The Myth of Pope Joan / Edition 2

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In the ninth century, a brilliant young woman named Joan disguised herself as a man so that she could follow her lover into the then-exclusively male world of scholarship. She proved so successful that she ascended the Catholic hierarchy in Rome and was eventually elected pope. Her pontificate lasted two years, until she became pregnant and died after giving birth during a public procession from the Vatican.

Or so the legend goes—a legend that was fabricated sometime in the thirteenth century, according to Alain Boureau, and which has persisted in one form or another down to the present day. In this fascinating saga of belief and rhetoric, politics and religion, Boureau investigates the historical and ecclesiastical circumstances under which the myth of Pope Joan was constructed and the different uses to which it was put over the centuries. He shows, for instance, how Catholic clerics justified the exclusion of women from the papacy and the priesthood by employing the myth in misogynist moral tales, only to find the popess they had created turned against them in anti-Catholic propaganda during the Reformation.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Fact or fiction: in the ninth century, a woman named Joan donned britches and entered the male preserve of Catholic scholarship; she was so savvy and smart that she eventually became pope, only to die giving birth two years later. This book is less concerned with the reality of Pope Joan ("Did this papacy truly exist?" Boureau asks at the outset. "Certainly not") than with the historical memory of Joan. How and why has Joan's story been told and retold? Who told it, and to what political end? The Church itself subscribed to the story until the 16th century, when Rome distanced itself from Joan because antipapist reformers used the story to discredit the Vatican. Lutheran reformer Martin Schrott, for example, illustrated his anti-Catholic pamphlet with a picture of Joan as Revelation's Whore of Babylon. She also turned up in anticlerical tracts of the French Revolution and in the writings of the 19th-century French novelist Stendhal. American readers ought to rejoice that this book, which came out 12 years ago in French, is finally available in English. This far surpasses Peter Stanford's 1999 apologia The Legend of Pope Joan, one of the few resources about Joan that has been available in English. Kudos to noted French translator Lydia Cochrane, who gives us such gems as "dabbl[ing] in the dubious tinsel of scandalmongering." The scholarship is impeccable, and the stories and the prose make this a book that a wider audience will also enjoy. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Boureau (The Lord's First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage) begins with "Did this papacy [of a female] truly exist? Certainly not." Boureau details accounts of a papal sexual verification ritual, the use of the word pontificals as a euphemism for papal testicles, and two chairs with peculiar cut-outs in the seat used in the coronation ritual. As he documents the history of the myth, from Church-supported legend to powerful Protestant anti-Roman polemical use, and then on to modern survivals of the myth, he remains convinced that artifact and legend provide no historical evidence. Peter Stanford's The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth (LJ 1/99) investigates legend and historical document, attempting to discover any truth behind the legend. His conclusion about Joan is quite different: "that she achieved the papacy at a time when the office was hopelessly debased and corrupt, was moderately successful but...her triumph was short-lived." Stanford admits that for about 300 years after the alleged papacy there are no written records of it, but he finds oral tradition and perhaps deliberate editorial deletion sufficient to account for this lacuna. Boureau's research includes more primary historical documents, while Stanford takes folk tradition and legend more seriously as conveyors of unpopular historic truth. Both works are recommended for their different methodologies and conclusions. Carolyn M. Craft, Longwood Coll., Farmville, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
The myth of pope Joan (a supposed ninth-century pope who was found to be a woman at her death in childbirth during a public procession) is followed from its inception in the 13th century down to the 19th-century in this unusual historiographical study by Boureau (history, <'E>cole des sciences sociales et hautes etudes, Paris), here ably translated by Cochrane. We become familiar with the shifts in belief and rhetoric, politics and religion that were central to Europe's history as Boureau investigates the circumstances under which the myth was constructed. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226067452
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Alain Boureau is director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and a director at the Centre de Recherches Historiques, Paris. He is the author of nine books, including The Lord's First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Table of Contents


Part I The Sex of the Popes: A Roman Story
1 The Pontificals
2 The History of a Chair
3 The Popes between Two Stools

Part II Joan Militant
4 Joan the Catholic: Thirteenth-Fifteenth Centuries
5 The Popess and Her Sisters

Part III Death and Transfiguration of the Popess
6 Joan at the Stake: Fifteenth-Seventeenth Centuries
7 The Popess in Litearture

8 First Epilogue: Historiography of the Popess
9 Second Epilogue: Joan's Body

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