This week’s blog was inspired by a friend who told me about the female pope. As a religious leader in her community she had attended a presentation on the subject of Pope Joan. I grew up in the catholic church and was surprised that I had never heard of her. Could this be true? Had there really been a woman pope in the middle ages? For those of you unfamiliar with the story of her life I’ll give you the short version.
Pope Joan reigned around 855 AD as Pope John VIII. Some say she reigned for two weeks others say two years. When told as a twelve year old that she would be unable to continue her studies as a woman, she disguised herself as a monk, travelled with her tutor, to Greece where she continued her education. From there, accompanied by her lover, she went to Rome where she became a clerk in the Vatican. Her rise seems to have been meteoric; she was promoted to cardinal, and was elected pope in 855 AD. Unfortunately she became pregnant and gave birth to her child during in a public procession. The crowd on learning that the pope was a woman executed her immediately, some say she was stoned and others say she was dragged by a horse. Apparently there is a street that popes avoid known as the Vicus Papissa or the street of the female pope.
Did Pope Joan really exist or is she a work of medieval fiction? Although this is supposed to have happened over eleven hundred years ago the sequence of popes was well documented, and not just their succession, but also their abhorrent behaviour. This was a time when political intrigue ruled. There was backbiting, slurring, and in 897 Pope Stephen VII had the rotting corpse of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, dug up and put on trial. And as much as the church might want to bury these details, they can’t. Not only is it recorded in the papal archives, but it’s also a matter of public record, everyone knew. So what do the records say about Pope Joan? Historians seem to agree that records were altered, but not before the thirteenth century when her story came to light, and it seems that they were altered to add her to the record, not delete her.
What about the date 855AD? This comes back to those papal records. Pope Leo IV died on 17th July 855 and Pope Benedict III was consecrated as his successor on 29th September. Did Pope Joan reign sometime in this two-month gap? Unfortunately, no. A man named Anastasius made a grab for power, imposing himself onto the papacy. Known as the antipope, he was, by all accounts, an odious man, who imprisoned his rival, Benedict, in an attempt to gain control. But he was unable to stay in office without the support of the nobles and people, thus Benedict became pope on 29th September. Anastasius is still on record as papal librarian in 872 AD. So he wasn’t executed by the crowd after giving birth. I also think that a man like Anastasius would’ve had enemies and if they could have unmasked him as a woman they would have.
There are many more arguments for and against, but I suppose I always come back to the common sense approach, which leaves me feeling that this is a work of medieval fiction, mainly because if a woman disguised herself as a priest someone would’ve noticed. And how could she conceal herself for any length of time? It would have taken her years to become a cardinal. Plus, bishops and cardinals, especially in the ninth century had servants, and servants see things. You’d think someone would’ve noticed that her beard didn’t grow and she didn’t have an Adam’s apple.
The whole thing feels very much like a medieval warning to women, especially the grizzly end. A woman who was smart and calculating enough to disguise herself for years, and become pope, would be intelligent enough to avoid pregnancy. But medieval scholars believed that women were driven by a need for sex and where unable to contain their primal urges. So to them Pope Joan’s horrific end was inevitable.
I think the story has stayed alive because it has appealed to different people at different times in history. There have even been two movies made about her. The account was widely used in the reformation to discredit the papacy and more recently has been used to justify female priests. Personally I have no problem in believing that a woman could fulfill the role of pope, I just don’t know that it has happened in the past.
Here is a short two-minute video by CNN on the subject.
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I'm currently writing a novella which will be included in a multi-author boxed set, due to be published in February 2019