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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
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
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
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
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
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
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