I first read about the legend of “Pope Joan” in Ripley’s Believe It or Not when I was fourteen years old. My adolescent mind, fascinated with the lurid and romantic, was intrigued by the tale of the medieval girl who dressed like a man in order to pursue a scholarly career. She infiltrated the College of Cardinals and was unanimously elected to the Chair of Saint Peter, only to have her hoax betrayed when she had the misfortune to give birth to a child in the street during a procession.
The story, which to me in the 1980’s seemed a more racy version of the life of St Joan of Arc (of whom I was and am a passionate devotee), rendered it obvious that women were equal to men; that women were just as capable of being priests or popes as men. My intrigue continued as I dabbled in feminism while in college, as I read more about Pope Joan, and other icons of women’s liberation. However, my disillusionment and break with the feminist movement occurred during my senior year when I realized how radical feminism was entwined with abortion and sexual promiscuity. As I made a concerted effort to explore Catholic as well as historical truth, it became clear to me that lies about religion and lies about history march together on the wide slippery path to social and moral confusion. As Catholics, we have nothing to fear from historical accuracy; neither do women have to masquerade as men in order to be “real” women, which is the gist of the contemporary fascination with Pope Joan.
The problem with the torrid tale of the Popess Joan is not that it was completely impossible for a woman to have had such an adventure, but that there is no contemporary evidence that it ever occurred. The reigns of the popes were even in the Dark Ages extremely well-documented, not only by papal scribes but by papal enemies and secular rulers. The Popess story does not fit in anywhere. Also, as Patrick Madrid observes in Pope Fiction (1997), a female imposter candidate for the papacy, if elected, would have merely rendered the conclave invalid. Unfortunately, the Pope Joan legend, which began circulating in the high middle ages as a way of poking fun at the more decadent pontiffs, has since the Reformation been used as a way of attacking the Church. Although many Protestant as well as Catholic scholars have shown the story to be false, it is now used as a feminist vehicle to show that a woman is just as capable of being Pope as a man, with a recent best-selling novel, soon to be a major motion picture.
The origins of the satire of Pope Joan lie buried in the rather frantic sexual politics of tenth century Rome. Several wealthy and influential families vied with each other for high church offices, the papacy being the main prize. (This in itself makes a strong case against the Pope Joan myth being reality – no one from outside the clique was at the time able to infiltrate the higher echelons of power, least of all a poor English scholar without family or connections, as the Popess was portrayed in the various accounts which became popular in the high Middle Ages.) One of the most powerful of the rival clans was the Theophylact family, remarkable especially for its scheming, beautiful and corrupt female members, such as one Theodora, who saw to the election of her lover in 914 as Pope John X. Theodora’s daughter Marozia, mistress of Pope Sergius III, had her son by that pontiff elected under the name of Pope John XI. Indeed, Marozia was responsible for putting nine popes in office over a period of eight years; they were either murdered or disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Later, Pope John XII allowed his favorite concubine Raineria to take over his administrative duties, to the scandal of Christendom. In the century that followed came drastic reforms in the entire Church by popes and saints, particularly the abolishment of clerical concubinage.
However, the specter of the mayhem that ensues when popes are not only unchaste but allow the women in their lives to govern the church continued to haunt the medieval psyche. Every fairy-tale is based upon some reality, be it a mere vestige of truth; the fairy-tale of the Popess is no exception. There were stories of a statue found on a side street near the Coliseum, representing a papal figure holding a child. The statue, which no longer exists, was discovered during the reign of Sixtus V (1585-90) and reputedly bore the inscription Pap.Pater partum proprie pecunia posuit which in other versions is rendered Petre Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum, meaning “O Peter, father of fathers, betray the child-bearing woman pope.” The narrow street where the statue was found was called “Vicus Papissa” after the prosperous family of Giovanni Pape who in the tenth century had a house and a chapel there. “Vicus Papissa” means the “street of Mrs. Pape” but in popular Roman parlance it came to mean the “street of the woman pope.” At the Lateran basilica was an ancient Roman imperial bathing or birthing chair said to be used in papal installations in order to check the gender of the pontiff, since it was whispered that once a woman had accidentally been elected. There is no official record of such a ceremony involving a “groping chair,” which would have been considered highly inappropriate.
The folklore of Rome and fading memories of Marozia, Theodora and Raineria were gradually woven into a thrilling and scandalous story of the forbidden. It was the duty of preachers and teachers to transform the legend into a morality tale, which taught as well as shocked. According to New Advent, the first version of the Popess legend was written by the Dominican Jean de Mailly in the thirteenth century. He placed the story at around the year 1100, when a woman scholar, whom he does not name, became a notary to the Curia, then cardinal, then pope. Stoned to death in the street while giving birth to a child, she was buried in the place where she died. It was a lesson to those who deceive as well as fornicate, especially if they happened to be prelates.
A few decades later, the second version of the Pope Joan myth was promulgated by another Dominican, Martin of Troppau (d.1278), in a volume of fables and popular legends, intended for the entertainment as well as the instruction of the pontiffs. (Since Martin was one of the Pope Clement IV’s personal chaplains as well as being a confessor at the Sacred Penitentiary, the edification and enlightenment of the papal household was his job.) According to Martin, Leo IV (847-855) was succeeded in the papal chair by the Englishman John of Mainz (Johannes Anglicus) who reigned for two years, seven months, and four days until it was discovered that the pontiff was a woman. As a girl, “John” or “Joan” was taken to Athens in men’s clothing by a male lover where she became an unequaled scholar. She journeyed to Rome where she taught science and became so well-respected that she was elected pope, her gender remaining undetected until the fateful day when she gave birth to a child during a procession from St Peter’s to the Lateran, somewhere between the Coliseum and St Clement’s. She died and was buried in the same place, and the route was henceforth avoided by the pontiffs.
In a later edition of Martin’s manuscript (which was probably closer to a modern historical novel than a serious history book) he changes the end of the story; instead of being stoned, the Popess was sent to a monastery where she gave birth to a son, who later became bishop of Ostia, and had his mother buried there. Other versions of the story have the child being a daughter, and in the medieval “Mirabilia” the Popess is given a choice in a vision between temporal disgrace and eternal damnation. She chooses disgrace, and so dies ignominiously in the street post partum.
None of the stories of Pope Joan, although popularly accepted in the Middle Ages before the dawn of historical criticism, were intended to glamorize women or extol their talents or potential. Indeed, the promulgation of the legend was intended to be a stern lesson to clergy and laity alike as to what happened when women were given too much power, especially in the Church, as well as the woeful consequences of the violation of celibacy in particular and chastity in general. It was what people now call misogynist literature and was anything but complimentary to women. That feminist novelists and historians should try to turn the Popess myth into a vehicle for showing that a woman was capable of being pope as well as exposing the cruelty of the male hierarchy is the farthest thing from the point of the original story. The crux of the matter, as far as the medievals were concerned, was not that a woman could not be Pope, but that she should not be Pope.
In the sixteenth century, Catholic scholars such as Panvinio, Baronius and St. Robert Bellarmine denied the historical authenticity of the story of Pope Joan, which was then being used by the Protestant reformers as an example that the Catholic Church was capable of error. Baronius theorizes that the tale arose from the weakness with which Pope John VIII (872-82) dealt with the Byzantines. Leo Allotius connects it with the false prophetess Theota, condemned at the synod of Mainz in 847. St. Robert Bellarmine thought perhaps the legend came from an incident that occurred in Constantinople, where eunuchs and ladies of the imperial court had often schemed to control the patriarchal chair. Protestant historians such as David Blondel (1590-1655) and Ignatius von Dollinger (1799-1890) also found the story untenable. Dollinger believed that the fable was built upon legends connected to the monuments of Rome, such as the enigmatic statue of the papal figure holding a child.
There is no mention of the popess incident in any contemporary sources (not even papal enemies, of which there were always many), neither does she fit chronologically between the reigns of any known popes, not in the ninth century, nor in the twelfth. There was no time between Leo IV and Benedict III, for Benedict succeeded Leo immediately in 855; charters and coins were issued in his name the same year of the conclave. The first written mention of her is in the mid-thirteenth century. The legend, nevertheless, continues to resurface. Feminists claim that the Vatican destroyed every trace of Joan which is why no records exist. Why the Vatican would try to do this while simultaneously allowing the work of a papal chaplain to continue to spread the legend is not explained. (To be continued....) Share