The quote above comes from an unfinished critique of the Manfreda-Popess identification.
The term papessa
was not applied to Maifreda until the 17th century.
The nun in the Brunate fresco is Maddalena Albrici. The man behind her must be her cousin, Pierio, who commissioned her tomb and renovations in the Church of San Andrea (including probably this fresco).
In 1966, Gertrude Moakley made a bold assertion that identified the Popess card of the Visconti Sforza tarot as the 13th century heretic Maifreda da Pirovano (also spelled Manfreda), a family relation (possibly first cousin) of the then-Lord of Milan, Matteo Visconti. Subsequent commentators on this pack and on the figure of the Popess in Tarot in general have never since failed to acknowledge Moakley’s identification, and it can justly be said that there is a consensus, among the small number of people concerned with this question, that the card probably does represent Maifreda.
However, I think there are good reasons to doubt this identification, popular though it is with commentators on historical Tarots. First I will present the source quotes, then the discussion. Bolded text is my emphasis, for points to be discussed later.
Moakley, obviously sensing an interpretative coup, is strident in her presentation of the identification. In the Undocumented Prelude
of her book, she imagines the King of Lent, in the guise of the Tarot’s Bagatino,
addressing the Duke and Duchess of Milan on the appearance of the Popess in the triumphal procession:
“’There are your noble cousins trussed up in front – we all know about them, especially your lady’s cousin Manfreda [pointing at the Popess]. Be careful other ladies in the family don’t get the idea of wearing the pants.’
“The Duke can afford to smile at this, and even the Duchess smiles. Once the story was all tragedy, but it is so long ago now that one really feels no personal interest in the poor Umiliata nun who had been burned at the stake a century and a half ago. She had seriously been chosen to be Popess
by the little sect of Guglielmites, but now she is only a family joke.
Fiction notwithstanding, Moakley is no less assertive in her later presentation of the factual basis for her confidence:
“The Popess in the Visconti-Sforza tarocchi is not one of these legendary women [Pope Joan or a fisherman’s wife who became Pope in a folktale]. Her religious habit shows that she is of the Umiliata order, probably Sister Manfreda, a relative of the Visconti family who was actually elected Pope
by the small Lombard sect of the Guglielmites. Their leader, Guglielma of Bohemia, had died in Milan in 1281. The most enthusiastic of her followers believed that she was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, sent to inaugurate the new age of the Spirit prophesied by Joachin of Flora. They believed that Guglielma would return to earth on the Feast of Pentecost in the year 1300, and that the male dominated Papacy would then pass away, yielding to a line of female Popes
. In preparation for this event they elected Sister Manfreda the first of the Popesses
, and several wealthy families of Lombardy provided at great cost the sacred vessels they expected her to use when she said Mass in Rome at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Naturally, the Inquisition exterminated this new sect, and the “Popess” was burned at the stake
in the autumn of 1300.” (72-73)
The bold text is my emphasis, in order to illustrate the subtle shifts in phrasing that will end up leaving the casual reader with the impression that Manfreda was literally “elected” to a position with the title “Popess”. Neither of these is true, but we will see a similar loose and potentially misleading use of terms and quotation marks in Barbara Newman’s writings a little further below. In casual use, such formulations as “elected” and “Popess” might be an acceptable understanding, but as the basis or premise for further argumentation that ends up making bold claims, they must be challenged.
For relating this obscure bit of Milanese history, directly related to the Visconti dynasty, to the Popess card, Moakley has been rewarded with a virtually universal acceptance by interpreters of the historical meaning of the card. The following sample of quotations from the most common sources consulted on the subject, with emphases, will serve to show how the idea became unavoidable and authoritative.
Note that Moakley, in the spirit of her interpretation of the Tarot as a "ribald take-off" of Petrarch's Trionfi, considers the Popess "a family joke". This is in contrast to Barbara Newman's (see below) view, which, while based wholly on Moakley's identification, considers her presence evidence of a serious, if secret, devotion to her memory on the part of Bianca Maria Visconti.
Another point to keep in mind, although tangential to this essay, is that Moakley clearly, albeit implicitly, presents the Visconti-Sforza Tarot as the original or Ur-Tarot, defined as the standard Tarot of 22 trumps and 56 suit cards (in contrast to other, earlier kinds of Triumph decks, such as the Cary Yale). Therefore her explanation of the Popess as Maifreda suggests that this was her original meaning, her reason for being in the deck, commissioned by Bianca Maria. This subtlety is lost on casual commentators like Newman, while it is interpreted differently by expert commentators like Michael Hurst, who, while admitting the plausibility of Moakley's identification, argue that it is only in the Visconti-Sforza deck that some reference to Maifreda might be found, whereas in other kinds of trump sequences the Popess does not refer to her. I wonder, if she believed that the Popess were present in the standard Tarot trump sequence before the commission of the Visconti-Sforza, whether Moakley would still have presented this position. In other words, if the artist of the Visconti-Sforza were copying the standard sequence, including a Popess, would she have imagined Bianca Maria instructing the artist to make a subtle allusion to Maifreda the executed heretic of 150 years earlier, writing perhaps "make three knots on the Popess' cincture, don't ask why"? Since she imagined Maifreda to be a "family joke" of the Visconti, it is hard to Moakley imagining this scenario (O'Neill has shown that the Visconti-Sforza Popess is not wearing the Umiliati habit, as Moakley believed, after all, which makes the idea that Bianca Maria had studied the question and precisely instructed the artist to represent her this way moot in any case. Nothing remains except that she is a Popess, which was already in the trump sequence anyway, so the only basis left to argue for Maifreda's presence is that she was related to the Visconti family (although never called or depicted as a Popess (see below)). The reader may judge if this is sufficient basis upon which to assert such a bold identification).
Stuart Kaplan gives a summary of Moakley’s theory, without seeming too strongly attached to it, in The Encyclopedia of Tarot,
vol. I (1978), p. 66. In volume two (1986), he alludes to the story and refers his readers to volume I (vol. II, pp. 159, 161).
Writing in 1980, Michael Dummett states Moakley’s identification as if it were fact:
“Miss Moakley, in her book on the Visconti-Sforza pack (no. 3),pointed out that in that pack the Popess depicts a historical character, Sister Manfreda
, a relative of the Visconti family who was elected Pope by the Guglielmite sect
, and burned at the stake in 1300.” (Game of Tarot
, p. xi).
In 1986, Dummett’s opinion was unchanged. In The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards, his description of Moakley’s idea was virtually identical:
“Usually the Popess is an exact female replica of the Pope; but, on the Visconti-Sforza card, though she wears the triple tiara and holds a cross, she is dressed, not as a pope, but as a nun. The explanation was given by Gertrude Moakley: the card depicts Sister Manfreda
, a relative of the Visconti, who had actually been elected Pope by the heretical sect of the Guglielmites
to which she belonged, and had been burned at the stake in 1300.” (p. 106)
The Italian translation of Dummett’s text for the 1993 Il Mondo e l’Angelo
(translated from Dummett’s English by Mariangela Tempera) is, for some reason, slightly less assertive:
“Gertrude Moakley ha messo in evidenza che la figura sulla carta Visconti-Sforza sembra rappresentare
Sorella Manfreda, una parente dei Visconti, che era stata effettivamente eletta papa
dalla setta eretica dei Guglielmiti a cui apparteneva e che fu arsa sul rogo nel 1300.” (p. 418)
(Gertrude Moakley made it clear that the figure seems to represent
Sister Manfreda, a relative of the Visconti, who was actually elected pope
by the heretical sect of the Guglielmites, to which she belonged, and who was burned at the stake in 1300.)
Michael Dummett's writings are the most authoritative sources for Tarot history, and there can be no doubt that his assertion of Moakley’s identification, strongly stated in the indicative voice, is influential for all researchers who can read English or Italian, and not only in the narrow fields of Tarot history and iconography. In other areas of historiography, writers on Pope Joan and medieval women’s spirituality take it for granted. It has become a scholarly commonplace.
Alain Boureau, writing a literary history of Pope Joan , attempts to show historical relationship and ideological identity between the then newly-minted Pope Joan legend and the ideas of the Guglielmite sect (French edition, pp. 187ff; English edition, pp. 171ff). Here he also presents the Visconti-Sforza Popess card as depicting Maifreda.
The strongest proponent of the idea outside of the world of Tarot history has been Barbara Newman. Like Moakley, she glides easily from the original sources, which describe no election and do not mention the term “Popess,” into using it as an innocent descriptive term that appears to have been original. More importantly, she takes for granted that the Visconti-Sforza card depicts Manfreda, and labels it without any hint of controversy as such in her first work on the subject ("WomanSpirit, Woman Pope", in From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature
(UPenn Press, 1995) pp. 182-223). This has important ramifications because Newman’s works are widely read in universities as well as by a popular audience.
(insert Newman, quotes/discussion)
Newman thought she had found further confirmation of the Popess-Maifreda-Visconti thesis in 2005, in the mountain village of Brunate.
The term papissa is never used in the surviving contemporary documents concerning the sect, and it is unlikely that it would have been used by the Guglielmites, even if they knew of it, since it was both recently coined and would probably have been considered humorous or derogatory.
Alain Boureau considers that Jean de Mailly invented the term papissa in his account of Pope Joan around 1255:
“The change is limited to a rectification and the invention of a new term: ‘a pope, or, rather, a popess (vel potius papissa
), for it was a woman.’” (p. 107)
Although Caesar Baronius (Annales Ecclesiastici
t. X (Rome, 1602), an. 879, num. 5 (p. 551 ed. of 1602)) relates that, in 879, Pope John VIII, having received the excommunicated Patriarch Photius of Constantinople back into communion, was reproached by the Latins for this with the insult that "he was not a pope like (his predecessors) Nicholas (I) and Adrian (II), but a Popess” (non papa ut Nicolas et Hadrianus, sed papissa fuerit
) . Baronius himself is the only source for this story, however, and it is possible that he has made it up to account for the Pope Joan legend, to which use he explicitly puts it (I have, for instance, searched all of the letters of Photius in Migne, Patrologia Graeca
, and found no trace of such an accusation. http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/2 ... _0585_1000
I will leave it to others to go through the rest of his commentaries and homilies in search of it.http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/3 ... tanus.html
Insofar as the existence of the sect and its fate survived in the Milanese imagination, it was in a legendary form (boilerplate sex scandal, same from antiquity to today) which bore almost no relation to the real events and that omitted every detail, including Maifreda herself, while building a scandalous portrait of the sect: In questo anno fu celebrato il Giubileo a Roma dal pontefice Bonifacio. Ne’medesimi giorni a Milano abitava una femmina eretica nominata Guglielma, la quale non poco si mostrava religiosa e santa; viveva con un certo Andrea, chiamato Saramita, e sotto una simulata bontà tenevano una sinagoga sotterranea vicino a porta Nuova usandovi una fetida eresia. Quivi avevano stabilito di riunirsi al mattutino, intervenendovi molte fanciulle, matrone, vedove e maritate, le quali per ingiunzione di Guglielma erano chiericate a modo dei sacerdoti. Vi intervenivano eziandio molti giovani ed uomini a guisa di religiosi; ed in questa adultera sinagoga avevano un altare, avanti al quale facevano le loro frodolenti orazioni. Dopo di che gridavano, congiungiamoci, congiungiamoci, ed il lume ponevano sotto un sestario, eseguendo poi quanto si era ordinato; ad in tal modo commettevano l’occulto stupro. In processo di tempo, questa nefandissima Guglielmina abbandonando la vita, dai monaci di Chiaravalle fu tumulata per santa. Dopo la sua morte, il memorato Andrea per sei anni continui seguitó il sacrilego e scelleratissimo rito. Dal ultimo venne palesato da un milanese mercatante per nome Corrado Coppa; il quale avendo la moglie sua che frequentava il vituperoso luogo, nel capo entrandogli non poco sospetto, deliberò di venire al chiaro; e così una notte levandosi, seguitò incognito la moglie sino alla radunanza, e quivi, nascosto il lume, secondo il costume degli altri, conobbe la propria moglie e le tolse dal dito un zafiro, ch’essa portava e uscì insieme cogli altri dall’infame luogo. Dopo quattro giorni alla sua donna dimandò l’anello, simulando volere per suo bisogno farne un deposito: essa finse di averlo perduto e finalmente, dopo che simulò d’averlo ricercato con diversi modi, rispose che non lo trovava. Corrado da ultimo diede un solenne convito, intervenendovi molti suoi parenti ed amici colle mogli, le quali vedute aveva nel consorzio. A questi, dopo il pranzo, Corrado cominciò a dire: Ciascuno faccia colla donna sua il giuoco, come io intendo di farlo alla mia e dopo ve ne manifesterò la cagione; e tutti promisero che farebbero. Allora, spartita la legatura del capo alle mogli, trovarono sulle loro teste una chierica; della qual cosa grandemente meravigliandosi ne dimandarono la causa. Corrado il tutto ordinatamente dichiarò. Il perché quelli manifestarono sì inaudita scelleraggine a Matteo Visconti, principe della città; e questi, per consiglio degli inquisitori, impose al podestá che Andrea con ogni suo seguace venisse nelle sue forze. Eseguitosi il comando, tutti furono posti al tormento, dove confessarono tal cosa aver fatta continuamente per lo spazio di undici anni passati. Da ultimo Andrea coi suoi compagni fu abbruciato e parimente si fece delle ossa della pessima Guglielmina, la quale essendo tenuta per santa al tutto fu manifestata per somma eretica.
"In this year (1300) the Jubilee was celebrated in Rome by Pope Boniface. At the same time in Milan there lived a female heretic named Guglielma, who presented herself as not a little religious and holy; she lived with a certain Andrea, called Saramita, and under cover of a pretended goodness they ran an underground synagogue near Porta Nuova, practising a foul heresy. They had agreed to assemble in the morning, at which were present many maidens, matrons, widows and wives, which by order of Guglielma were tonsured in the manner of priests. Also many youths and men were involved, in the guise of religion, and in this adulterous synagogue they had an altar, before which they made their fraudulent prayers. After shouting, “Let us marry, let us marry!”, and having placed the light under a cup, they then performed what was commanded; and in such a fashion they committed the secret fornication. In a little while, this most wicked Guglielma having departed this life, she was buried as a saint by the nuns of Chiaravalle. After her death, for six continuous years Andrea followed the sacrilegious and wicked ritual. At last it was uncovered by a Milanese merchant named Corrado Coppa, whose wife was attending the shameful place, since not a small suspicion had entered his head, he decided bring it to light; and so one night, rising, followed his wife secretly to the meeting, and there, when the lamp was hidden, he had intercourse with his wife, following the practice of the others, and removed from her finger a sapphire she was wearing and went out together with the others from the infamous site. After four days he asked his wife for the ring, pretending he needed it to make a deposit: she pretended to have lost it and finally, after pretending to have looked for it in different ways, said she could not find it. Corrado thereafter gave a solemn banquet, inviting many of his relatives and friends along with their wives, whom he had seen in the consortium. To these, after dinner, Corrado began to say: each man will play the game with his wife as I intend to do it with mine, and later I will show the reason, and all promised that they would. Then, parting the tie of the hair of the wives, they found a bald spot on their heads, at which, greatly marveling, they demanded the reason. Corrado explained it all clearly. So they reported those events of unprecedented wickedness to Matteo Visconti, the Prince of the city; and he, on the advice of the inquisitors, imposed by the mayor that Andrea with any of his followers should be arrested. The order being executed, all were put to torture, where they confessed that they had done so continuously for the space of eleven years. Finally Andrea with his companions was burned, and likewise the bones of the most wicked Guglielma, who, being held as entirely saintly, was thereby clearly shown to be heretical."
(Bernardino Corio, L'Historia di Milano, part 2 (pt. 2 chapter 8 in later editions))
Just as they didn’t use sacerdotissa or cardinalissa for their hoped-for new church, the Guglielmites wouldn’t have used (and, in any case, did not use) the term “Papissa”. This is a lesson in anachronism. It may seem natural that a female pope would be called by everyone, including her followers, a popess. But this is not necessarily the case with newly coined words, or old words that are revived to be applied to women. First of all, there never was a Popess – the extent of the knowledge of Jean de Mailly’s term is unknown for the late 13th century. Most writers who recount the legend (including Boccaccio’s popular version of the tale), well into the 15th century, don’t use it. The most common versions of the story use phraseology like “John, who was a woman” or “a woman, who was Pope.” Secondly, using a feminizing suffix was then, as it is now, often a way to trivialize it through overt sexualization. For instance, we don’t call female physicians “doctresses”, female soldiers “soldresses”, or a female mayor or senator "mayoress" or "senatress". (Lord Mayor for women, also “Presidentess”) Although the traditional words refer to males and are technically masculine, with the entry of women into those fields the titles did not change, and women would presumably be offended to be named by calling attention to their gender with that suffix, as if it somehow distinguished them from their male counterparts in the profession or function of the office. Both males and females are “soldiers” and “doctors”, "mayors" and "senators". A more relevant and compelling example is the Anglican/Episcopal Church’s rejection of the word “priestess” for female priests. Although indeed ancient, the word directly conjures up pagan rituals, and has no Christian antecedent. In the polemic against women’s ordination, Roman Catholics and Orthodox who are against it will deliberately use the word with offensive intent, always with feigned innocence, claiming that it is just a fact that a woman priest is a priestess, so there is no harm in using it.
Likewise then with “Popess” – at that time the word and the concept had not gained currency, there was no antecedent and certainly no dignity in the term. Like a woman becoming a physician and some people insisting on using the word “doctress” to describe her, for a woman to attain the papacy and for anyone to insist on calling attention thereby to her gender would probably have been laughable if it were not intended to denigate her, which is precisely how De Mailly introduced it. It remained attached to Pope Joan, or, when it begins to appear in the vernacular, as a ribald term or a way to express a woman’s unofficial relation to a male office (like Piccolomini’s – the Pope’s – sister). In other words, Popess was never a term of respect and dignity, much less an actual title a woman would aspire to. While it seems laudable today to try to “reclaim” certain terms and use them to build up rather than tear down the dignity of the subject, such a process should be recognized for what it is in the present – a militant and polemical tactic – and not blind the historian to the anachronism of using it to describe past subjects.
The first person I can find to use the term Papissa
when describing Maifreda is Giovanni Pietro Puricelli (1589-1659), in his summary of the beliefs of the sect of Guglielmites, point 8 (of twelve). This was first edited and published by Lodovico Antonio Muratori (1672-1750) in 1741 (this summary was widely translated into Italian, French and English).
Puricelli’s summary of Saramita’s statements goes:
“Mayfreda futura erat vera Papissa
, auctoritate & potestate veri Papae praedita, ita ut Papa & Papatus Ecclesiae Romanae, qui tunc erat, abolendus esset, & locum daturus Mayfredae Papissae
, aqua baptismo sacro abluendi erant Judaei, Saraceni, ceteraeque nationes, quae sunt extra Ecclesiam Romanam, & nondum sunt baptizatae.“
(Lodovico Antonio Muratori, ed., Antiquitates italicae medii aevi
, t. 5 (Milan, 1741), col. 92)
(In the future Maifreda was to be a true Popess
, provided with the authority and power of the true Pope, just as the Pope and Papacy of the Roman Church, which then was, would be abolished, and the place being given to the Popess Maifreda
, Jews, Saracens, and the other nations, who are outside of the Roman Church and not yet baptized, should be cleansed in the water of holy baptism.)
Compare this to the original from the deposition of Andrea Saramita (which Puricelli had in front of him), 13 August 1300:
“…[S]oror Mayfeda deberet esse verus papa
et habere plenam et veram iurisdictionem et auctoritatem veri papa et quod ipsa deberet esse verus vicarius Spiritus sancti in terra et quod papa et papatus Romane ecclesie, que nunc est, et eius ritus et auctoritatas et curia cardinalium cessare deberent. Et quod dicta soror haberet predictam auctoritatem pape et papatus Romane ecclesie et quod ipsa Mayfreda
deberet baptiçare Iudeos et Sarracenos et omnes alias nationes que sunt extra ecclesiam Romanam que nundum sunt baptiçate.”
(Marina Benedetti, ed., Milano 1300. I processi inquisitoriali contro le devote e i devoti di santa Guglielma
(Scheiwiller, 1999), pp. 172-174)
(Sister Maifreda would be the true pope and have full and real jurisdiction and authority of the true pope and that she would be the true vicar of the Holy Spirit on the earth and that the pope and papacy of the Roman Church which currently exists, along with its rites, authorities and curia of cardinals would cease. And that the said sister would have the foresaid authority of the pope and papacy of the Roman Church and that Maifreda herself would baptize Jews, Saracens and all other nations that are outside the Roman Church who are not yet baptized.)
Note the original term “verus papa” (the true Pope), which Puricelli renders as “vera Papissa” (a true Popess). By using the two different articles, definite and indefinite, I am trying to make something clear. The context of the original discussion, and a frequent topic in the depositions, is that the current Church and its head, Pope Boniface VIII, are invalid and about to be replaced by that of the Holy Spirit under a new hierarchy. Boniface was not the “true Pope” as far as the Guglielmites were concerned – there was no Pope on earth at the moment. Thus, in the restored Church which was to have come at Pentecost 1300, Maifreda would be the true Pope. If we render Puricelli’s Latin with the definite article “Maifreda would be the true Popess”, there is little sense in the passage – for Puricelli, there never was an office of Popess
to which Maifreda could aspire (the same was true of the Guglielmites). Thus the best way to understand him is to suggest that he was using the term Papissa as it was invented to refer to Joanna Papissa
, which would have been a false story as far as he was concerned, but that Maifreda was to have been a true, that is a real, one, in contrast to the fabulous one.