. He died in Rome. He is related to have been a female, and, when a girl, to have accompanied her sweetheart in male costume to Athens; there she advanced in various sciences, and none could be found to equal her. So, after having studied for three years in Rome, she had great masters for her pupils and hearers. And when there arose a high opinion in the city of her virtue and knowledge, she was unanimously elected Pope. But during her papacy she became in the family way by a familiar. Not knowing the time of birth, as she was on her way from S. Peter’s to the Lateran she had a painful delivery, between the Coliseum and S. Clement’s Church, in the street. Having died after, it is said that she was buried on the spot, and therefore the Lord Pope always turns aside from that way, and it is supposed by some, out of detestation for what happened there. Nor on that account is she placed in the catalogue of the Holy Pontiffs, not only or account of her sex, but also because of the horribleness of the circumstance.”

Certainly a story at all scandalous crescit eundo.

William Ocham alludes to the story, Thomas de Elmham (1422) quaintly observes, “A.D. 855. Joannes. Iste non computatus. Fœmina fuit;” and John Huss, only too happy to believe it, provides the lady with a name, and asserts that she was baptized Agnes, or, as he will have it with a strong aspirate, Hagnes. Others, however, insist upon her name having been Gilberta, and some stout Germans, not relishing the notion of her being a daughter of Fatherland, palm her off on England. As soon as we arrive at Reformation times the German and French Protestants fasten on the story with the utmost avidity, and add sweet little touches of their own, and draw conclusions galling enough to the Roman See, illustrating their accounts with wood engravings vigorous and graphic, but hardly decent. One of these represents the event in a peculiarly startling manner. The procession of bishops with the Host and tapers is sweeping along, when suddenly the cross-bearer before the triple-crowned and vested Pope starts aside to witness the unexpected arrival. This engraving, which it is quite impossible for me to reproduce, is in a curious little book, entitled “Puerperium Johannis Papæ 8, 1530.”

The following jingling record of the event is from the Rhythmical Vitæ Pontificum of Gulielmus Jacobus of Egmonden, a work never printed. This fragment is preserved in ”Wolffi Lectionum Memorabilium centenarii, XVI.:”

“Priusquàm reconditur Sergius, vocatur
 Ad summam, qui dicitur Johannes, huic addatur
 Anglicus, Moguntia iste procreatur.
 Qui, ut dat sententia, fœminis aptatur
 Sexu: quod sequentia monstrant, breviatur,
 Hæc vox: nam prolixius chronica procedunt
 Ista, de qua brevius dicta minus lædunt.
 Huic erat amasius, ut scriptores credunt.
 Patria relinquitur Moguntia, Græcorum
 Studiosè petitur schola. Pòst doctorum
 Hæc doctrix efficitur Romæ legens: horum
 Hæc auditu fungitur loquens. Hinc prostrato
 Summo hæc eligitur: sexu exaltato
 Quandoque negligitur. Fatur quòd hæc nato
 Per servum conficitur. Tempore gignendi
 Ad processum equus scanditur, vice flendi,
 Papa cadit, panditur improbis ridendi
 Norma, puer nascitur in vico Clementis,
 Colossœum jungitur. Corpus parentis
 In eodem traditur sepulturæ gentis,
 Faturque scriptoribus, quòd Papa præfato,
 Vico senioribus transiens amato
 Congruo ductoribus sequitur negato
 Loco, quo Ecclesia partu denigratur,
 Quamvis inter spacia Pontificum ponatur,
 Propter sexum.”

Stephen Blanch, in his “Urbis Romæ Mirabilia,” says that an angel of heaven appeared to Joan before the event, and asked her to choose whether she should prefer burning eternally in hell, or having her confinement in public; with sense which does her credit, she chose the latter. The Protestant writers were not satisfied that the father of the unhappy baby should have been a servant: some made him a Cardinal, and others the devil himself. According to an eminent Dutch minister, it is immaterial whether the child be fathered on Satan or a monk: at all events, the former took a lively interest in the youthful Antichrist, and, on the occasion of his birth, was seen and heard fluttering overhead, crowing and chanting in an unmusical voice the Sibyline verses announcing the birth of the Arch-persecutor:—

“Papa pater patrum, Papissæ pandito partum
 Et tibi tunc eadem de corpora quando recedam!”

which lines, as being perhaps the only ones known to be of diabolic composition, are deserving of preservation.

The Reformers, in order to reconcile dates, were put to the somewhat perplexing necessity of moving Pope Joan to their own times, or else of giving to the youthful Antichrist an age of seven hundred years.

It must be allowed that the accouoliement of a Pope in full pontificals, during a solemn procession, was a prodigy not likely to occur more than once in the world’s history, and was certain to be of momentous import.

It will be seen by the curious woodcut reproduced as frontispiece from Baptista Mantuanus, that he consigned Pope Joan to the jaws of hell, notwithstanding her choice. The verses accompanying this picture are:

“Hic pendebat adhuc sexum mentita virile
 Fœmina, cui triplici Phrygiam diademate mitran
 Extollebat apex: et pontificalis adulter.”

It need hardly be stated that the whole story of Pope Joan is fabulous, and rests on not the slightest historical foundation. It was probably a Greek invention to throw discredit on the papal hierarchy, first circulated more than two hundred years after the date of the supposed Pope. Even Martin Polonus (A.D. 1282), who is the first to give the details, does so merely on popular report.

The great champions of the myth were the Protestants of the sixteenth century, who were thoroughly unscrupulous in distorting history and suppressing facts, so long as they could make a point. A paper war was waged upon the subject, and finally the whole story was proved conclusively to be utterly destitute of historical truth. A melancholy example of the blindness of party feeling and prejudice is seen in Mosheim, who assumes the truth of the ridiculous story, and gravely inserts it in his “Ecclesiastical History.” “Between Leo IV., who died 855, and Benedict III., a woman, who concealed her sex and assumed the name of John, it is said, opened her way to the Pontifical throne by her learning and genius, and governed the Church for a time. She is commonly called the Papess Joan. During the five subsequent centuries the witnesses to this extraordinary event are without number; nor did any one, prior to the Reformation by Luther, regard the thing as either incredible or disgraceful to the Church.” Such are Mosheim’s words, and I give them as a specimen of the credit which is due to his opinion. The “Ecclesiastical History” he wrote is full of perversions of the plainest facts, and that under notice is but one out of many. “During the five centuries after her reign,” he says, ”the witnesses to the story are innumerable.” Now for two centuries there is not an allusion to be found to the events. The only passage which can be found is a universally acknowledged interpolation of the “Lives of the Popes,” by Anastasius Bibliothecarius, and this interpolation is stated in the first printed edition by Busæus, Mogunt. 1602, to be only found in two MS. copies.

Mosheim is false again in asserting that no one prior to the Reformation regarded the thing as either incredible or disgraceful. This is but of a piece with his disregard for truth, whenever he can hit the Catholic Church hard. Bart. Platina, in his “Lives of the Popes,” written before Luther was born, after relating the story, says, “These things which I relate are popular reports, but derived from uncertain and obscure authors, which I have therefore inserted briefly and baldly, lest I should seem to omit obstinately and pertinaciously what most people assert.” Thus the facts were justly doubted by Platina on the legitimate grounds that they rested on popular gossip, and not on reliable history. Anastasius the Librarian, contemporary of the alleged circumstance, is the first cited as evidence to there having been a Papess. This testimony is however open to serious objection. The MSS. of the works of Anastasius do not uniformly contain the fable. Panvini, who wrote additions to Platina, De vitis Romanorum Pontificum, assures us that “in old books of the lives of the Popes, written by Damasus, by the Librarian, and by Pandulph de Pisa, there is no mention of this woman: only on the margin, betwixt Leo IV. and Benedict III., this fable has been found inserted by a later writer, in characters altogether distinct from the text.”

Blondel, the great Protestant writer, who ruined the case of the Decretals, says that he examined a MS. of Anastasius in the Royal Library at Paris, and found the story of Pope Joan inserted in such a manner as to convince him that it was a late interpolation. He says[1], “Having read and reread it, I found that the elogium of the pretended Papess is taken from the words of Martinus Polonus, penitenciary to Innocent IV., and Archbishop of Cosenza, an author four hundred years later than Anastasius, and much more given to all these kinds of fables.” His reasons for so thinking are, that the style is not that of the Librarian, but similar to that of Martin Polonus; also that the insertion interferes with the text of the chronicle, bears evidence of clumsy piecing. “In the elogiums of Leo IV. and Benedict III., as given to us in the manuscript of the Bibliothèque Royale, swelled with the romance of the Papess, the same expressions occur as in the Mayence edition; whence it follows that (according to the intention of Anastasius, violated by the rashness of those who have mingled with it their idle dreams) it is absolutely impossible that any one could have been Pope between Leo IV. and Benedict III., for he says;—‘After the prelate Leo was withdrawn from this world, at once (mox) all the clergy, the nobles, and people of Rome hastened to elect Benedict; and at once (illico) they sought him, praying in the Titular Church of S. Callixtus, and having seated him on the pontifical throne, and signed the decree of his election, they sent him to the very-invincible Augusti Lothair and Louis, and the first of these died on 29 September, 855, just seventy-four days after the death of Pope Leo.’”

Bayle in his Dictionnaire historique et critique, under the article Papesse Jeanne, says: “Is it not true that if we found in a manuscript a statement that the Emperor Ferdinand II. died in the year 1637, and that at once he was succeeded by Ferdinand III., and that Charles VI. succeeded Ferdinand II., and held the throne for two years, after which Ferdinand III., was elected Emperor, we should say that the same writer could not have made both statements, and that we were necessitated to attribute to copyists without judgment the statements which do not correspond? Would not the man be a fool who related that Innocent X. having died, he was promptly given as successor Alexander VII., and that Innocent XI. was Pope immediately after Innocent X., and sat for two years and more, and that Alexander VII. succeeded him? Anastasius Bibliothecarius must have committed a like extravagance, if he was the author of what occurs in the MSS. of his work which mention the Papess. We however conclude that the statement concerning this woman was an insertion of a later hand.”

Sarran, a zealous and learned Protestant, formed the same opinion of the Pope-Joan fable, and he gives as his reason for believing it not to have stood in the original copies of Anastasius, that it is there inserted with the words, “It is said that,” or “we are assured that,” expressions inconsistent with the fact that Anastasius was a contemporary resident in Rome[2].

Marianus Scotus, the next authority cited for the story of Pope Joan, died in 1086. He was a monk of S. Martin of Cologne, then of Fulda, and lastly, of S. Alban’s, at Metz. How could he have obtained reliable information, or seen documents upon which to ground the assertion? The words in which the tale is alluded to in his Chronicle vary in different MSS., in some the fact is asserted plainly; in others, it is founded on an ut asseritur; and other MS. copies have not the passage in them at all. This looks as though the Pope-Joan passage were an interpolation. Next to Marianus Scotus comes Sigebert de Gemblours, who died 1122. We have evidence conclusive that his Chronicle has been tampered with in this particular. The Gemblours MS., which was either written by Sigebert himself, or was a copy made from his, does not allude to Pope Joan. Several other early copies have not the passage. Guillaume de Nangiac, who wrote a Chronicle to the year 1302, transcribed, and absorbed into his work, the more ancient chronicle of Sigebert. The copy used by Guillaume de Nangiac must have been without the disputed paragraph, for it is not to be found in his work. We are therefore reduced to Martin Polonus (d. 1279), placing more than four centuries between him and the event he records.

The historical discrepancies are sufficiently glaring to make the story more than questionable.

Leo IV. died on the 17th July, 855; and Benedict III. was consecrated on the 1st September in the same year; so that it is impossible to insert between their pontificates a reign of two years, five months, and four days. It is, however, true that there was an antipope elected upon the death of Leo, at the instance of the Emperor Louis, but his name was Anastasius. This man possessed himself of the palace of the Popes, and obtained the incarceration of Benedict. However, his supporters almost immediately deserted him, and Benedict assumed the pontificate. The reign of Benedict was only for two years and a half, so that Anastasius cannot be the supposed Joan; nor do we hear of any charge brought against him to the effect of his being a woman. But the stout partisans of the Pope-Joan tale assert, on the authority of the ”Annales Augustani[3],” and some other, but late authorities, that the female Pope was John VIII., who consecrated Louis II. of France, and Ethelwol of England. Here again is confusion. Ethelwol sent Alfred to Rome in 853, and the youth received regal unction from the hands of Leo IV. In 855 Ethelwolf visited Rome, it is true, but was not consecrated by the existing Pope, whilst Charles the Bald was anointed by John VIII. in 875. John VIII. was a Roman, son of Gundus, and an archdeacon of the Eternal City. He assumed the triple crown in 872, and reigned till December 18th, 882. John took an active part in the troubles of the Church under the incursions of the Sarasins, and 325 letters of his are extant, addressed to the princes and prelates of his day.

Any one desirous of pursuing this examination into the untenable nature of the story may find an excellent summary of the arguments used on both sides in Gieseler, “Lehrbuch,” &c., Cunningham’s trans., vol. ii. pp. 20, 21, or in Bayle, “Dictionnaire,” tom. iii. art. Papesse.

The arguments in favour of the myth may be seen in Spanheim, “Exercit. de Papa Fœmina.” Opp. tom. ii. p. 577, or in Lenfant, “Histoire de la Papesse Jeanne,” La Haye, 1736, 2 vols. I2mo.

The arguments on the other side may be had in “Allatii Confutatio Fabulæ de Johanna Papissa,” Colon. 1645; in Le Quien, “Oriens Christianus,” tom. iii. p. 777; and in the pages of the Lutheran Huemann, “Sylloge Diss. Sacras.” tom. i. par. ii. p. 352; and Blondel, “Familier éclaircissement de la question, si une femme a été assise au siège papal de Rome.” Amsterdam, 1647-9.

The final development of this extraordinary story, under the delicate fingers of the German and French Protestant controversialists, may not prove uninteresting.

Joan was the daughter of an English missionary, who left England to preach the Gospel to the recently converted Saxons. She was born at Engelheim, and according to different authors she was christened Agnes, Gerberta, Joanna, Margaret, Isabel, Dorothy, or Jutt—the last must have been a nickname surely ! She early distinguished herself for genius and love of letters. A young monk of Fulda having conceived for her a violent passion, which she returned with ardour, she deserted her parents, dressed herself in male attire, and in the sacred precincts of Fulda divided her affections between the youthful monk and the musty books of the monastic library. Not satisfied with the restraints of conventual life, nor finding the library sufficiently well provided with books of abstruse science, she eloped with her young man, and after visiting England, France, and Italy, she brought him to Athens, where she addicted herself with unflagging devotion to her literary pursuits. Wearied out by his journey, the monk expired in the arms of the blue-stocking who had influenced his life for evil, and the young lady of so many aliases was for a while inconsolable. She left Athens and repaired to Rome. There she opened a school, and acquired such a reputation for learning and feigned sanctity that, on the death of Leo IV., she was unanimously elected Pope. For two years and five months, under the name of John VIII., she filled the papal chair with reputation, no one suspecting her sex. But having taken a fancy to one of the cardinals, by him she became pregnant. At length arrived the time of Rogation processions. Whilst passing the street between the amphitheatre and S. Clement’s, she was seized with violent pains, fell to the ground amidst the crowd, and whilst her attendants ministered to her, was delivered of a son. Some say the child and mother died on the spot, some that she survived but was incarcerated, some that the child was spirited away to be the Antichrist of the last days. A marble monument representing the papess with her baby was erected on the spot, which was declared to be accursed to all ages.

I have little doubt myself that Pope Joan is an impersonification of the great whore of Revelation, seated on the seven hills, and is the popular expression of the idea prevalent from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, that the mystery of iniquity was somehow working in the papal court. The scandal of the Antipopes, the utter worldliness and pride of others, the spiritual fornication with the kings of the earth, along with the words of Revelation prophesying the advent of an adulterous woman who should rule over the imperial city, and her connexion with Antichrist, crystallized into this curious myth, much as the floating uncertainty as to the signification of our Lord’s words, “There be some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the kingdom of God,” condensed into the myth of the Wandering Jew.

The literature connected with Antichrist is voluminous. I need only specify some of the most curious works which have appeared on the subject. S. Hippolytus and Rabanus Maurus have been already alluded to. Commodianus wrote “Carmen Apologeticum adversus Gentes,” which has been published by Dom Pitra in his “Spicilegium Solesmense,” with an introduction containing Jewish and Christian traditions relating to Antichrist. “De Turpissima Conceptione, Nativitate, et aliis Præsagiis Diaboliciis illius Turpissimi Hominis Antichristi,” is the title of a strange little volume published by Lenoir in A.D. 1500, containing rude yet characteristic woodcuts, representing the birth, life, and death of the Man of Sin, each picture accompanied by French verses in explanation. An equally remarkable illustrated work on Antichrist is the famous “Liber de Antichristo,” a blockbook of an early date. It is in twenty-seven folios, and is excessively rare. Dibdin has reproduced three of the plates in his “Bibliotheca Spenseriana,” and Falckenstein has given full details of the work in his “Geschichte der Buchdruckerkunst.”

There is an Easter miracle-play of the twelfth century, still extant, the subject of which is the “Life and Death of Antichrist.” More curious still is the “Farce de l’Antéchrist et de trois femmes,” a composition of the sixteenth century, when that mysterious personage occupied all brains. The farce consists in a scene at a fish-stall, with three good ladies quarrelling over some fish. Antichrist steps in—for no particular reason that one can see—upsets fish and fish-women, sets them fighting, and skips off the stage. The best book on Antichrist, and that most full of learning and judgment, is Malvenda’s great work in two folio volumes, “De Antichristo, libri xii.” Lyons, 1647.

For the fable of the Pope Joan, see J. Lenfant, “Histoire de la Papesse Jeanne.” La Haye, 1736, 2 vols. 12mo. “Allatii Confutatio Fabulæ de Johanna Papissa.” Colon. 1645.

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Familier éclaircissement de la question, &c. Amsterdam, 1647-9.
  2. Sarran, Epist. cii., Utrecht, 1697.
  3. These Annals were written in 1135.