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Pope Joan is regarded by historians as a myth, possibly originating as an anti-papal satire which gained a degree of plausibility due to certain genuine elements related in the story.
There are many versions of this legend, placing different stories in different centuries and circumstances. According to one version, an English woman, educated in Mainz, dressed as a man and, due to the convincing nature of her disguise, became a monk under the name of Johannes Anglicus. She was elected after the death of Pope Leo IV (term January, 847 - July 17, 855) at a time when the method of selecting popes was haphazard. She took the name Pope John VIII.
She was sexually promiscuous and became pregnant by one of her lovers. During an Easter Procession near the Basilica of San Clemente, over-enthusiastic crowds pushed around the horse which was carrying the Pontiff. The horse reacted, almost causing an accident. The trauma of the experience led "Pope John" to go into premature labour.
Pope Joan was dragged feet-first by a horse through the streets of Rome, and stoned to death by the outraged crowd. She was buried in the street where her identity had been revealed, between the St. John Lateran and St. Peter's Basilicas. This street was (supposedly) avoided by subsequent papal processions - though when this latter detail became part of the popular legend in the 14th century, the Papacy was at Avignon, and there were no papal processions in Rome.
Joan was reportedly succeeded by Pope Benedict III, who reigned only briefly but made sure that his predecessor was omitted from the historical record, in an act of damnatio memoriae. Benedict III is otherwise considered to have reigned from 855 to April 7, 858. Joan's ordinal name was later assumed by another Pope John VIII (term December 14, 872 - December 16, 882).
Supposedly, since her time, any candidate for the pope undergoes an intimate examination to ensure he is not a woman (or eunuch) in disguise. This involved sitting on a chair which has a hole in the seat. The most junior deacon present then feels under the chair to ensure the new Pope is male: "And in order to demonstrate his worthiness, his testicles are felt by the junior present as testimony of his male sex. When this is found to be so, the person who feels them shouts out in a loud voice testiculos habet ("He has testicles") And all the clerics reply Deo Gratias ("Thanks be to God"). Then they proceed joyfully to the consecration of the pope-elect" - Felix Hamerlin , De nobilitate et Rusticate Dialogus (c. 1490), quoted in The Female Pope, by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe (1988).
The earliest extant legends of a female pope were contained in De septem donis Spiritu Sancti ("The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit") by a French Dominican, Stephen of Bourbon (died 1261). The "Universal Chronicle of Metz", almost contemporary with it, which is attributed to the Dominican chronicler John of Metz between 1240 and 1250, repeated the tale, which was taken up by the Dominican Martin of Opava (Martin of Troppau or Martinus Polonus, who died in 1278) from whom it was copied into the chronicle Flores Temporum. The earliest German version is in the chronicle of Jans der Enikel.The name Joanna was first applied to the tale in the 14th century. The originators of the legend may have been mid-13th century Dominicans and Minorites.
"Pope Joan" was referred to by such notables as William of Ockham. The story gained credence even in papal circles. After searching the papal records in 1276, Pope John XX changed his title to Pope John XXI, giving the legend some further support; because John is the most widely used papal name, and some Johns were antipopes, there was confusion over what number belonged to which valid Pope John. Official Vatican lists still do not include a Pope John XX.
For three hundred years, the story of Pope Joan was included in the popular pilgrim's guidebook to Rome, Mirabilia Urbis Romae. In 1413, when Jan Hus was being tried on a long series of charges of heresy including the errors of popes, Hus cited many examples. His accusations were gone over in minute detail by his judges, who labeled them blasphemy. However, Hus' statement that "many times have the Popes fallen into sin and error; for instance, when Joan was elected Pope, who was a woman" was not disputed by any of the 28 cardinals, four patriarchs, 30 metropolitans, 206 bishops and 440 theologians who were present, nor was he charged with blasphemy or falsehood on this one charge.
The Tarot, which surfaced in the mid-1400s, includes a Papesse with its Pape (called the High Priestess and the Hierophant in English). So rapidly did the tradition spread that in 1400 a bust of the popess was placed in the cathedral of Siena along with the other popes, having the inscription "John VIII, a woman from England." The statue occupied this position until Clement VIII in 1601 had it transformed into "Pope Zacharias."
As with legend generally, an amount of truth exists, embellished with layers of fiction. Such a seat did exist; when a pope took possession of his cathedral, St. John Lateran in Rome, he traditionally sat on two ancient chairs of porphyry, the sedia stercoraria. Both had holes. The reason for the holes is disputed, but as both the seats and their holes predated the Pope Joan story, and indeed Catholicism by centuries, they clearly have nothing to do with a need to check the sex of a pope. It has been speculated that they originally were Roman bidets or imperial birthing stools, which because of their age and imperial links were used in ceremonies by popes intent on highlighting their own imperial claims (as they did also with their Latin title, Pontifex Maximus).
The myth of Pope Joan was discredited by David Blondel, a mid-17th century Protestant historian, who suggested that Pope Joan's legend may have originated in a satire against Pope John XI. Blondel, through detailed analysis of the claims and suggested timings, argued that no such events could have happened. Among the evidence discrediting the Pope Joan story, is
- Papal processions did not travel down the processional route where the supposed birth took place at Easter.
- No archival documentation exists of such an event.
- The 'testicle seat' which popes supposedly sat on to have their masculinity ascertained long predates the era of 'Pope Joan' and has nothing to do with a requirement that a pope have his testicles checked.
- Pope St. Leo IV reigned from 847 until his death in 855 whereupon Pope Benedict III reportedly succeeded him within a matter of weeks. This would make it impossible for her to have reigned from 855-858. However supporters of the Pope Joan theory would both question the official records of Papal succession and attribute most of the activities of Benedict to Joan.
The timing of the first appearance of the story coincides with the death of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, who had been in conflict with the papacy. The general consensus of historians is that the 'Pope Joan' story is an anti-papal satire timed to link with the papacy's clash with the Holy Roman Empire, centring on three mediŠval Catholic fears;
- a sexually active pope;
- a woman in a position of dominant authority over men;
- deception at the very heart of the Church.
However, what may have started as satire ended up accepted as reality.
Art and film
- Donna Woolfolk Cross, Pope Joan Ballantine Books, ISBN 0-345-41626-0
- Rosemary and Darrell Pardoe, The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan. The First Complete Documentation of the Facts behind the Legend Crucible, 1988. Complete text available here
- Peter Stanford, The She-Pope. A Quest for the truth behind the Mystery of Pope Joan, Heineman, London 1998 ISBN 0434 024589
- Pope Joan is also a novel by the Greek writer Emmanuel Roidis .
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