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Pope Joan Ö erÖ John
Is that a staff under your robe or are you just happy to see me

Legend has it (there are strong arguments for fact and fiction) there once resided, over the Vatican, a female pope. Hard to believe, I know. Hereís the story. 

Joan was born to English parents in Germany in the ninth century. At the age of 12, Joan, disguised as a boy, attended a scholarly monk on his journey to Athens and studied the sciences and philosophy. Becoming famous for ďhisĒ wisdom, Joan  went to Rome to lecture and teach, still disguised as John. She became a cardinal and when Pope Leo IV died in 853 A.D, Joan was apparently elected Pope with an overwhelming majority. History can only speculate on the reasons for the election. Logic says that not that many learned men of the Church could be that naÔve, but then again, logic rarely enters discussions of religion.  

The stories vary on her origins and ascendancy. A few tell it as though she were the daughter of a Cardinal who grew up as a boy in the Vatican. This is less likely than her birth in Germany. Others say she could not have existed at all because Church records clearly show two other popes leading the Church at the time. Well, we all know how documents, in the very heart of illiterate populations, can be altered, or disappear entirely. History sees repeated examples of this type of rewriting of events of the time. 

Her stay in the high seat lasted two years. All this time, disguised as a man, she fooled pages, attendants and a college full of cardinals and bishops. An unlikely idea but we forget what life was like in the 800ís. It is speculated that her chamberlain and she were lovers. Youíd think that through all the menstrual cycles, pms and bad hair days, Joan would have been found out.   

Perhaps more men of the Vatican knew, admired her wisdom as a Church leader and kept her secret. Perhaps she threw wild orgies late at night when the others were abed. Perhaps she was a shapeless woman, lacking hips and breasts for definition and never had a bad hormone bout. Whatever the circumstances, Joan kept her secret for two years. 

As Pope John VIII, she lead the church until one fateful day in 855 AD.  The Pope, in a procession from St. Peterís to the Lateran, had to halt the party and much to the surprise of the crowds, gave birth right then and there. No prelude, no screaming in labor. Remember, this is a woman who never suffered from the blight of pms or cramps. Right there, in the street, like a champ, she brought forth a baby. 

Blasphemy? Iím sure that word came up a time or two. Echoed from the rooftops of Rome would be my best guess. Imagine the horrified entourage that witnessed their beloved Pope pushing an infant into the world. A few miters toppled that day. 

Legend says that the people of Rome stoned her to death. Other traces of the story have her conveniently tucked into a convent for the rest of her life. Whichever is the case, authenticity of this story of a female pope has yet to be confirmed. She emerged in the thirteenth century in literature and art, with the Catholic Church accepting the storyís reality until the sixteenth century when the Church then sought to suppress any reference to the woman Joan. This is believable because scholars and those who knew how to read and write at the time were men. A manís position in the eyes of the College and of God, had been violated. 

What might Joanís motivation have been? We may speculate that she held wisdom and learning in highest regard, but lived in a manís world. We might ponder the possibility of a vindictive woman, wronged by a member of the clergy, out to get vengeance. Whatever Joanís drive if indeed she did exist, is not determinable. What is of interest in this legend is the possibility of fooling what otherwise is seen as impenetrable. Another famous Joan in history cut her hair and took on the attributes of a soldier to get the job done. She didnít fool anyone with her gender, but she did become very mannish so as not to stand out among those who followed her and her visions. 

Joan may have seen a need for grander perspective in a time when narrowness of mind was an all-consuming trait in history. Itís unfortunate that no records seem to exist on the reforms or improvements to the Church during her Papacy. There is no mention of edicts or laws that she may have mavericked. 

Whether fact or fiction, Pope Joan lives. Her images grace art history, literature and legend. The Church may deny her existence (although a few Catholics have written on the subject) and history may treat her life as myth. No matter, because the IDEA of her infiltration of the Vatican and most high male office leaves us with a better look at human perseverance.

For more on Joan...

The Myth of Pope Joan


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