Faithful Through the Ages - Friday, January 24, 2014
Pope Joan - Legend and Legacy
That a woman would sit in the papal throne is not so inconceivable in light of the fact that some popes in this era were unordained teenagers. Furthermore, women often held an honored place in the church, sometimes, like Lioba, overseeing large monastic complexes.
John Anglicus was reportedly an English scientist who relocated in Rome and gained a reputation for erudite scholarship. His status and renown paved the way for church office. Indeed, the scientist soon became a cardinal and, with the death of Pope Leo IV, was elevated to the papacy in 853. All went well until one day, while in procession to the Lateran from St. Peter's Basilica, the carriage was forced to make a quick stop while the pope gave birth to a baby "in a narrow lane between the Coliseum and St Clement's church." One of the earlier sources tells the story with a slightly different slant. She "disguised herself as a man and became, by her character and talents, a curial secretary, then a cardinal, and finally pope. One day, while mounting a horse, she gave birth to a child."
Following the birth, the narrative is muddled. Pope John VIII, who was actually Pope Joan, reigned for less than three years. But when she was found to be disguising herself as a man, there was no mercy. By one account she was tied by the feet and dragged over the cobblestones while citizens of Rome stone her to death. She was then buried at the very spot where she gave birth—the whereabouts of the baby unknown. She was not "placed on the list of the holy pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter." Another version suggests a more humane post-partum ending. She was secreted away to an undisclosed convent, where she repented and raised her son, who grew up to become bishop of Ostia.
From the thirteenth century into the Renaissance, the report of Pappess Joanna was widely disseminated—in one instance to defend a pope who was a heretic. If being a woman does not disqualify one from being pope, so the argument went, why should heresy? Although the church officially denied the account, the rumors persisted—one asserting that for a time there was a statue near the Lateran called "The Woman Pope with Her Child." Likewise, the church was rumored to be so nervous about the possibility of electing another woman pope that the chair used for the papal consecration was designed with a hole so that an inspector can verify gender with certainty. Sixteenth-century Reformers used the story to disparage the church. Since that time the account of the female pope has continued to resurface, but it is generally considered to be no more than a fascinating, albeit false, story.