LEGEND or FOR REALSIES: Pope Joan

Photo Credit: reformation.org

Photo Credit: reformation.org

Most legends have roots in fact. Was there a King Arthur? Yes. Was he the vaunted king of old with round tables and wizards and Holy Grails? No. Was there a Robin Hood? Yes. Was he really an altruistic vigilante fighting for the little guy? Probably not, and his name was most likely not “Robin of the Hood”. Jesus Christ…. Well that is a topic for another day. For now, let me weave you a tale.

Sometime in 1099, an educated young daughter of a landowner falls in love with the third son of a nobleman. She is shamed for her near-spinster status (at the ripe old age of sixteen) and her father hasn’t sufficient dowry to make up for her old age. So the nobleman sends his son to join the clergy (as is tradition) and she is left bereft of her love. So she pursues him disguised as a man, and joins the priesthood. Due to her education and soft-spoken nature (educated women of the time were taught to be demure and gentle), she presented herself as a knowledgeable and kindly priest.
She and her lover hid their romance and her feminine nature for some time until eventually she had grown so popular amongst the people and the other clergy that she was selected to be the Holy Father…
The trouble was, she was pregnant. She and her lover had managed to hide this for some time but when Christ comes a knockin’ on your door with a pamphlet reading “So You’re Gonna’ Be the Pope” who are you to turn Him away?

As well you can imagine, this didn’t end well for our girl. She and her lover managed to hide the pregnancy right up til she came to term, but she went into labor during a processional and gave birth right there in front of God and EVERYBODY.
The rest is more or less history. Her secret was discovered. She was defrocked (or re-frocked depending on your point of view) and drummed out of the clergy. She died sometime later, the story is unclear whether it was natural causes or, ahem… unnatural. There are further tales that she was locked up in a little dungeon at the side of the street, i forget where but you can visit if you find it… stone building, red bars on the door. And the baby was snatched up and taken away by a kindly crowd-person to raise. Awwwww.

Did this story happen? For a long time, it was considered a part of historical record. But some folks noted that the first real record of Pope Joan (as she would come to be called) was some 300 years after her death. This would raise arguments over the validity of the claims that there had ever been a female pope. After the 1600’s, it was generally accepted that the whole thing was a falsehood.
And yet… to this day, new popes must prove their masculinity before ascending to their new role. Let’s not think too hard on that, but if the story WASN’T true, it had enough impact to cause something as disturbing to the mind’s eye as that. COULD it have happened? Probably. DID it happen? I honestly don’t know. The Catholic Church has proven in the past that it is not above covering up dirty little secrets. And stranger things have happened.
I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

AG