Editing Pope Joan

Schedel, Hartmann. Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, VII 1493).
Durham Cathedral Library: ChapterLib Inc.16, f. 169v.

The Nuremberg Chronicles Treating Pope Joan

Reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral.

All Our Chronicles

Protestants were not the only ones to censor the Chronicle, sometimes its text failed to satisfy Catholics as well. Catholic readers were often indignant at the story of Pope Joan – reputedly a 9th-century female pope whose gender was only revealed when she gave birth during the cross procession.   In the age of Reformation, Protestants used these stories in polemics, making Catholics more sensitive to any perceived criticism of the papacy.  From the 16th century onwards, Catholic readers of the Chronicle crossed out the text about Pope Joan and  blotted, burned, or erased the woodcut depicting her.  Some readers even wrote ‘lies’ in the margin.  A Catholic reader of this copy chose an unusual and  original way to fight against this sacrilegious story: they simply drew a beard on Pope Joan’s face, thus transforming her sex. 

“A Catholic reader fought against the myth of the Pope Joan: he simply drew a beard on her face, thus transforming her sex”

The reader of this copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle was at the heart of the Counter-Reformation. In a small note in the margins, the reader writes that the story about Pope Joan is an error against God and the Church and supports his argument with reference to his ‘teacher’ – ‘Berlarminus’.  This was probably Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine, one of the key figures in the Counter Reformation and author of one of the most influential rebuttals of the Pope Joan legend.  The annotator of this Nuremberg Chronicle may have heard Bellarmine’s lectures at the University of Leuven – this copy of the Chronicle was in the library of the Jesuit College in Liege while Bellarmine was teaching at the University. 

This copy demonstrates how both Catholics and Protestants continued their fight in the material space of books and along the margins of a book on sacred history.


In the age of Reformation both Catholic and Protestant readers reacted to the way sacred history was presented in the Nuremberg Chronicle. They censored and supplemented its text,  carrying confessional debates into the margins of this world history.