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The story is as enduring as it is dubious: A millennium or so ago in Rome, the pope was riding in a procession when suddenly she–that's right, she–went into labor and had a baby.
Nonsense? Europeans in the Middle Ages didn't think so. The story of a pope named Joan, writes historian J.N.D. Kelly in his Oxford Dictionary of Popes, "was accepted without question in Catholic circles for centuries." Only after the Reformation, when Protestants used the story to poke fun at Roman Catholics, did the Vatican begin to deny that one of its Holy Fathers had become an unholy mother.
The tale faded in the 17th century but never died. While most Americans apparently have never heard of the story, it continues to fascinate people in Europe. In the last three years, 2 million Germans–and about 100,000 Americans–have bought copies of Pope Joan, a historical novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross, a New York writer who suggests that a 400-year clerical coverup kept her hero from being recognized as one of history's most famous women. Legions of Americans likely will become believers, too, if Hollywood's Harry Ufland, producer of The Last Temptation of Christ and Snow Falling on Cedars, shoots the Pope Joan movie he hopes to make next year.
During the Middle Ages, many versions of the "popess" affair appeared. Most accounts came from friars compiling church histories, though the Vatican later would argue that Protestant forgers tinkered with the text.
A few medieval chronicles said Joan's great deception occurred in the 10th or 11th century. The report that gained the widest acceptance, written in 1265 by a Dominican friar from Poland named Martin of Troppau, set the unblessed event in the ninth century.
Papal momma. According to most versions, spectators watched in horror as the pope, trying to mount a
horse, went into labor and gave birth to a son. Moments later, some reports said, the crowd tied her feet to the horse's tail, then stoned her to death as she was dragged along a street. Still other records showed her banished to a convent and living in penance as her son rose to become a bishop.
The female pope reportedly was born in Germany of English missionary parents and grew up unusually bright in an era when learned women were considered unnatural and dangerous. To break the glass ceiling, it was said, she pretended to be male. At 12, she was taken in masculine attire to Athens by a "learned man," a monk described as her teacher and lover.
Disguised in the sexless garb of a cleric, she "made such progress in various sciences," Martin of Troppau wrote, "that there was nobody equal to her." Eventually, it was said, she became a cardinal in Rome, where her knowledge of the scriptures led to her election as Pope John Anglicus. Martin of Troppau's account had her ruling male-dominated Christendom from 855 till 858, specifically two years, seven months, and four days. Her original name, according to some, was Agnes. Others called her Gilberta and Jutta. Many years after she died–assuming she ever lived–scribes began calling her Joan, the feminine form of John.
But by no name would she win a place in the Vatican's official catalog of popes. The church insists that its papal line, dating back to St. Peter, is an unbroken string of men. Scholars tend to agree. An array of reference books, from the Encyclopaedia Britannica to the Oxford Dictionary of Popes, dismiss Pope Joan as a mythical or legendary figure, no more real than Paul Bunyan or Old King Cole. (Another Joan, the 15th-century martyr Joan of Arc, is honored by the church as a saint.)
The chief weakness of the Pope Joan story is the absence of any contemporary evidence of a female pope during the dates suggested for her reign. In each instance, clerical records show someone else holding the papacy and doing deeds that are transcribed in church history.
Another problem is the gap between the alleged event and the news of it. Not until the 13th century–400 years after Joan, by the most accepted accounts, ruled–does any mention of a female pope appear in any documents. That's akin to word breaking out just now that England in 1600 had a queen named Elizabeth.
The historical gap, some Joanites suggest, was deliberately created. Cross, the novelist, argues that clerics of the day were so appalled by Joan's trickery that they went to great lengths to avoid and eliminate any written report of it.
Busted. Once the story started, there was no stopping it. Some writers, including the 14th-century poet Petrarch, scorned Joan. But she also had backers. In Tuscany around 1400, her face was carved among the papal busts in the cathedral at Siena. It remained there, travelers said, until its replacement by the bust of a male pope two centuries later. God used her elevation, claimed one Renaissance writer, to demonstrate that women were equal to men.
Medieval accounts show the Vatican striving to avoid a repeat of its Joan episode. For several centuries, popes shunned the street where Joan allegedly gave birth. The pontiffs were said to regard the route as a scene of shame. The Vatican later would argue that the street was simply too narrow for a procession. In his 1999 book, The Legend of Pope Joan, British writer Peter Stanford reports visiting the Vatican and inspecting an unusual chair inspired by the trouble with Joan. The wooden throne, with a potty-style hole in the seat, is said to have been used until the 16th century in the ceremony of papal consecration. According to medieval accounts, each prospective pope would sit on the hole while an examining cleric felt under the seat. A moment later, the examiner would withdraw his hand and solemnly declare: "Our nominee is a man." Stanford, a former editor of London's Catholic Herald, argues that Pope Joan was a historical figure, although he doubts some of the story's details. Donna Cross agrees. "Where there's that much historical smoke, there must have been a fire," she says. "Something happened."
So, if a woman didn't become pope, what did happen? Joan's detractors can only guess, but a favorite hunch is that somebody a long time ago tried to be funny.
On the narrow Roman street in question–the Vicus Papissa–records from the 10th century show the well-to-do family of Giovanni Pape owning a home and a chapel. Years after the Papes were gone, it's suggested, a visitor joked that Vicus Papissa meant "the street of the woman pope." Over time, the wisecrack was embellished to include the outcome of a papal pregnancy, a tale riveting enough to become part of the church chronicles.
What Vicus Papissa really means, the skeptics say, is "the street of Mrs. Pape."