Emmanuel Roidis (1836-1904) published the “Pope Joanna” in 1866, targeting multiple audiences with his satire. The novel has undergone multiple reprints, from the time of its first release to our own years, and now we hold in our hands the new, revised and exhaustively annotated edition by Gutenberg, edited and prefaced by Dimitris Dimiroulis.

Roidis uses the historical setting of “Papissa Joanna” pretextually: what he is primarily concerned with is the corrupt power of his time. Based on medieval manuscripts, historical treatises and ecclesiastical studies, which he thoroughly researched, Roidis will transfer his legend to the 9th century in which Joanna, who is the daughter of an English monk, will live in disguise with Frumentius in a Benedictine monastery of Germany. When her disguise is discovered, the couple will seek refuge in Athens, where brother Ioannis is gaining a huge reputation for his education and beauty. Nevertheless, Joanna’s restless character will push her to run away again. Her destination is now Rome and the papal throne. Joanna enjoys as pope all the joys of her throne. However, she falls in love with her chamberlain and when the people pressure her to make a litany to remove the natural disasters that hit the city, she will give birth to his child and die immediately with him.

Shortly after the publication of the text, Roidis faced a condemnation circular from the Holy Synod (not excommunication), while accusations of plagiarism were not lacking, from many directions. Today “Papissa Joanna” is considered one of the leading literary moments of the 19th century. Roidis, using his enlightened education as a weapon, turned against romanticism, simultaneously undermining the historical novel while enriching the prose of the time with three radically renewing elements: satire, realism and the playful character in the way he uses its literary and non-literary sources. In the middle, or a little more, of the 19th century, Greek prose comes to us with one of the most important milestones in its history.

The case of Pope Joanna it emerges not during the 9th century, where the fictional action is chronologically placed, but between the 13th and 16th centuries, when the controversies about the historical existence of Joanna break out. The fact, as Dimiroulis observes, has never been documented, either by the oldest or by modern historical research. What is, nevertheless, important in the case of Roidis is not the myth or the reality of the only female Pope in the ecclesiastical chronicles, but the novel of “Papissa Joanna”, which, although characterized in its first edition as a “historical treatise”, it was written, read, relentlessly attacked, annotated, and grammatically stamped as a novel of historical fiction.

Playing on the one hand with the scientific knowledge of historiography and on the other with the linguistic possibilities and imaginative abilities of literature, Roidis is quick to take on many and completely different roles: he plays the philandering historian, he presents himself as an industrious note-taker, he satirizes with a demonic spirit the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, avoiding to touch the faith of both denominations, he prepares to face the sure critics of his satire, and confronts them with the texts “Epistles of an Agriniot” (response comments published shortly after the publication of the book in the newspaper “Avgi”, which must be considered an organic part of “Papissa Joanna”). At the same time, the author relentlessly satirizes himself as the plot unfolds, moves as a keen geographer and traveler from Germany to Greece and from Greece to Italy, turns as a narrator into an amorous admirer of Joanna’s beauty and feminine grace, without ever succumbing to any sentimentality, but also seems to be grieving, albeit from a great distance (as if it were a crybaby), at her excruciating and at the same time ridiculous death – another example of the complex of anti-romanticism and enlightenment, as well as a presumption of the interest that Roidis aroused in Europe when Pope Joanna was translated. Dimiroulis tells us a lot and exciting things about this in his prologues.

How can “Papissa Joanna” count for us today? Certainly not with its anti-clerical spirit, a spirit that, although even in our days, moves many, is not an element of the agenda of our time, not exactly with satire (inevitably intertwined with anti-clericalism) and with its thematic originality, since, as we have seen , the issue of the female Pope, although unresolved, has been debated in depth over the centuries. I think there are two facts that revive “Papissa Joanna” in our own time frame. One is its playful character, which we talked about from the first moment: the meeting of history, literary imagination and irony that surpasses satire, building its motifs one by one (from ecclesiastical corruption and the historical treatment of female sexuality to the chaotic cultural contrasts between Greece and Europe). The result is an end-to-end playful text, which, if we want to fit it into modernism or postmodernism, we should first filter it through textual analogues of its time, as Dimiroulis naturally notes. The other, open fact for the revitalization and modern acclimatization of “Pope Joanna” is the language, which is the tip of the spear for her playful world. A nervous, immovable, elaborate, inventive and tireless in terms of the institutions and morals she seeks to destabilize, a purgatory. A purgatory that is extremely difficult for today’s generations to recover and verify (and for older and newer interlingual translations to replace). And a cleaning one too which can only work with the help of systematic editorial tools, as is the case with Dimiroulis’ painstakingly prepared glossary.