If Pope Joan — the notorious feminine pope of the ninth century – didn’t exist, you possibly can see why somebody would have needed to invent her.
For the Catholic Church, she grew to become a narrative of why girls shouldn’t be allowed to carry energy; for the Protestants, she was a useful argument in opposition to falsehoods embedded within the papacy.
A girl who inveigled her manner onto St Peter’s throne, some stated the “Popess” was English; others German. A well-liked medieval model of her story has her gender “found” throughout a papal procession as a result of she offers delivery whereas attempting to mount her horse.
Was Joan actual? In all probability not. Does it matter? In all probability not that a lot both. Her story tells us one thing necessary about wider attitudes to intercourse and gender in pre-modern Christian Europe.
However the story’s on-going reputation additionally reveals one thing of our personal fascination with arcane and seemingly inflexible gender-boundaries within the Catholic Church.
A determine of satire
Possible, Joan was born of a really Roman love of satire. Romans have excoriated political leaders for hundreds of years by posting humorous verses on the so-called “speaking statue” of Pasquino exterior Piazza Navona.
Gendered tropes and sexual obscenities generally punctuated these literary efforts. The humanist Niccolò Franco (1515-70) penned one which started “the pope, and all his prelates, are buggers.”
Pope Pius V had him executed.
A Seventeenth-century pamphlet memorably imagines the cardinals in an on-going conclave as whores who combat for management of the bordello.
Joan is simply the grand outdated dame of such creations.
Joan’s story first appeared within the chronicle of a Dominican friar in 1255. Nonetheless, it’s most likely a century older from a interval of upheaval when popes sought to consolidate their rule over Rome.
Many Romans resisted the pope’s encroaching authority and used Joan as a weapon to mock their priestly overlord. They drew on previous scandals, notably the tenth century’s “pornocracy” or “rule of the harlots” when the papacy got here beneath the management of Theodora, spouse of the Roman consul Theophylactus, and her daughter Marozia.
Theodora helped set up Sergius III as pope in 904 with Marozia as his concubine. Marozia’s son later grew to become Pope John XI (931-35) and her grandson Pope John XII (955-64).
Joan’s story might be learn as an allegory for these occasions when a girl actually had been in management.
Let’s speak about intercourse
Joan additionally speaks to Christianity’s wider drawback with intercourse.
Early Christians fused Greek philosophy with Jewish lore – however they took their sexual ethics from Aristotle, who was not altogether eager on the pleasurable act.
Joan, the promiscuous she-pope whose cervix dilated within the midst of performing sacred duties, was the very antithesis of the right Christian virgin.
Sixteenth-century Reformation Protestants seized on this distinction with Christian teachings to quote her as proof of the papacy’s primarily corrupt nature: verily, she linked it to the biblical Whore of Babylon.
But Catholics noticed a unique parallel for Joan: Queen Elizabeth I of England, a girl who by no means married nor produced an inheritor. Her Act of Supremacy (1559) had set her up as “Popess” of her personal Anglican Church.
Joan and Elizabeth have been painted as heretics, going in opposition to Church teachings. And, requested the Catholics, might Elizabeth actually be any purer or extra virginal than the Joan of legend?
What makes a person?
Each Protestants and Catholics additionally requested: might a girl actually have fooled males in the way in which Joan is claimed to have achieved?
Protestants — adamant she actually existed — reached into the historic file for examples of feminine cross-dressing comparable to Joan’s infamous namesake Joan of Arc.
Some speculated beardless Italians have been so effeminate that Joan’s deception of them was fairly plausible. Others pointed to the wealth of accounts of Joan’s life in chronicles from earlier than the Reformation which they thought inconceivable to refute.
They even discovered assist in descriptions by Renaissance humanists of the sedia stercoraria, a seat with a gap in its centre utilized in papal coronations.
Was its objective to examine the brand new pope’s genitalia, they requested? And why would this must be confirmed, until that had ever been questioned?
Joan personified the Catholic Church’s primarily patriarchal nature. Her custom grew to become the exception to show the rule.
By the 18th century a consensus step by step emerged amongst each Catholics and Protestants that Joan’s life was purely fictional. Nonetheless, immediately Joan continues to encourage as each sensation and image.
Some take into account Joan a feminist pioneer, others see her as an early transgender determine.
Two Pope Joan movies, in 1972 and 2009, current her as a feminist character. And Rihanna confirmed as much as the 2018 Met Gala in a gender-bending pope outfit that strongly implied this, too.
However a transgender Joan has now had her personal play and impressed the crowning cliché in Robert Harris’ thriller Conclave (2016).
Because the Catholic Church lastly confronts the yawning hole between the views of the Catholic trustworthy and its personal teachings on intercourse and gender, Joan could possibly be a pope for the twenty first century.
Earlier this month a French nun grew to become the primary lady to carry a voting place on the Vatican.
However an precise feminine pope presiding over mass in St Peter’s? Don’t rely on her any time quickly.
Miles Pattenden has beforehand obtained analysis funding from the British Academy, the European Fee, and the Authorities of Spain.