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The Legend of Pope Joan

by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the March 2007, A.S. XLI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

The period of the Middle Ages is filled with fantastical stories. Some start with a kernel of truth, others are wholly made up. But the truthfulness of these stores was not as important as the moral they imparted. And it is not easy, sitting in the 21st century, what some of these stories meant to the listeners of the 14th century. One of the more enduring of these stories is that of Pope Joan, a story that resonates today as we wrestle with the meaning of feminism.

The first definite telling of the legend is by Martin Polonus, in his work “Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum”, first published in 1265. Almost all accounts of Joan derive from this passage, though many details were later added. The basic story is as follows:

After the aforesaid Leo [died in 855], John, an Englishman by descent, who came form Mainz, held the see two years, five months and four days, and the pontificate was vacant one month. He died at Rome. He, it is asserted, was a woman. And having been in youth taken by her lover to Athens in man’s clothes, she made such progress in various sciences that there was nobody equal to her. So that afterwards lecturing on the Trivium at Rome she had great masters for her disciples and hearers. And for as much as she was in great esteem in the city, both for her life and her learning, she was unanimously elected pope. But when pope she became pregnant by the person with whom she was intimate. But not knowing the time of her delivery, while going form Saint Peter’s to the Lateran, taken in labor, she brought forth a child between the Coliseum and Saint Clement’s Church. And afterwards dying, she was, it is said, buried in hat place. And because the Lord Pope always turns aside from that way, there are some who are fully persuaded that it is done in detestation of the fact. Nor is she put in the Catalogue of the Holy Popes, as well on account of her female sex as on account of the foul nature of the transaction.

It is unknown what is the source of Martin’s account. Of the few accounts that predate Martin have one of two problems: the details are different or non-existent, or the existing copies of these accounts post-date Martin and therefore leave open the possibility that the mention of Joan is a later addition.

This latter point opens one of the main controversies about Joan. One of the principle arguments against the reality of Pope Joan was that she was a figure created during the Protestant Reformation to discredit the Papacy. That the references to her are interpolations inserted by Protestant forgers. While she was certainly put to that use, there is more then enough evidence creditably dating to prior to the Reformation of wide spread knowledge of the story to discredit this theory. Joan’s supporters take the opposite tack that the lack of evidence between the 9th and 13th centuries is the result of a conspiracy by the church to erase the evidence of her existence. Yet during this period the church was relatively weak and could carry out such a conspiracy with great difficulty, while after the 13th century when the church had certainly enough power to carry it out, is when the story became prominent.

While an Englishman from Mainz seems odd today, it wasn’t then. An often-overlooked fact is that during the 8th century, English missionaries were at work Christianizing Germany, and Mainz became the headquarters of the effort. Presumably, Joan’s parents were connected with this missionary effort. To be studying in Athens is also reasonable as Rome had become an intellectual backwater, and Constantinople was mired in a civil war over icons. As this was the time before the schism between the Western and Eastern churches, there was a significant Greek presence in Rome, so the shift from Athens to Rome could be easily accomplished. Thus there are no inherent reasons why Joan’s story could not be true.

Male clergy are now a hoary tradition within the Catholic Church, but this was not foreordained. In the beginning days of the church, meetings were often hosted and lead by women. In the 7th century, there were abbesses who ruled over monks. Abbess Hilda hosted the Synod of Whitby in 664, which decided the fate of the Celtic Church. Among the early saints of the church there are several of the theme of women dressed as men living as monks. The most famous of these is St Pelagia the Penitent.

The street that Joan had her baby is known as Vicus Papissa, usually translated as “street of the woman pope”. An alternate meaning of the name is “street of Mrs. Pape”. The Papes were a rich family that lived on the street in the 10th century. It is a narrow and steep section of road, and it may be for that practical reason that the popes stopped using it to go from the Lateran to St. Paul.

There used to be on this spot a statue of Pope Joan and her baby. This statue was first mentioned in the last part of the 13th century, but where it came from is unknown. Some suggest it was an existing statue that became identified with Joan, as her story became widely known. It was supposedly thrown into the river around 1570.

The most notorious relic connected with Pope Joan is the sedia stercoraria by which the gender of the pope was supposedly tested. This is a chair with a large hole cut out of the seat. The ritual would be that the newly elected pope would sit in this chair, then one of the cardinals would reach underneath to feel for certain male parts. The purpose, of course, is to prevent the scandal of another Pope Joan from reoccurring. The chair does exist, though it has not been used since the early 16th century. It has been explained as a commode, or as a birthing chair. It is with the latter identification that ties its symbolism of its use in a papal coronation as the head of the Mother Church. The only recorded eyewitness accounts of this ritual are in the 15th century.

The existence of Pope Joan is one of those historical mysteries that are unlikely to be ever solved. The records of the 9th century are too fragmented to allow a definitive conclusion. The story, while not impossible, remains improbable. That the story continues to fascinate is a sign of our continuing struggle over the role of women.

Bibliography

Stanford, Peter. The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1998.

 

Copyright © 2007 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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