Friday, July 22, 2011

Pope Joan

Was there once a female Pope that sat upon Saint Peter's throne in the hallowed halls of the Vatican? Well according to a certain urban legend there was. Her name was Joan and she reigned for more than two years sometime during the Middle Ages.

 According to accounts written by medieval monks, Joan who was of English parentage, hailed from Mainz, Germany and studied at a monastery there established by English missionaries while disguised as a boy. Women were mostly confined to their homes during those times. As such it would have been unthinkable for a girl to seek admission to a monastery to study.

In his "History of Emperors and Popes," a monk named Martin Polonus writes that  Joan learned Greek and Latin and became knowledgeable in many branches of knowledge. After becoming sufficiently learned, this future pontiff dressed in male attire and went to Athens with a man said to be either her lover or teacher and subsequently made her way to Rome.

By virtue of her learning and talents, Joan known as John Anglicus ( English John) rose through the papal ranks from a curial secretary, Cardinal and then finally Pope replacing Leo IV who recommended her as his successor at his deathbed.

Pope gets caught out

Medieval manuscripts say more than two and a half years into her reign, Joan gave birth in the midst of a papal procession. There are differing accounts as to what happened to her after that.

Some say that both she and her baby were stoned to death. Another account says that her baby was stillborn but Joan suffered the humiliation of having her feet tied to the legs of a horse and dragged through the city until she died. Other records say she was sent to a convent with her child. But in most versions, Joan is said to have perished at the hands of the Romans that day.

As to the father of her baby, he is said to be either a servant or a Bishop who was Joan's secret lover. Scandalous not?

An urban legend

The Vatican says the story of Joan is a myth from the Dark Ages cooked up by the early Protestants to discredit Catholicism. Modern historians and religious scholars tend to concur with the church on this, saying there is not enough evidence to back-up the existence of a female Pope. The general agreement is that Pope Joan is the product of folklore and anti-papal satire.

Myth or fact?

The 15th century Tarot deck includes a  female Pope which was changed to the High Priestess  in later decks
Those who believe the story say there are many clues that point to the existence of a female Pope. For instance a book titled "100 Famous Women" written by Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccassio has Pope Joan at No.51.

Another story says that the intersection where Joan purportedly gave birth was called Vicus Papissa (the street of the Female Pope) and that for more than 100 years, the reigning Popes would take a detour to avoid the shameful place.

The mystery remains......

The story of the female Pope has made its way into print and celluloid too. Last year saw the release of the latest film version of Joan's story titled La Papessa, based on a novel by American novelists Donna Woolfolk Cross.

Johanna Wokalek as Pope Joan in La Papessa
The thing about urban legends is that, no matter how fantastical it may sound, it never dies off. Just like Nessie the Loch Ness monster and mermaids, the story of Joan has survived the Middle Ages and continues to intrigue well into the 21st century.



ken said...

well this is interesting.. normallu urban legend and myths arent exactly true.. but it sure paints a story for all of us :)

Jothi said...

Thanks for dropping by Ken. Yeah as bizarre as urban legends are, they sure make good stories....

Nava.K said...

I didn't know this Jothi. Reading your article gave me so much of info on the Vatican.

I was at the Vatican about 2 months ago and saw the Pope here although not from very near as it was packed with so many people.