Move over, Monica! : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

Move over, Monica! If you want to talk about sex, power, politics, coverups, and institutional shakeups, the recent contretemps in Washington looks like a grade-school pageant next to the phenomenon of Pope Joan. According to legend -- in this case, legend supported by plenty of verifiable historical documentation -- an English woman, disguised as a monk, was elected pope in the year 853. Apparently no one noticed anything odd -- unisex vestments, while not particularly flattering, can hide a lot -- until two years later, when Pope "John" gave birth during a papal procession through the streets of Rome. No special prosecutor needed here: Joan and her child were stoned to death by outraged citizens. Afterward, the church, in a decisive and drastic attempt at spin control, tried to obliterate all mention of Joan and her papacy. It was only in the early 13th century that historians and church scholars began to uncover myriad clues and document her tenure as the Vicar of Christ on earth.

The Vatican still denies that a woman ever sat in the Chair of Peter and chalks up the popularity of the Pope Joan "myth" to the rabid anti-Catholicism of the Reformation and the intrinsic appeal of a terrific urban legend. But, for all the denials, there is still enough historical fact to persuade anyone with a half-open mind that Pope Joan was an early ecclesiastical feminist and riot grrrl. Peter Stanford's The Legend of Pope Joan, which looks at these facts, is an oddity. Part personal journal, part historical and theological meditation, and part detective story, Stanford's book charts his own journey in researching the possibility that, at least this one time, the term mother church was more accurate than not. Stanford uncovers a multitude of "proofs" -- none conclusive, but all interesting. There is the infamous sedia stercoraria, a marble throne with an opening in the seat, installed by the College of Cardinals immediately after Joan's fall from grace -- with a newly elected pope sitting exposed on the throne, a cardinal could peer up through the opening to verify that he had, well, the balls for the job. Stanford also discovers several statues and portraits of Joan in Italian churches, as well as a shrine on the street where Joan was stoned to death. Above the central altar in St. Peter's Basilica, he uncovers a series of Bernini carvings that seem to show a pope giving birth to a child.

Although Stanford's arguments are, at best, conjecture and good guesses, The Legend of Pope Joan affords many pleasures. Stanford pauses during the course of his investigation to lead the reader into various fascinating related topics, from the complex history of Roman Catholic female transvestite saints to the prominence of powerful women in the early and medieval church to the career of Bernard Guy, a 14th-century Inquisitor who was the model for the hero of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. He even makes sound, telling connections between Pope Joan and such other historical and literary figures as Joan of Arc, Yentl, and the ever-popular composer Hildegard of Bingen. Finally, he documents Joan's presence in the modern world: she has figured prominently in Stendhal's Voyages en Italie, feminist theology, several popular novels, a dreadful 1972 film with Liv Ullmann, a British board game called Pope Joan, and the arcana of Tarot cards. Stanford persuades us that even if Pope Joan did not exist, her invention was inevitable.

-- Michael Bronski

-- Debra (, August 15, 2000


Joan, you come up with the best articles! That was fascinating. Wouldn't you have thought that being Pope she could have delayed the procession until after she had given birth? Wish I could find the article I read once about all the dead babies in the catacombs under a nunnery in Italy.

-- gilda (, August 15, 2000.


-- al-d. (, August 15, 2000.

Debra, pardon me. I meant to say Debra, not Joan, when I began my post. No offense intended.

-- gilda (, August 15, 2000.

Hi Gilda,

Glad you enjoyed the article. I had never heard of Pope Joan until coming across it while researching the Vatican. I had a good laugh thinking of a woman having enough "balls" to pull something like this off. The bigger laugh came thinking of the (silly) men who invented the marble "throne." Can you imagine? A group of very wise men trying to decide how this would never happen again. I can picture it. One of the group stands up and says:

"We shall create a throne! It will be a marble throne. It shall bear the most holy of holes! Our newly elected pope shall sit exposed upon the throne and we shall take a peek." NEVER AGAIN WILL A WOMAN FOOL US!

I understand this "throne" is real. These guys really used it! I guess anything to keep a woman away from power. LOL

Here is another article about Pope Joan:

"Whenever you see a legend, you can be sure, if you go to the very bottom of things, that you will find history." (Vallet de Viriville)

Pope Joan is one of the most fascinating, extraordinary characters in Western history -- and one of the least well known. Most people have never heard of Joan the Pope, and those who have regard her story as legend.

Yet for hundreds of years -- up to the middle of the seventeenth century -- Joans papacy was universally known and accepted as truth. In the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church, under increasing attack from rising Protestantism, began a concerted effort to destroy the embarrassing historical records on Joan. Hundreds of manuscripts and books were seized by the Vatican. Joans virtual disappearance from modern consciousness attests to the effectiveness of these measures.

Today the Catholic Church offers two principal arguments against Joans papacy: the absence of any reference to her in contemporary documents, and the lack of a sufficient period of time for her papacy to have taken place between the end of the reign of her predecessor, Leo IV, and the beginning of the reign of her successor, Benedict III.

These arguments are not, however, conclusive. It is scarcely surprising that Joan does not appear in contemporary records, given the time and energy the Church has, by its own admission, devoted to expunging her from them. The fact that she lived in the ninth century, the darkest of the dark ages, would have made the job of obliterating her papacy easy. The ninth century was a time of widespread illiteracy, marked by an extraordinary dearth of record keeping. Today, scholarly research into the period relies on scattered, incomplete, contradictory, and unreliable documents. There are no court records, land surveys, farming accounts, or diaries of daily life. Except for one questionable history, the Liber pontificalis (which scholars have called a "propagandist document"), there is no continuous record of the ninth-century Popes -- who they were, when the reigned, what they did. Apart from the Liber pontificalis, scarcely a mention can be found of Joans successor, Pope Benedict III -- and he was not the target of an extermination campaign.

Joans absence from contemporary church records is only to be expected. The Roman clergymen of the day, appalled by the great deception visited upon them, would have gone to great lengths to bury all written reports of the embarrassing episode. Indeed, they would have felt it their duty to do so. Even the great theologian Alcuin was not above tampering with the truth; in one of his letters he admits destroying a report on Pope Leo IIIs adultery and simony.

One need only look to the recent examples of Nicaragua and El Salvador to see how a determined and well-coordinated state effort can make embarrassing evidence "disappear." It is only after the distancing effect of time that truth, kept alive by unquenchable popular report, gradually begins to emerge. And, indeed, there is no shortage of documentation for Joans papacy in later centuries. Frederick Spanheim, the learned German historian who conducted and extensive study of the matter, cites no fewer than five hundred ancient manuscripts containing accounts of Joans papacy, including those of such acclaimed authors as Petrarch and Boccaccio.

Today, the church position on Joan is that she was an invention of Protestant reformers eager to expose papist corruption. Yet Joans story first appeared hundreds of years before Martin Luther was born. Most of her chroniclers were Catholics, often highly placed in the church hierarchy. Joans story was accepted even in official histories dedicated to Popes. Her statue stood undisputed alongside those of the other Popes in the Cathedral of Siena until 1601, when, by command of Pope Clement VIII, it suddenly "metamorphosed" into a bust of Pope Zacharias. In 1276, after ordering a thorough search of the papal records, Pope John XX changed his title to John XXI in official recognition of Joans reign as Pope John VIII. Joans story was included in the official church guidebook to Rome used by pilgrims for over three hundred years.

Another striking piece of historical evidence is found in the well- documented 1413 trial of Jan Hus for heresy. Hus was condemned for preaching the heretical doctrine that the Pope is fallible. In his defense Hus cited, during the trial, many examples of Popes who had sinned and committed crimes against the Church. To each of these charges his judges, all churchmen, replied in minute detail, denying Huss accusations and labeling them blasphemy. Only one of Huss statements went unchallenged: "Many times have the Popes fallen into sin and error, for instance when Joan was elected Pope, who was a woman." No one of the 28 cardinals, four patriarchs, 30 metropolitans, 206 bishops, and 440 theologians present charged Hus with lying or blaspheming in this statement.

There is also circumstantial evidence difficult to explain if there was never a female Pope. One example is the so-called chair exam, part of the medieval papal consecration ceremony for almost six hundred years. Each newly elected Pope after Joan sat on the sella stercoraria (literally, "dung seat"), pierced in the middle like a toilet, where his genitals were examined to give proof of his manhood. Afterward the examiner solemnly informed the gathered people, "Mas nobis nominus est" -- "Our nominee is a man." Only then was the Pope handed the keys of St. Peter. This ceremony continued until the sixteenth century.

Another interesting piece of circumstantial evidence is the "shunned street." The Patriarchium, the Popes residence and episcopal cathedral (now St. John Lateran) is located on the opposite side of Rome from St. Peters Basilica; papal processions therefore frequently traveled between them. A quick perusal of any map of Rome will show that the Via Sacra (now the Via S. Giovanni) is by far the shortest and most direct route between these two locations -- and so in fact it was used for centuries (hence the name Via Sacra, or "sacred road"). This is the street on which Joan reportedly gave birth to her stillborn child. Soon afterward, papal processions deliberately began to turn aside from the Via Sacra.

As for the Churchs second argument, that there was not sufficient time between the papacies of Leo IV and Benedict III for Joan to have reigned -- this too is questionable. The Liber pontificalis is notoriously inaccurate with regard to the times of papal accessions and deaths; many of the dates cited are known to be wholly invented. Given the strong motivation of a contemporary chronicler to conceal Joans papacy, it would be no great surprise if the date of Leos death was moved forward from 853 to 855 -- through the time of Joans reported two-year reign -- in order to make it appear that Pope Leo was immediately succeeded by Pope Benedict III.

-- Debra (, August 15, 2000.

guy's in gowns--what can yu expect!

-- al-d. (, August 16, 2000.

Aha, the plot thickens, and the story gets even more interesting. I started reading The Club Dumas recently, and it reminded me a bit, of The Name of the Rose, by Eco. I was thinking about rereading it, and now I know I certainly will. That was a fantastic book.

This morning I dug through my art books and found the one on Berinini. Later I'm going to scrutinize the carvings on the altar at St. Peter's. I doubt I'll find anything though.

I'm sure we would all be surprised at the many buried truths, in ancient legends, that have been floating around for centuries.

I LOL when I saw the quote by Vallet de Viriville, "Whenever you see a legend, you can be sure, if you go to the very bottom of things, that you will find history." I'm sure he meant it for all history, but it makes a great pun for this bit of history, and the holey marble throne. Yes, the very imagery of these holy of holies contemplating the sex dilemma, and coming up with this bizarre solution cracks me up. I wonder where this marvelous piece of marble history is resting these days??

Debra, thanks again for posting the additional information. You do post the most interesting stuff!

-- gilda (, August 16, 2000.

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