The legend of Pope Joan has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Perhaps it is because the Catholic Church has been in the news so much.
The earliest sources from the legend are from the 13th century. The first mention was by Jean de Mailly who told of a female pope ruling the curia in the 1100s. However titillating, this version of the legend would not become embedded into popular consciousness. Martin of Troppau has that honour.
He told the tale of an 9th century English woman who fell in love with a travelling monk. She travelled by his side and learned with him and was his wife in every sense even though, for very obvious reasons, they could not marry. His name was John. During their travels, John was killed. Joan started dressing like a man and took on her dead lover's identity. She climbed the ranks of the Church hierarchy and became pope. She was discovered when she gave birth (she had a torrid affair with a faithful attendant and I think she was on her way to a lateran council).
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I think there are several reasons why the Troppau version gained more traction. It is a sinful Romeo and Juliet sort of tale set in the turbulent Dark Ages (don't call the early Middle Ages the Dark Ages...especially if a medievalist is in earshot....I digress). Granted, lots of monks and clerics were engaging in concupiscence and outright fornication--the hammer, so to speak, would not be dropped until the 12th and 13th century. It still needed to be kept on the down-low.
The Cult of Mary (The Perfect Mother) was gaining traction in the 1100s. It is also at this time that the Doctrine of Immaculate Conception (which refers to how Mary was conceived...not Jesus) was being hammered out. Mary, as an object of veneration, could not be stained with that foul stain of original sin.
Also, setting Joan during an ear of turmoil and not during a period when the Church was being re-organized, dogmatized, and bureaucratized creates a nice "then versus now." Joan would also become an opposing symbol of motherhood, set against that of Mary. Joan, for some, would represent why femaleness and pregnancy did not work with holiness and purity.
Evidence does not support that Pope Joan ever existed, but it is a fun tale.
I will have to poke around and see what translations exist of Troppau's Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum,