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History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.
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§ 59. The Papacy and the Empire from the Death of Charlemagne to Nicolas I a.d. 814–858). Note on the Myth of the Papess Joan.


The power of Charlemagne was personal. Under his weak successors the empire fell to pieces, and the creation of his genius was buried in chaotic confusion; but the idea survived. His son and successor, Louis the Pious, as the Germans and Italians called him, or Louis the Gentle (le débonnaire) in French history (814–840), inherited the piety, and some of the valor and legislative wisdom, but not the genius and energy, of his father. He was a devoted and superstitious servant of the clergy. He began with reforms, he dismissed his father’s concubines and daughters with their paramours from the court, turned the palace into a monastery, and promoted the Scandinavian mission of St. Ansgar. In the progress of his reign, especially after his second marriage to the ambitious Judith, he showed deplorable weakness and allowed his empire to decay, while he wasted his time between monkish exercises and field-sports in the forest of the Ardennes. He unwisely shared his rule with his three sons who soon rebelled against their father and engaged in fraternal wars.

After his death the treaty of Verdun was concluded in 843. By this treaty the empire was divided; Lothair received Italy with the title of emperor, France fell to Charles the Bald, Germany to Louis the German. Thus Charlemagne’s conception of a Western empire that should be commensurate with the Latin church was destroyed, or at least greatly contracted, and the three countries have henceforth a separate history. This was better for the development of nationality. The imperial dignity was afterwards united with the German crown, and continued under this modified form till 1806.

During this civil commotion the papacy had no distinguished representative, but upon the whole profited by it. Some of the popes evaded the imperial sanction of their election. The French clergy forced the gentle Louis to make at Soissons a most humiliating confession of guilt for all the slaughter, pillage, and sacrilege committed during the civil wars, and for bringing the empire to the brink of ruin. Thus the hierarchy assumed control even over the civil misconduct of the sovereign and imposed ecclesiastical penance for ft.


Note. The Myth of Johanna Papissa.


We must make a passing mention of the curious and mysterious myth of papess Johanna, who is said during this period between Leo IV. (847) and Benedict III. (855) to have worn the triple crown for two years and a half. She was a lady of Mayence (her name is variously called Agnes, Gilberta, Johanna, Jutta), studied in disguise philosophy in Athens (where philosophy had long before died out), taught theology in Rome, under the name of Johannes Anglicus, and was elevated to the papal dignity as John VIII., but died in consequence of the discovery of her sex by a sudden confinement in the open street during a solemn procession from the Vatican to the Lateran. According to another tradition she was tied to the hoof of a horse, dragged outside of the city and stoned to death by the people, and the inscription was put on her grave:

“Parce pater patrum papissae edere partum.”

The strange story originated in Rome, and was first circulated by the Dominicans and Minorites, and acquired general credit in the 13th and 14th centuries. Pope John XX. (1276) called himself John XXI. In the beginning of the 15th century the bust of this woman-pope was placed alongside with the busts of the other popes at Sienna, and nobody took offence at it. Even Chancellor Gerson used the story as an argument that the church could err in matters of fact. At the Council in Constance it was used against the popes. Torrecremata, the upholder of papal despotism, draws from it the lesson that if the church can stand a woman-pope, she might stand the still greater evil of a heretical pope.

Nevertheless the story is undoubtedly a mere fiction, and is so regarded by nearly all modern historians, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic. It is not mentioned till four hundred years later by Stephen, a French Dominican (who died 1261).263263    The oldest testimony in the almost contemporary “Liber Pontificalis” of Anastasius is wanting in the best manuscripts, and must be a later interpolation. Döllinger shows that the myth, although it may have circulated earlier in the mouth of the people, was not definitely put into writing before the middle of the thirteenth century. It was unknown to Photius and the bitter Greek polemics during the ninth and tenth centuries, who would not have missed the opportunity to make use of it as an argument against the papacy. There is no gap in the election of the popes between Leo and Benedict, who, according to contemporary historians, was canonically elected three days after the death of Leo IV. (which occurred July 17th, 855), or at all events in the same month, and consecrated two months after (Sept. 29th). See Jaffé, Regesta, p. 235. The myth was probably an allegory or satire on the monstrous government of women (Theodora and Marozia) over several licentious popes—Sergius III., John X., XI., and XII.—in the tenth century. So Heumann, Schröckh, Gibbon, Neander. The only serious objection to this solution is that the myth would be displaced from the ninth to the tenth century.

Other conjectures are these: The myth of the female pope was a satire on John VIII. for his softness in dealing with Photius (Baronius); the misunderstanding of a fact that some foreign bishop (pontifex) in Rome was really a woman in disguise (Leibnitz); the papess was a widow of Leo IV. (Kist); a misinterpretation of the stella stercoraria (Schmidt); a satirical allegory on the origin and circulation of the false decretals of Isidor (Henke and Gfrörer); an impersonation of the great whore of the Apocalypse, and the popular expression of the belief that the mystery of iniquity was working in the papal court (Baring-Gould).

David Blondel, first destroyed the credit of this mediaeval fiction, in his learned French dissertation on the subject (Amsterdam, 1649). spanheim defended it, and Mosheim credited it much to his discredit as an historian. See the elaborate discussion of Döllinger, Papst-Fabeln des Mittelalters, 2d ed. Munchen, 1863 (Engl. transl. N. Y., 1872, pp. 4–58 and pp. 430–437). Comp. also Bianchi-Giovini, Esame critico degli atti e documenti della papessa Giovanna, Mil. 1845, and the long note of Gieseler, II. 30–32 (N. Y. ed.), which sums up the chief data in the case.



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