a woman serve as the Roman Catholic pope in the ninth century?
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
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."
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 for boys.
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
"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.
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 Joan.
Rare book dealers in Rome pull ancient tarot cards from their
shelves. The card for hidden knowledge is "La Papessa"
-- the Female Pope.
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 Female Pope.
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 of Ostia."
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
Polonus writes: "The Lord Pope always turns aside from
the street ... because of the abhorrence of the event."
an Urban Legend?
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
Burns says there is no evidence and no documentation in the
secret archives that Pope Joan existed, no relic of Pope John
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.
What do male Church leaders have against women?
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
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 controversial today.
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
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 be crowned."
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
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. --
is it that the Church has against women?
9 - Church sources told Catholic News Service that new
"norms," as the policies are called, will include
the "attempted ordination of women" among the list
of most serious crimes, or what are known as "delicta graviora."
Sexual abuse of a minor by a priest was added to the classification
in 2001. The new norms are largely expected to codify changes
made in 2001 and 2003 that were aimed at addressing the burgeoning
clergy abuse scandal. But the policies expected to be issued
later this month will also specifically include the abuse of
mentally disabled adults as on par with abusing minors, and
it will extend the statute of limitations under the Church's
Code of Canon Law from 10 years after a victim turns 18 to 20
Word that the Vatican will also use this opportunity to codify
the attempted ordination of a woman as a "delicta graviora"
is a surprise, however, and is not likely to please either victims
advocates -- who have been pushing for much more stringent and
universal church policies against abusers -- or those who favor
a greater role for women in the church.
a woman all men are born.
How then can any man degrade any woman?"
frankly, it is an outrage to pair the two, a complete injustice
to connect the aspirations of some women among the baptized
to ordained ministry with what are some of the worst crimes
that can be committed against the least of Christ's members,"
U.S. Catholic editor Bryan Cones wrote at the monthly magazine's
web site in a blast that appears to echo the views of many.
"This decision boggles the mind: The faithful have been
justly demanding for nearly a decade clear guidelines for dealing
with the sexual abuse of children, along with just punishments
for both offenders and bishops who have abetted these crimes.
What we have gotten is half of what we have been asking for
(still no sanctions for bishops), along with a completely unconnected
and unnecessary condemnation of the ordination of women."
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