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Pope Joan: NOT

Another Myth of Women's History


John Goodman, Johanna Wokalek, David Wenham and Soenke Wortmann at world premiere of

John Goodman, Johanna Wokalek, David Wenham and Soenke Wortmann at world premiere of "Pope Joan" 2009

Sean Gallup / Getty Images
Pope Joan Actress Johanna Wokalek, 2009

Johanna Wokalek at World Premiere of Movie Pope Joan, 2009

Getty Images / Sean Gallup

Sometime around the thirteenth century, a story was published about a Pope who turned out to be a woman. During the Reformation, it was circulated widely among Protestants -- one more reason to find the Papacy fallible, even ridiculous. What better evidence that the Papacy was flawed, than that it could have failed to detect that one of its Popes was a woman!

In most of the stories, the Pope is "outed" as a woman when he (she) suddenly, in front of a crowd, goes into labor and produces a child -- about as strong a proof of womanhood as any witness might want! The mob, of course, responds appropriately to such chutzpah on the part of a woman: they drag her through the city and then, for good measure, stone her to death.

The main arguments against the legend? That there are no records from the time of the supposed Popess about any such incident. And that there are no gaps in the historical record that would allow for an otherwise undocumented Pope to have held office.

There's even a theory that the name of a street in Rome, the Vicus Papissa, named for a woman of the Pape family, gave rise to the story of a procession of a female Pope through that street, interrupted by her sudden, quick and quite public labor.

I know that there are those who disagree with my conclusion about Pope Joan. Because it's true that much of women's history has been lost or suppressed through negligence, it's easy to accept a theory about a missing female Pope. But just because there is no evidence doesn't make it true. Believable evidence is simply not there, and the "evidence" presented is easily explained. Until there's different evidence that builds a stronger case, this is one women's history story that I don't accept.

Actually, in history, the main purpose of the story of the female Pope was not to testify to the possibilities for women, beyond the ordinary, as were many legends of warrior women and women leaders that were based on verifiable truths or germs of truth. The purpose of the story of the woman Pope was originally as a lesson: that such roles were improper for women and that women who took on such roles would be punished. Later, the story was used to discredit the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope, by showing how fallible the church could be in making such a horrible error. Imagine, not even noticing that a woman was leading the Church! Patently ridiculous! was the conclusion expected of anyone hearing the story.

Not exactly a way to promote positive role models for women.

In 1856, the Encyclopedia Britannica took on the Pope Joan legend, and concluded that the legend was false. Here's an excerpt from the article there:

The grounds on which this conclusion is arrived at may be briefly stated. In the first place, 200 years elapsed between the era of the supposed pope and the date at which her name is first mentioned by any historian. In the next place there were at Rome, during the time assigned to her Papacy four persons, who each in succession sat on the papal throne, and left behind them many and various writings. Had they ever heard of the story, it is impossible to believe that they should each and all have passed it over in silence as they have done. In the third place, all the contemporary writers, without a single exception, attest that, immediately on the death of Leo IV., the papal chair was offered and accepted by Benedict III.

At the same time, though the story of Pope Joan is given up by all historians alike as a fable, it is impossible that it should have found believers and upholders for so many centuries had there been nothing in the annals of the church to give a sort of colour to it. Many conjectures have been advanced upon the subject, of which by far the most plausible is that of Biancho-Giovini, who proves clearly enough that the papal chair was often virtually occupied by a woman. Pope John X., elected in 914, owed his elevation entirely to his mistress Theodora, whose beauty, talents, and intrigues had made her mistress of Rome about the beginning of the tenth century. At a late period Theodora's daughter, Marozia, wielded a similar influence over Sergius III., and finally raised her son by that pope to the pontifical throne, with the title of John XI. At a still later period, John XII. was so completely governed by one of his concubines, Raineria by name, that he entrusted to her much of the administration of the holy see. These, and other instances of the same kind that might be adduced, account satisfactorily enough for the origin of the fable of Pope Joan.

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Text copyright © 1999-2006 Jone Johnson Lewis .

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