Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Pontiff Ponderings

This one comes up pretty much any time someone finds out that I spent a lot of time studying the Medieval period when I was getting my degree. The conversation usually goes something along the lines of, "Oh, you studied Medieval church politics. Did they cover Pope Joan?" *smirk* *wink wink* You know, because we only studied *Catholic Church Approved* history at my... secular... state... university. 

For those of you who haven't heard of this one (it seems to be favored in the "I watch Game of Thrones so now I'm a Medievalist crowd" {no offense to the people who like Game of Thrones, but it's not exactly a shining example of Middle Ages accuracy}), Pope Joan is supposed to be a woman who managed to hide her sex and reign as Pope for a period of a little over 2 years. But she got pregnant and delivered a baby in the middle of a parade of some sort and then was stoned to death by the crowd. Or something like that, there are a few variations of the tale. 

The story often goes on to elaborate that the entire world has covered up her existence conspiracy-style because it would be embarrassing to the Catholic Church to admit her existence, so it's a secret known by a select few and the person I'm talking to just happen to be one of the few in the know. 


No, Pope Joan did not exist. 

The stories about her can't even agree on when she was supposed to be the Popess. Some stories put her in the mid-850s, others in the year 1100. And the earliest reference to her existence was centuries after from her most recent "reign."

Unfortunately, there are simply no gaps in the Papal record where you can fit her in. In the earliest date given for her reign, in the year 855, Leo IV died in July 855, and was followed by Benedict III, who was consecrated as Pope in September of the same year. [*]

The other given date for when she became Popess, 1100, is impossible, since Pope Paschal II was already on the throne at that point, and continued ruling until 1118.  

Pope Paschal II. Totally not a dude.

Incidentally, it's also recorded in the first written accounts of Pope Joan that after she was outed, "...in Brescia it rained blood for three days and nights. In France there appeared marvelous locusts, which had six wings and very powerful teeth. They flew miraculously through the air, and all drowned in the British Sea. The golden bodies were rejected by the waves of the sea and corrupted the air, so that a great many people died." (Chronica de le Vite de Pontefici et Imperadori Romani)

Unfortunately, nobody told the people of Brescia or France about these events, which nobody from the areas recorded. You'd think that it raining blood and swarms of golden locusts would have gotten some tongues wagging.

Saint Hildegard

So where did the idea of a woman Pope come from? Probably a mixture of sources. A little while after Pope Joan's supposed reign there was a very powerful and influential Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. There were men who didn't like the idea of a woman being so powerful in the church, and stories of her could have grown into malicious rumors over the years, going from a powerful Abbess to a Pope. 

Another cause for confusion is that there is a "missing" Pope John, John XX. This isn't the result of an "erased" Pope John though. There was bit of a mix-up with Pope John XVII also going as John XVI as well as XVIII (it was a really interesting time, politically. Kind of like Taiwan's status as a country today), so when the next Pope John came along, he was called John XVII, XVIII, and XIX. The next John tried to make things easier and just went with XVIII and XIX, but it was still a serious mess having to sign stuff as different numbers. 

Pope John XXI, "This is getting ridiculous you guys."

The name John fell out of favor for the papacy for the next two hundred years until the next Pope John decided to call himself John XXI so there would be no confusion over which John was really all of those mixtures of numbers with X, V, and I.[**] A couple people complained, but John XXI pointed out that this was his papacy, therefore his rules. Of course, that meant that the number of Pope Johns is wrong, but then everyone decided to just leave it as it was and then it's been mixed up ever since.[***] 

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