Monday, June 4, 2007

Pope Joan

The myth of the woman, who disguised as a man, sat enthroned as Pope in the Vatican; her identity only being discovered when she gave birth.

And it is just that - a myth. Whilst it would have been quite a feat for a woman to sit atop the throne of St Peter, the legend actually became current approximately 400 years after the so-called fact.

Looking at the Papal lists for the 9th Century:

St. Leo III (r.26/12/795 - 12/6/816) - the Pope who crowned Charlemagne (800).
Stephen IV (V) (r. 22/6/816 - 14/1/817) - crowned Louis the Pious (816).
St. Paschal I (r.25/1/817 - 11/2/824) - met Lothair, son of Emperor Louis (823).
Eugenius II (r.21/2/824 - 27/8/827) - papacy under direct control of the Emperor.
Valentine (r. August - September 827).
Gregory IV (r. October 827 - 25/1/844) - reign of Anti-Pope John VIII, a deacon, who though elected was quickly expelled (January 844).
Sergius II (r. January 844 - 21/1/847) - considered one of the most corrupt Popes.

The reigns of Leo IV (r. January 847 - July 855) and Benedict III (r.29/9/855 - April 858) were fairly fluid - Hadrian, Cardinal Priest of San Marco was elected but refused to accept (July - September 855) and so elections were re-held and Benedict III ascended the papal throne. There did coincide the reign of Antipope Anastasius (r.855) - but his election was due mainly to political interference, and he was deposed.

St. Nicholas I (r.24/4/858 - 13/11/867) - this was Hadrian, who previously refused his election - this time the issue was forced by Emperor Louis II.
Hadrian II (r.14/12/867 - 14/12/872) - not to be confused with Pope Nicholas I - he was, however, related to both Popes Stephen IV and Sergius II.
John VIII (r.14/12/872 - 16/12/882) - one of the first Popes to be assassinated.
Marinus I (r.16/12/882 - 15/5/884) - election approved by Emperor Charles III.
Hardian III (r.17/5/884- 17/9/885 - mysterious death.
Stephen V (VI) (r. September 885 - 14/9/891) -deposition of Emperor Charles III (887).
Formosus (r.6/10/891 - 4/4/896) - notorious for the circumstances following his death (see: Pope Stephen VI).
Boniface V (r. April 896) - twice defrocked for immorality.
Stephen VI (r. May 896 - August 897) - notorious exhumation and trial of predecessor, Formosus.
Romanus (r. August - November 897) - deposed, imprisoned and murdered.
Theodore II (r. November - December 897) - rehabilitated Formosus and denounced Stephen VI.
John IX (r. January 898 - January 900) - irregularity of election - one Sergius was elected then expelled prior to John’s accession.

The Chroniclers of the times make no mention of a Pope Joan - the Papacy was in a constant state of factional turmoil. Popes were being elected and deposed with an unseemly regularity. Their reigns were often not deserving of the sometime saintly aura with which they are remembered. And add to this the controversy surrounding the enthronement of Empress Irene on the Imperial throne in Constantinople (800), no women would easily ascended the Papal throne without her sex going unnoticed.

The Theophylact women of Rome "ruled" the papacy for a period of approx. 30 years over 100 years after Pope Joan was said to have reigned. However, the Papacy has a (centuries) long history of Imperial and political domination and manipulation by men. No Pope John Doe legends abound - just plenty of Anti-Popes!

Wikipedia, though not a source that I would rely upon, has a rather interesting little note in it's Pope Joan article:

It is also notable that enemies of the Papacy in the 9th century make no mention of the female Pope. For example, Photius I of Constantinople, who became patriarch in 858 and was deposed by Pope Nicholas I in 863, was understandably an enemy of the Pope. He vehemently asserted his own authority as patriarch over that of the Pope in Rome, and would certainly have made the most of any scandal of that time regarding the Papacy. But he never mentions the story once in any of his voluminous writings. Indeed, at one point he mentions "Leo and Benedict, successively great priests of the Roman Church".

So, just like today, scandal makes the headlines - and in this instance, there was no mention of the scandalous reign of a female Pope. And also like today, making political mileage of ones enemies was a powerful political tool in the 9th Century, and it was a tool that was used without remorselessly.

Acquisition of the Papal throne was just as important as the attainment of any secular throne. It meant power and prestige, and for some, it meant the achievement of sainthood. It was not accepted lightly, and when attained, it was not given up without a fight.

~~~ Melisende (first pub: 29/12/2005)

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