Ask A Librarian


Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
October 5th, 2015

Woodcut from story of Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon
Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian.

The serendipitous convergence of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States and this year’s Banned Books Week has me thinking of an earlier collision between a pope and a book. 

Way back in 1496, a massive tome compiling the history of the world from a biblical perspective was published in Nuremberg, a city recognized as an intellectual center in Germany.  Although scholars’ refer to the text in its Latin form, the Liber Chronicarum, literally the Book of Chronicles, it is commonly called the Nuremberg Chronicle, for the town where it was printed.

Dr. Hartmann Schedel, the author of the Nuremberg Chronicle, was a man of many talents.  A humanist, a cartographer, a physician, and an historian, Schedel was the first to use the printing press for cartographic or map printing.  There are many such maps printed in the Chronicle, all produced by woodcuts, and they are among the first that captured cities and towns.

Self-portrait of Albrecht Durer

The Nuremberg Chronicle is a spectacular book filled with illustration.  Kings, saints and popes populate its pages while cities and towns spill across its paper.  Many artists were hired to create the multitude of images used to illustrate this master work.  Among them was a young man who is well known to us today, Albrecht Dürer, shown above, but then he was merely a student training to become an artist, painter and engraver.  It was Dürer who created the woodcut of the city of Nuremberg as the town pictured above in the illustration for Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon.  Look closely and you can see St. Michael in the foreground on horseback on his way to vanquish the evil dragon whose seven heads represented the seven deadly sins.  Dürer trained under Michael Wolgemut, a German painter and printmaker who owned a workshop in Nuremberg.  Printmaking, Dürer believed, was one of the highest forms of art, and he developed his great skill at printmaking in Wolgemut’s workshop.

Among the popes pictured in the Nuremberg Chronicle is Pope Joan, shown below, a woman of great intellect who disguised herself as a man in order to continue her studies and gain acceptance in the great learning environment that was the medieval scholarly world.  Her talents were so considerable that no man was found to be her equal, and in her male guise, she was elected as pope about the year 855, after the reign of Pope Leo IV (847 – 55).

Pope Joan woodcut portrait

Although many have believed the story of Joan is fact, as it comes down to us today it is widely regarded as fiction or myth. There are many versions of Joan’s story and none of them end well.  All of these tales center on the discovery of Joan as a woman.

The first of these tales appears about 1100, written by a Dominican monk named Jean de Mailly.  His treatment of the Joan legend recounts her traveling on horseback when she suddenly gives birth to a son along the way.  This version ends with Joan tied to the tail of her horse and dragged around the city where she was finally stoned to death and then buried where she fell.  No fate is given for her child.  Pope Joan and her child are pictured here in the Nuremberg Chronicle, artist unknown.

Martin of Troppau, a popular historian who wrote his own history of the world, Chronica Pontificum et Imperatorum about 1265, also tells the story of Pope Joan.  In Martin’s account Joan was known as an Englishman, John of Mainz or Johannes Anglicus, who served as pope for the very precise amount of time of 2 years, seven months and four days.  Martin also reports that Joan was traveling as part of a procession when she gave birth and died immediately afterwards.  Here again, she is buried where she lay.  In a later version, Martin says Joan was removed as pope after the birth and required to do penance for many years for her subterfuge.  The son survives in this version and in his maturity attains the position of Bishop of Ostia, a see of Rome, where he has his mother buried after her death.  This is certainly a kinder version of the Joan story.

The story of Pope Joan goes through many more iterations including the birth of a girl named Agnes or Gilberta with Joan, once again, dying immediately after giving birth.

So what was banned?  Where does censorship come into the story?  Many people performed acts of censorship to their own copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle by excising the entry for Pope Joan.  Believing a female pope to be heresy, censorship was performed by marking through the section with heavy black ink or mutilating the book by cutting.  WVU’s copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle in the Rare Book Room, the gift of WVU alumnus Arthur S. Dayton, is an example of an untouched portrait and text of the Pope Joan story.  The MountainLynx catalog record states it this way, “One of the rare copies in this country which has not been mutilated by the excision of the account of the legendary Pope Joan.”

You can visit the Rare Book Room at the West Virginia and Regional History Center and see the Nuremberg Chronicle by appointment.  Please contact Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian: phone 304-293-0345, email



Open book image of Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon by Albrecht Dürer:

Self-engraved portrait of Albrecht Durer:  Kean Collection, Getty Images:

Pope Joan image:

Story of Pope Joan: Morse Library. Beloit College;cc=nur;view=text;idno=nur.001.0004;rgn=div2;node=nur.001.0004%3A8.156

Michael Wolgemut:

Hartmann Schedel:

Martin of Troppau:  Catholic Encyclopedia:

Legend of St. Joan:  Catholic Encyclopedia:

Wilson, Adrian. The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Amsterdam: Nico Israel, 1976.  Call number: Z241.S37 W54 1976.  Rare. Non-circulating.

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