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Did a Woman Serve as Pope in the Ninth Century?

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  • Robert Sterling
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com Did a Woman Serve as Pope in the Ninth
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2006
      Please send as far and wide as possible.

      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist

      Did a Woman Serve as Pope in the Ninth Century?
      Myth has it that Pope Joan impersonated a man to lead the Catholic
      Church but the jig was up when she gave birth.

      (Dec. 29) -- In a medieval mystery of the Catholic Church lies
      evidence of a woman pope, with clues buried in ancient parchment,
      artwork and writings, even in tarot cards and a bizarre chair once
      used in a Vatican ritual.

      Was there a Pope Joan -- a woman with nerve enough to disguise
      herself as a man and serve as pope for more than two years in the
      ninth century? It is one of the world's oldest mysteries. Her story
      first appeared in histories written by medieval monks, but today the
      Catholic Church dismisses it.

      "Ninety percent of me thinks there was a Pope Joan," says Mary
      Malone, a former nun who wrote a history of women and Christianity.

      Donna Cross, a novelist who spent seven years researching the time
      period, says the historical evidence is there. "I would say it's the
      weight of evidence -- over 500 chronicle accounts of her existence."

      Escaping a Brutal Life

      Life was often short and brutal for women living in A.D. 800.

      "No woman would have been allowed to appear on the streets in
      public," says Malone. "That named you as a prostitute immediately.
      Women were confined to their homes."

      In the town of Mainz, Germany, where it is thought the girl who
      might have became Pope Joan grew up, most people lived in mud huts.
      The average life span was only 30 or 40 years.

      But English missionaries were bringing Christianity to Germany, and
      they created a monastery called Fulda, which became a center of
      education, books and conversation for travelers -- but it was only
      for boys.

      In his "History of Emperors and Popes," a monk named Martin Polonus
      who was a close adviser to the pope wrote about a young woman from
      Mainz who learned Greek and Latin and became "proficient in a
      diversity of branches of knowledge."

      Cross and other historians say a girl studying at the monastery
      would have no choice but to disguise herself as a boy. But how was
      it possible to keep the secret?

      "First of all, you might want to remember that clerical robes are
      very body-disguising," says Cross. "Also, in the ninth century,
      personal hygiene was nonexistent. Nobody bathed. They washed their
      hands, their face, their feet, but they didn't bathe."

      Also, clergy members were required to be clean shaven, and
      malnutrition made most men and women physically gaunt.

      Polonus wrote that this woman was "led to Athens dressed in the
      clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers." Then, according to the
      500 accounts, the woman made her way to Rome.

      In the ninth century, Rome and the Vatican were nothing like today's
      solemn and civilized center of culture and faith. Then the center of
      the Christian faith was home to bawdy monks, scheming cardinals,
      cross-dressing saints, intrigue, melodrama, corruption and violence.

      "Popes ... killed each other off, hammered each other to death,"
      says Mary Malone, the former nun. "There were 12-year-old popes ...
      we have knowledge of a 5-year-old archbishop. ... It was a very odd
      time in history."

      That also means it would have been a time of opportunity for someone
      with ambition and nerve. The chronicles say that's how Joan, known
      as John Anglicus, or English John, became secretary to a curia, a
      cardinal, and then, as Polonus writes, "the choice of all for pope"
      in the year A.D. 855.

      Clues in Art

      If you travel to Italy and ask questions about Pope Joan, many
      people will direct you toward the clues embedded in art, literature
      and architecture.

      The Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio, best known for writing "The
      Decameron," also wrote a book on "100 Famous Women." No. 51 is Pope

      Rare book dealers in Rome pull ancient tarot cards from their
      shelves. The card for hidden knowledge is "La Papessa" -- the Female

      ''Popes ... killed each other off, hammered each other to death.
      There were 12-year-old popes... we have knowledge of a 5-year-old
      archbishop... It was a very odd time in history.''

      -- Mary Malone, a former nun who wrote a history of women and
      Christianity, on ninth century Rome and the Vatican

      Travel north to Siena to the Duomo, where inside the cathedral is a
      gallery of terra-cotta busts depicting 170 popes, in no particular
      order. In the 17th century, Cardinal Baronuis, the Vatican
      librarian, wrote that one of the faces was a female -- Joan the
      Female Pope.

      Baronius also wrote that the pope at the time decreed that the
      statue be destroyed, but some say the local archbishop didn't want a
      good statue go to waste.

      "The statue was transformed," believes Cross. "I mean, literally, it
      was scraped off, her name and written on top of Pope Zachary."

      At the Basilica in St. Peter's Square are carvings by Bernini, one
      of the most famous artists of the 17th century. Among the carvings
      are eight images of a woman wearing a papal crown, and the images
      seem to tell the story of a woman giving birth and a baby being born.

      Medieval manuscripts tell a similar tale: Two-and-a-half years into
      her reign, Pope Joan was in the midst of a papal procession, a three-
      mile trip to the Church of the Lateran in Rome, when suddenly at a
      crossroads, she felt sharp pains in her stomach.

      She was having contractions, the stories say. The unthinkable
      happened -- the pope was having a baby.

      "And then, shock and horror," says Malone. "And then the story gets
      very confused, because some of the records say she was killed and
      her child was killed right on the spot. Other records say she was
      sent to a convent and that her son grew up and later became bishop
      of Ostia."

      Stories vary -- some say the crowd stoned her to death, others say
      she was dragged from the tail of a horse -- but in most accounts,
      Pope Joan perished that day.

      In the decades that followed, the intersection was called the Vicus
      Papissa -- the Street of the Female Pope -- and for more than 100
      years, popes would take a detour to avoid the shameful intersection.

      Polonus writes: "The Lord Pope always turns aside from the
      street ... because of the abhorrence of the event."

      Or Just an Urban Legend?

      The modern Catholic Church and many scholars dismiss the story of
      Pope Joan as a sort of Dark Ages urban legend.

      Valerie Hotchkiss, a professor of medieval studies at Southern
      Methodist University in Texas, says that the story of Pope Joan was
      actually added to Martin Polonus' manuscript after he died.

      "So he didn't write it, but it was put in very soon after his death,
      like around 1280 to 1290," says Hotchkiss. "And everyone picks it up
      from Martin Polonus."

      Medieval monks were like copy machines, say some scholars, simply
      replicating mistakes into the historical record.

      "And they're picking it up from each other and changing it and
      embellishing it," Hotchkiss says.

      Monsignor Charles Burns, the former head of the Vatican secret
      archives, says the story intrigued people in the Middle Ages just as
      it intrigues people today. "This was almost like an Agatha
      Christie," he says, referring to the classic mystery writer.

      Burns says there is no evidence and no documentation in the secret
      archives that Pope Joan existed, no relic of Pope John Anglicus

      And disbelievers can explain away the other clues. The Bernini
      sculptures were modeled after the niece of the pope; the Vicus
      Papissa was named for a woman who lived in the area.

      Powerful, Dangerous Women

      Yet even those who laugh at the story of the female pope agree that
      the story opens a window on the history of women and sex in the
      Catholic Church. Women were at one time a potent and threatening
      force in the medieval church.

      Many scholars say there were many women martyrs in that era, women
      who were tortured for their religious beliefs. And there were women
      who became saints while cross-dressing as monks.

      St. Eugenia, for example, became a monk while disguised as a boy,
      and was so convincing she was brought to court on charges of
      fathering a local woman's child. She finally proved her innocence
      only by baring her breasts in public.

      "There are over 30 saints' lives in which women dress as men for a
      variety of reasons, and with a variety of outcomes," says Hotchkiss,
      who has written about these "transvestite nuns."

      Perhaps most threatening to the church were two groups of women
      known as beguines and mystics, who claimed they could bypass the
      church hierarchy and communicate directly with God.

      "And they really terrified the church because they went around
      saying things like 'My real name is God,'" says Malone. "And so
      mysticism, then, gave these women ... an access to God that was
      parallel to the church."

      These powerful women could have inspired a so-called crackdown by
      the church after A.D. 1000, consolidating its ranks and reaffirming
      the rules on celibacy among its priests, a requirement that's still
      controversial today.

      One school of thought says the story of Pope Joan was invented as a
      cautionary tale. The lesson to women: Don't even think about
      reaching for power or you will end up like her -- exposed and

      Another school argues that it was the fear of female power that led
      the church to essentially expunge Pope Joan from history.

      But how do historians explain the enormous purple marble chair on
      which popes once sat as they were crowned. The chair has a strange
      opening, something like a toilet seat, reportedly used to
      check "testiculos habet" -- or whether the pope had testicles.

      David Dawson Vasquez, the director of Catholic University of
      America's Rome program, says that the Vatican was just using the
      most impressive chair it had.

      "Because it's elaborate, it's purple. It was the most expensive
      marble of Roman times, and so it was only used for the emperor,"
      Vasquez says. "The hole is there because it was used by the imperial
      Romans, perhaps as a toilet, perhaps as a birthing chair. It doesn't
      matter if there's a hole there, because you can still sit there and
      be crowned."

      Others say it was a symbol of the pope giving birth to the mother
      church. Either way, newly minted Protestants in the 1500s had a
      field day making fun of the chair, and so it was hidden from view.

      And so the last relic in the tale of Pope Joan is withdrawn. But
      Pope Joan lives on in some other place, in the shadows of a Dark
      Ages legend that is terrifying to some and inspiring to others.

      Dec. 29, 2005
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