Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Joan, 853 AD

According to legend, Pope Joan was a woman who concealed her gender and ruled as pope for two years, from 853-855 ad. Her identity was exposed when, riding one day from St. Peter's to the Lateran, she stopped by the side of the road and, to the astonishment of everyone, gave birth to a child.

The legend is unconfirmed. Skeptics note that the first references to Pope Joan only appear hundreds of years after her supposed reign. However, supporters argue that the Church may have attempted to erase all evidence of her existence from the historical record.

Who Was Pope Joan?

Pope Joan was said to have been born an Englishwoman. She concealed her gender to pursue her scholarly ambitions -- the life of a scholar not being allowed to a woman at that time. Calling herself John Anglicus, she travelled to Athens where she gained a reputation for her knowledge of the sciences. Eventually she came to lecture at the Trivium in Rome where her fame grew even larger. Still disguised as a man, she became a Cardinal, and when Pope Leo IV died in 853 ad was unanimously elected pope.

As Pope John VIII she ruled for two years. However, while riding one day from St. Peter's to the Lateran, she had to stop by the side of the road and supposedly gave birth to a child. According to one legend, upon discovering the Pope's true gender, the people of Rome tied her feet together and dragged her behind a horse while stoning her, until she died. Another legend has it that she was sent to a faraway convent to repent her sins and that the child she bore grew up to become the Bishop of Ostia.

True or False?

It is not known whether the story of Pope Joan is true. The first known reference to her occurs in the thirteenth century, 350 years after her supposed reign. Around this time her image also began to appear as the High Priestess card in the Tarot deck.

The Catholic Church at first seemed to accept the reality of Pope Joan. Marginal notes in a fifteenth century document refer to a statue called "The Woman Pope with Her Child" that was supposedly erected near the Lateran. There was also a rumor that, as a result of Pope Joan, for many years the chairs used during papal consecrations had holes in their seats, so that an official check of the pope's gender could be performed.

During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church began to deny the existence of Pope Joan. However, at the same time, Protestant writers insisted on her reality, primarily because the existence of a female pope was a convenient piece of anti-Catholic propaganda.

Modern scholars disagree about the historicity of Pope Joan.

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