Pope Joan Discussion August 1996

Query From Caroline Nachman caroline@sgn.com 16 August 1996


I was recently informed of a 9th century pope, a woman named joan, who masqueraded as a man while she held office. There is a musical called "Pope Joan," whose creators insist that she really existed, it is not just legend. I would like more info on the subject. Thank you.

>From Kimberli Pollard-Smith Pollard@sonoma.edu 19 August 1996

Regarding Pope Joan--there is a bio coming out this fall on her. Unfortunately I don't remember the author or the publisher, but possibly a uc press title.

>From Carolyn Brewer carolyn@central.murdoch.edu.au 19 August 1996

It appears there really was a Pope Joan. Her biological sex was discovered when she gave birth to a child during a procession of some sort - after which I believe she was executed. There was a film on the TV recently in which her story was told - but it was included in a whole pile of other information about women in the church and I don't recall the title.

Rumour has it that the biological sex of a newly elected pope has to be checked to make sure that it doesn't happen again. To do this I understand the pope-elect had to stand on a mirror. I suspect there are different examination procedures today!!

>From Diana Paton diana@minerva.cis.yale.edu 19 August 1996

I don't know about empirical sources on Pope Joan, but take a look at Caryl Churchill's play Top Girls. Pope Joan is one of the characters.

>From Patricia Lorcin plorci19@sefl.satelnet.org 19 August 1996

Lawrence Durrell's Pope Joan (1962) is a translation of Emmanuel Roydis' "life" of Pope Joan based on the legend that Pope John VIII was a woman. As well as being a good read, the preface might provide you with clues to further sources. Good luck.

>From Jo Ann McNamara jmcnamar@shiva.hunter.cuny.edu 19 August 1996

There was no such person and there never could have been such a person since popes were connected to the family politics of Rome far too intensely for an unknown person to achieve much status. The real scandal of the period (thought I personally consider it false witness) was the sexual politics of the leading women of Rome who did, in fact, seem to have had a dominant voice in the appointment of one or more popes due to their high social standing. For an account of the "Pope Joan" story as a product of the late eleventh century misogyny see Cesare Onofrio La Papessa Giovanna (Rome: Romana Societa Editrice, 1979). For the context in which it evolved see my article, "Canossa" in Render Unto Caesar, edited by Sabrina P. Ramet and Donald Threadgold, (Washington: American U Press, 1995).

>From Kathryn Wagnild Fuller LIKWF@ttacs1.ttu.edu 19 August 1996

I don't have any biographical information on Pope Joan but she was among the women featured in Caryl Churchill's play "Top Girls" that came out in the early 1980s.

>From Irene Stuber istuber@cswnet.com 20 August 1996

In my various readings for Women of Achievement and Herstory, the authenticity of Pope Joan appears to have been an accepted part of Catholic folklore until the Reformation when the new religions took a much harder view of women and women's place. (Note the many pre-Luther paintings, etc of the trinity with Mary.) The Catholic Church then became more hard-line and began to denigrate women's place in society in keeping with the protestant philosophies of Luther, Knox, etc.

My sources on this got lost with my hard drive crash of a couple of years ago so I'm going by memory. Church histories rather than women's history books should be consulted since so many of the latter are distant cousins to secondary sources.

The legend of Pope Joan giving birth is obviously a male tale addition since any woman having given birth knows that such an occurrence is pretty fantastic. Only a man without experience around real women would think that giving birth is that simple. (And how did she GET pregnant without someone saying something? There weren't many doors in those days.)

The proofing of a Pope's sex is not, however,far fetched in light of the Roman Catholic Church tradition of accepting that there was indeed a woman pope or person with somewhat female genitalia.

>From Jo Ann McNamara jmcnamara@shiva.Hunter.Cuny.Edu 21 August 1996

I'm sorry to do this again, but I can't say it loud enough. There was never a Pope Joan. It is unthinkable that the Catholic Church would even have accepted a woman as a priest let alone a pope.

The story and the pregnancy cannot be separated. The pregnancy is the whole point of the story. It is a scurrilous tale that seems to have begun circulating late in the eleventh century. Naturally, it is set vaguely in some earlier period, usually prior to the mid-tenth century, probably to take advantage of other scurrilous stories circulated by imperialist chroniclers about the papacy before its "cleansing" by the German emperors. Those contemporary stories, however, concern the womanizing exploits of various popes, particularly their putative liaisons with Roman noblewomen. The story rises out of an atmosphere of intense misogyny surrounding the investiture conflict and the imposition of celibacy on the clergy. Its purpose seems to be to warn the clergy that any impingement of females on the clerical precinct would have direst consequences.

The "sexing of the popes" is another canard that seems to arise from a mistaken proto-archeologist's interpretation of a marble latrine chair found in the vicinity of the Lateran palace.

I cannot imagine why feminists want to perpetuate this story or why any historians would for a moment accept a tale so completely lacking in authenticating sources.

>From Maria Elena Raymond 73113.1362@compuserve.com 22 August 1996

I've noted with interest Jo Ann McNamara's emphatic denials that a person named "Pope Joan" existed. Just as Jo Ann has stated she can't believe feminists would want to perpetuate a story without any substantiation of any kind...I would like to know of substantiation showing she *didn't* exist...and I would like more reference that Jo Ann's own article...*with all due respect to Jo Ann* and her work. As a journalist, and an historian, I would like more than one source of proof...either way. FWIW, Maria Elena

>From Jo Ann McNamara jmcnamar@shiva.hunter.cuny.edu 23 August 1996

The d'Onofrio book I cited in my first message is the best survey of the subject. The proof that this never happened is that no such thing appears in any contemporary source--indeed, no later source has enough specific information about the time of the so-called papacy or even the papal name that the putative Joan masqueraded under. My own article is only a background piece in regard to this subject where I use the story as evidence for the misogynistic atmosphere of the investiture period.

The papacy is the world's oldest and best record keeper and they do keep track of every pop since Peter (though the first and second century entries have always been looked at with a bit of skepticism). It is also the world's oldest political football. The period in question is full of scandal concerning fornicating popes, heretical popes, simoniacal popes--nobody is doing a whitewash.

The amusing thing about urban legends is that they cannot be disproved. No one has ever demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the New York sewers are not haunted by ravening alligators. No one has ever proved that inquisitive aliens do not regularly abduct nubile human women. But that does not give us license to invent history.

>From Paul Halsall halsall@murray.fordham.edu 23 August 1996

Can Maria Elena *prove* that anyone *did not exist*? Rapunzel for instance, or Cinderella?

The epistemological implications of arguing that historians not only have to show reasons for holding opinions, or for certifying facts, but also be willing to *disprove* any given suggested statement about the past are sufficient to bring about an immediate end to the historical enterprise and its immediate replacement with faux-mythmaking.

Pope Joan did not exist because the circumstances of the origin of the myth [discussed by the way, in some detail on Mediev-l a year or so ago, and available viz Alta Vista Searches of its archives] are known and explicable.

>From Larry Ingle lingle@cecasun.utc.edu 23 August 1996

I am no authority on the alleged "Pope Joan," but I do know that it is impossible to prove a negative. How would Jo Ann McNamara do so? My impression is that she was moving us in the right direction, by inquiring why people keep insisting that "Pope Joan" did exist. Where did the story arise? Who started it? What were their motives? Why does it persist? These seem to me to be the important questions.

>From Pamela Anne McVay gq342@cleveland.Freenet.edu 23 August 1996

With, on my own part, all due respect to Maria Elena Raymond, I would like to know how she imagines medieval historians can possibly prove that Pope Joan never existed. Things that never happened outside people's imaginations don't leave records. It is enough for me, frankly, that I have never met a medievalist, church historian, or specialist in medieval women's history who thought the Pope Joan myth was true, or found one who said they thought it might be true in writing. This myth has such a low credibility among medievalists that I, as a hanger-on who does the early modern period but reads in the period and attends medieval sessions at conferences, have never even heard Pope Joan brought up, except possibly in terms of the literary analysis of misogynist writing. Only non-medievalists ever bring up the Pope Joan story as if it had some basis in fact. I am sure Jo Ann McNamara can provide more insight into the question than she has, but as a sister historian of pre-modern Europe I find all her (briefly stated) reasons for rejecting the story extremely plausible. Not only is it highly unlikely that any female person could have been chosen as pope without everyone in her family and the highest circles of Roman society being aware of it, but it is also telling that Pope Joan stories were written as part of an anti-papal campaign. How can we possible accept the story as if it were real evidence?

>From Irene Stuber istuber@cswnet.com 26 August 1996

One of the things not taken into account regarding "urban legends" or ancient legends is the very practical, albeit not 100% accurate, "old wives tales." In almost every one of the "old wives tales" is a shred of truth.

We are sometimes so trained to think along the set paths of logic that we fail to use some innovative thinking. We take so many things for granted that we fail to see the fallacy in our thinking. Rather than wonder if there is sound because no one hears a tree fall in an empty forest, one might wonder why we continue to say things that, upon second thought, are patently absurd.

Why, if it only legend, did Pope Joan get invented? Why, if it is anti-papist was it an accepted fact for so many centuries and did not fall into disrepute after the reformation.

Of course it is not easy to disprove something that didn't exist, but in analyzing the Joan legend-the child birth in a procession-one has something that defies common sense UNLESS one realizes that such a legend would have been conceived by someone who wasn't familiar with child birth, i.e., men in an isolated area such as monasteries. Few, if any women, could have invented such a turn of events.

The shame, shock, horror and immediate death would hit upon the most centrist part of misogyny, i.e., women's wombs and her ability to produce those little people.

Another point is to figure out what the NEED was for a particular legend. This out of hand dismissal of urban legends ignores the nature of legends. Rather than dismiss the Pope Joan legend with self-serving documents in the papal archives, one might ask, "What was the NEED for the Pope Joan legend?" Surely not women's rights, nor to, in any way, glorify women.

Would it not have been a warning much in the same way the latest papal letter told women to be ladylike and butt out of the priesthood? -Irene Stuber- who neither believes nor disbelieves that there was a female pope, only that such legends (as the legend of Eve) were crafted as powerful tools to impress and train behavior at a subconscious level.

>From David Doughan doughan@lgu.ac.uk 27 August 1996

Sorry to come to this discussion late-I've just been on leave. I also am no mediaevalist, so I'm in no position to judge this question myself. However, I see that nobody mentioned Joan Morris' Pope John VIII: an English Woman (London: Vrai Publishers, 1985), which does at least put the case for considering the matter. Joan Morris, by the way, was herself a Catholic feminist and the author of (among other things) Against Nature and God, A History of Women with Clerical Ordination. Do I take it from the foregoing discussion that the points she raises have been considered and found erroneous? I'd welcome enlightenment.

>From Pamela McVay gq342@cleveland.Freenet.edu 27 August 1996

I'm almost completely mystified by Irene Stuber's last comment. How does the Pope Joan legend, apparently created by men, relate to "old wives tales"? And how does the discussion we've had about Pope Joan relate to dismissing "old wives tales" as irrelevant? Did I misunderstand the various posts? I thought we were discussing 1) whether the legend was true and 2) what meaning it may have had. Certainly several of us, including me, have dismissed it as untrue, but I don't think anyone here, especially McNamara, who obviously thought it important enough to write an article about, can be characterized as having "dismissed" the legend as uninteresting. Or is Stuber saying that just because the legend is untrue doesn't mean it's uninteresting?

>From Maria Elena Raymond 73113.1362@compuserve.com 03 Sept 1996

I'm sorry I wasn't here to respond more promptly, but I *do* appreciate everyone's effort to point out the impossibility of proving a negative. I especially appreciate Jo Ann McNamara's expansion of her original explanation. It's helpful to me to have as much information as possible when I'm learning new things. Thanks very much.

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