The lady was a pope
A bestseller revives the outlandish tale of Joan
BY LEWIS LORD
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 shethat's
shewent 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 Germansand about
100,000 Americanshave 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
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 diedassuming
she ever livedscribes 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 century400 years after Joan, by
the most accepted accounts, ruleddoes
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
On the narrow Roman street in questionthe Vicus
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
What Vicus Papissa really means, the
skeptics say, is "the street of Mrs. Pape."