The pope who gave birth

Peter Sanford's engaging first-person history tracks down the medieval legend of Pope Joan and finds there's more to her tale than the Vatican admits.

Published May 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the ninth century an English woman, desiring an education, disguised herself as a monk, traveled to Fulda and Athens, rose in esteem because of her scholarship, went to Rome and became pope for two years, five months and four days. As John VII, she reigned after Leo IV and before Benedict III. But then she blew her cover most dramatically. One day she dismounted from her horse and bore a child in the streets of Rome before a horrified crowd. Soon after, the story goes, she was put to death for her deception.

For decades this legend of a cross-dressing female pope has eluded the factual grip of historians but has flourished in the hands of artists and entertainment makers. Bertolt Brecht took a crack at her; so did Boccaccio. Not to mention G.K Chesterton, Stendahl and Lawrence Durrell. She's one of the historic personages in Caryl Churchill's cheeky 1982 play "Top Girls." And Liv Ullmann portrayed her in a 1972 film, "Pope Joan." It co-starred Olivia de Havilland and Keir Dullea and was positively fauve with proto-feminist posturing glazed by a tempera of sex and violence. The Motion Picture Guide doesn't hold back. "Boring trash," it opines.

"Boring trash" doesn't apply to Peter Stanford's "The Legend of Pope Joan," a nonfiction chronicling of his search for truth within the legend. I was leery, though, given the subject matter. Like Atlantis, say, or Bigfoot, Pope Joan has long attracted "the strange but true brigade," in Stanford's nice phrase. Mercifully, he's not in their ranks. A former editor of the Catholic Herald in London, a contributor to the BBC and the author of the engaging tour de force "The Devil: A Biography," Stanford has written a sly, easygoing historical detective story. Leading us with a conversational, first-person approach, we mosey along with him to Joan haunts in Rome and Fulda, once the German center of medieval learning. Dogged without being a bore, Sanford parses a millennium-plus worth of sources and he seems to know which ones matter.

In tracing the loose ends of the legend, Sanford often finds himself in odd positions. After the Pope Joan fiasco, the Vatican supposedly instituted a new ritual. Potential popes had to undergo a ceremonial examination to make sure they were male. How so? By sitting on the sedina stercoraria, literally the "pierced chair" or "dung chair" (it looks like an antique commode), whereby the papal anatomical jewels hung down through a hole in the seat, and were manually verified by a cardinal selected for the task. (Now there's a risumi-builder). Not only does Sanford provide a photo of said furniture, he prevails on the Vatican bureaucracy to view the holy artifact.

When no one was looking, "I plonked myself down," he confesses. "It felt like a desecration. The Vatican Museum has the aura of a church and all my childhood training revolved around not touching anything in God's house ... Pulse racing, white-faced, I leant back and back ... The keyhole shape, I noticed as I brought my spine vertical, was in precisely the right place for the test."

As Stanford continues his investigation, he learns that the Catholic hierarchy has long dismissed Joan's story as false, believing it to be the result of a Protestant smear campaign during the Reformation. It's true that Martin Luther himself promulgated Joan's tale in hopes of further blasting the theory of papal infallibility (i.e. God can't be involved in picking popes because he surely wouldn't have chosen a woman). Yet, the vengeance of Martin Luther can't fully explain the legend's origins. Interestingly, the she-pope narrative was most in vogue during the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation -- 600 years after Joan's presumptive reign. Some believe an unsavory Church of Rome "historian" named Anastasius quashed any mention of Joan back around the 900s, hence the subsequent centuries of silence.

He couldn't bury it altogether, though. Surprisingly the salient reviver of Joan's story was a Dominican named Martin of Polonus (Poland), who acted as a sort of papal secretary. Martin's writings, says Stanford, "have come to be regarded by later generations as the quasi-official line of the Vatican." In his "Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum" in 1265, Martin includes a passage on John/Joan. After telling the story with several dramatic touches, including that the street on which she brought forth her child was thereafter avoided by subsequent popes, he explains why Joan has been Trotsky'd out of the official history. She's bad PR: "Nor is she put in the Catalogue of the Holy Popes, as well on account of her female sex as on account of the foul nature of the transaction." An addendum to this chronicle adds that the dread street where Joan gave birth was henceforth known as the "Via Papissa" and that she was not killed, but instead was banished and her son grew up to be the Bishop of Ostia.

Stanford dutifully trots out dozens of variations on the tale, most of them mossy with insubstantiation. Many scholars speculate on the paternity of Joan's child: A 19th century Dutch historian believes it was Leo IV himself. Other chroniclers cite places and statues that once commemorated Joan's deed. A French Dominican named Jean de Mailly wrote in 1225 that "at the point where she died and was buried, it was written: Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum." Which translates as "O Peter, father of fathers, betray the child-bearing of the woman pope." Another Dominican, Stephen de Bourbon, points the blame below decks: "Under the devil's direction, she was made cardinal and finally pope." Some think the Dominicans, due to a power struggle with the papacy, advanced the story to needle their foes.

Yet this is as hard to prove as is everything else written about Joan. Stanford eventually makes his peace with, as he calls it, "the infuriating conditional tenses," of all the takes on his subject. He is buoyed by a visit to Cesare D'Onofrio, a modern Vatican historian. "But even if this is a false story," D'Onofrio counsels, "all the elements are true."

Indeed, it is the elements that make Pope Joan so resilient. Stanford is at his most engaging when he limns Joan-as-prototype. Her survival tactics were rare, to be sure, but not unheard-of; she represented a real alternative for women in her day. Cross-dressing was one way to avoid your gender-bent destiny. Remember, misogyny was less dire in the she-pope's era, the early Middle Ages, than the mid- or late Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas famously stated that women were merely "misbegotten men," meaning inferior and therefore incapable of leadership. Christians had not always thought thus, St. Paul aside. In the days of early Christianity, when believers were persecuted in Rome, the least visible were chosen as priests -- meaning devout women -- to avoid detection by the authorities. And, in Joan's day, monasteries weren't yet all single-sex; men and women actually studied together, especially in her native British Isles.

True, women could only go so far -- hence the occasional instance of Yentling to higher positions. Yet, according to Sanford, such cross-dressing wasn't as difficult then. "The physical sleight of hand was possible," he writes. For one thing, everyone was so malnourished back then, men and women looked more alike, the females less defined by the Renaissance-curves of future, more prosperous times. Also, monks had begun shaving by the 800s, so a smooth-faced woman could more easily have passed for a man. As for the clerical garb, well, even today it appears androgynous (trousers, in Joan's time, were considered the mark of a barbarian.)

Yes, but could a woman go as far as becoming pope? Not impossible, says Stanford. The Catholic Church has pushed plenty of unflattering portraits under the "lumpy carpet" of a Protestant conspiracy that, Stanford concludes, was "bunkum." Besides, even if Joan was vilified for cross-dressing and bearing a child, the papacy in her day was full of worse (to our minds) forms of corruption. And since popes were then elected by the people, not the secret conclaves of later times, Joan may have been a more popular candidate. Her youth wouldn't have worked against her, either; some popes from Joan's era were ordained in their 20s.

In the end, Stanford breaks with the Catholic line and says he believes there was a real flesh-and-blood Joan, though the particulars are hard to disentangle. But maybe, he offers, that doesn't ultimately matter. What is important is why she has persisted through the ages. Around the 15th century, Joan became a figure in tarot cards. In the Victorian era, there was a game named for her -- the point was to deceive and trick your opponent as much as possible. In the twilight of our century, prominent feminists have co-opted her, especially those Catholics who want to admit women into the priesthood. The gay-pride movement has jumped on the bandwagon, too. When John Paul II visited Berlin, not long after the Wall came down, a huge crowd of gay activists staged a rally in protest of the church's anti-homosexual preaching. They acted out a mock papal coronation in which Pope Joan was crowned. Her portrayer? A Hamburg prostitute.

From testicle-validating chairs to tarot cards to bad Liv Ullmann movies, from Boccaccio to Caryl Churchill to this latest writerly attempt, Joan has survived all attempts upon her legend, becoming a historical figure despite her murky claims to existence. Clear-eyed and intriguing, Stanford's book is not the last word on the subject, to be sure. But it's a solid word, offering a glimpse of history in the making that is neither dry nor naive. "Her story has survived all attempts to bury it because it has proved greater and longer lasting than any of the ways in which it has been communicated," writes Sanford, "the causes to which it has been annexed, or the groups who have chanced upon it."

By Katharine Whittemore

Katharine Whittemore is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine.

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