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Story of Pope Joan : A Woman On The Papal Throne ?

Pope Joan

From the 13th century, a rumor spread in Europe: a woman would have directed the Roman Church between 855 and 858. Until the 16th century, the Church saw in the existence of the popess an established fact, before denying all reality to this character.

John VIII the Angelica was pregnant!

Considered by most historians to be a legend not without anticlerical ulterior motives, the story of Pope Joan is, however, far from being clarified today. According to medieval biographies, Joan was born in 822 in Ingelheim, near Mainz. Hungry for knowledge, she first made a trip to Athens. At that time, women weren't supposed to study, so she pretended to be a boy and took the name John the Englishman. The subterfuge allowed her to subsequently frequent the most important abbeys of 9th century France, including that of Saint-Germain-des-Près, and to acquire a great deal of knowledge there. When she went to Rome, she was immediately noticed for her knowledge, her piety as much as for her great beauty.

She became a cardinal when Pope Leo IV died in 855 and was appointed to take over. No one obviously knows her true identity, and Joan ascends the papal throne under the name of John VIII the Angelica. She spends herself lavishly on it and is apparently perfectly worthy of her office.

But then in April 858, during the Rogation days, she suddenly collapsed in a street, gave birth to a child and died within hours! The scandal is enormous among the faithful, and the popess is buried on the sly, outside sacred places.

Various, varied and obscure sources

The book that establishes the 13th century history of the pope is The Chronicle of Popes and Emperors by Dominican Martin of Opava. Shortly before him, another Dominican, Stephen of Bourbon, already mentions an affair of a female pope, but situating it later, around 1100. Pope Leo II himself would have mentioned in a letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople, in the middle of the 11th century, a "woman who occupied the seat of the pontiffs of Rome".

One fact is certain: at the beginning of the 15th century, the historical existence of Pope Joan was accepted by all, since dignitaries of the Church vouch for it in writings that Rome does not see fit to censor. In no case can it be argued, therefore, that the story of Pope Joan was invented by detractors of the Church to damage the reputation of the it. On the contrary, the first author to take a stand against the existence of a female pope, in 1647, is… Protestant; his name is David Blondel.

Pope Joan and Benedict III : would they be one?

The thesis which refutes the existence of Pope Joan by claiming that a woman cannot hide for so long under male clothes is however contradicted by an essential fact: the Church has admitted the existence of Joan for centuries. In addition, several saints and blessed (Euphrasie, Hildegarde, Eugenia) seem to have lived incognito until their death under the habit of men, among monks.

Above all, the confusion that reigns around the pope recognized today as the immediate successor of Leo IV, Benedict III, allows another hypothesis. The existence of Benedict is not mentioned in the earliest known copy of the Liber Pontificalis. The few chronicles that speak of him attribute him a good physique, an aversion to public appearances as well as great moderation. Practically nothing else is known of him, except that he almost fell victim to an antipope, that he died suddenly on April 17, 858 and that he was buried outside Saint Peter's Basilica, in accordance with his will - he would have judged himself "unworthy to put himself near the saints".

All of these facts may apply to the reign of the mysterious popess, as well as that of the uncertain Benedict. Would the official history of the Church have renamed Pope Joan - or John VIII the Angelica - calling him Benedict in order to better conceal his gender?

Joan, an effeminate pope?

Another hypothesis: a confusion could also occur between two pontiffs. Indeed, another pope bears, in 872, the name of John VIII. Its existence, this time, is well proven. However, some documents nickname him "the popess" because of his weakness in the face of the Saracens and his supposed homosexuality.

Do the two characters have no relation to each other, or has a confusion ensued after the fact between the little-known successor of Leo IV and a historic Pope John with effeminate manners?

The pierced chair, legend or reality?

Legend has it that from about the year 1000, a verification of the sex of each newly elected to the papal throne was carried out. The ceremony would have taken place at the Lateran Palace. All the new popes would have been required to sit on a pierced porphyry seat, under which a deacon would have slipped in charge of verifying the presence in the candidate of male attributes… The rite would have lasted until the election of Leo X, in 1543.

The Church today denies the reality of this unworthy "verification". However, many testimonies accredit its use. The Louvre Museum in Paris even preserves an ancient porphyry throne which, according to some, would have served for this very singular use...

If the ceremony really took place, it was because the Church had some reason to fear that a woman would usurp the papal throne; on the other hand, if this rite is nothing but a pure legend, then it reflects the misogyny that has long marked the Christian Church and which certainly partly explained the invention of the story of Pope Joan.