Pope Joan and the Wandering Jew

by Albany Poyntz

In the history of the world a variety of imaginary personages have found a place, whom it has become difficult to dislodge. Created in the first instance by the blunders of some careless writer, or by the sickly fancy of some unsound judgment, they are adopted by popular favour, tricked up according to its caprices, and committed to the hands of tradition to mislead the opinions of posterity. The pretensions of a false Demetrius, a false Dauphin, a false Heraclius, a Lambert Simnel, or a Perkin Warbeck, are more easily disproved and set aside than those of the mere shadows which flit over the surface of history; too impalpable to be seized upon and compelled to render an account of themselves.

Among these phantoms are Pope Joan, and the Wandering Jew; of whom every one has heard something, though nothing to the purpose. Yet these imaginary personages are too closely connected with the mysteries of our faith to be otherwise than generally interesting.

For how many years did the legend of the Wandering Jew, the porter of Pilate, condemned to roam the earth till the second coming of Christ, and having his necessities provided for by five-pence, which remained inexhaustibly in his purse, obtain favour with the world—perpetually renewed and brightened by the inventive hand of genius! Even now, though no longer an article of belief among the enlightened classes, his story obtains sufficient credit with the vulgar to merit a certain degree of examination.

The first writer who signalized the existence of the Wandering Jew, was Matthew Paris, an English chronicler of the thirteenth century; who was perhaps ignorant that he was only renewing a fable of the Greeks; Suidas having recorded that a Greek named Pasès possessed a miraculous piece of money, which as often as he expended it returned again into his pocket.

Some inventors have too much modesty to pretend to originality. So it was with Matthew Paris; who affected to have learned the legend of the Wandering Jew from an Armenian Bishop, who spent some time in England. This eastern dignitary, he asserts, had actually seen and conversed with the Wandering Jew, whose name he stated to be Cartophilax; that he was porter to the tribunal to which Jesus was conveyed by the Roman soldiers; and had familiarly known the Virgin Mary and the Apostles. All the romantic incidents of his story which have passed into an article of popular faith, were first related by Matthew Paris.

But may there not have been some allegorical or concealed sense connected with the first creation of the Wandering Jew? At this period, Jews were objects of universal persecution, and often publicly burnt. Is it not likely enough that Matthew Paris intended to typify the whole persecuted and wandering people of the Jews in the person of Cartophilax; or, may he not have purposed to afford a means of safety and impunity to any Jew who saw fit to take up the character?

For thirteen centuries, then—as for eighteen, now—the Jewish people had been driven from place to place, tracked like a beast of prey, and subjected to every species of ignominy. Their destiny, in short, was a mere extended exemplification of the fortunes of the Wandering Jew. May not, moreover, the eternal five-pence have been intended to show, that wherever he finds himself, a Jew can never be long in want of money? Montesquieu only expresses the general opinion on this subject, in saying, “Wherever you find gold, you will find a Jew.”

This theory will probably be regarded as more apocryphal than the existence of Cartophilax! Nevertheless we would rather pin our faith on a fanciful interpretation, than admit that a writer of so much moment to the History of the World as the famous Matthew Paris, could voluntarily shake the stability of his Chronicles by the wanton fabrication of such a miracle.

The invention of Pope Joan is still more easily accounted for; as originating in the desire of the Reformed Church to expose to contempt the honour of the See of Rome. No contemporary writer so much as alludes to her existence; nor till sixty years after the period assigned as that of her adventures, do we find the monk Radulphus relating the scandalous chronicle of her pretended pontificate. A story of this description once set afloat, will never want for commentators; and a variety of other writers instantly seized upon it, improving the details at leisure.

Seldom, however, has an imposture been adopted by such grave judgments, or promulgated by such authoritative voices, as that of Pope Joan. But the fact is that party spirit, or rather sectarian spirit, blinded the eyes of these abettors of fraud. At the moment of the grand schism originating the Reformed Church, the partizans of the new Faith seized upon the old wife’s tale of Pope Joan, and converted it into a serious argument against the infallibility of Rome.

“You boast of the assistance of divine grace, you pretend to the inspiration of the Holy Ghost,” said they to the Catholics; “that it directs your councils and suggests your elections. How came it, then, that with so omniscient a counsellor, you were deluded into promoting a woman to the Papal See?—The single name of Pope Joan ought to suffice to attest the incompetency of your Church!”

The history of this pretended personage has been too often related, and is of too gross a nature to deserve recital. Even the historians who have been most serious in its attestation, disagree in the leading incidents; some of them naming the female Pope Agnes, some Joan, and some Gilberta. Voltaire, who was little prone to defend the purity of the See of Rome, utterly discredits her existence; and in all Protestant countries, where the fable was first called into existence, the name of Pope Joan is cited only as a matter of jest and derision.