The legend of a female Pope is just that, a legend. From Larousse's Dictionary of World Folklore (via www.urbanlegends.com): "Pope Joan--Legendary female pontiff, said to have reigned as John VIII from 855 to 858 until her male disguise was exploded by labour pains. In fact Benedict III succeeded Leo IV in 855 after a period of only a few weeks.

"One of the earliest forms of the legend is found in the 13th century 'De septum donis Spiritu Sancti' ('The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit') by Stephen of Bourbon; according to him Joan was elected pope in Rome in c. 1100 after showing extraordinary learning as a scribe and notary, but upon giving birth during a papal procession to the Lateran Church her imposture was discovered and she was taken out of the city and stoned to death. Later accounts claimed that she died in childbirth during the procession, and it was said that subsequent popes avoided that street in their own papal processions. She was often known as Agnes or Gilberta or simply remained anonymous until the name Joan became the standard form in the 14th century.

"The most influential source for the legend was Martin of Troppen, a 13th-century Dominican, who named her as Johannes Angelicus, born of English parents in Mainz, and set the date of her election at 855. She disguised herself as a man to follow her beloved to Athens, where she trained. The legend was accepted as historical for many centuries, and seized upon by Protestant reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries, but after the 18th century the myth began to lose credibility. It has been suggested that the fable may have originated from satiric criticism of the influential female senator Marozia in 10th century Rome."

Another detail found in some versions of the legend is that supposedly all Popes since then have had to sit in a chair with a hole in the seat and have some other Church representative stick a hand through the hole, feel their genitals, and announce "Testiculos habet" ("he has testicles"). This ceremony does not really occur either.

Also a good short novel by Lawrence Durrell.

There is a book on the subject by a Catholic scholar, The Legend of Pope Joan: in search of the truth by Peter Stanford (Holt, 1999). Stanford is a serious scholar who set out to debunk the "legend" once and for all, but ended up believing that it was true. One review says, "Unable to prove conclusively that Joan and her papacy existed, he is nevertheless able to present a remarkably credible and convincing case on her behalf."

Since he is a published and reputable pro-RC scholar, he was given access to many Vatican documents and artifacts, and claims to have seen and sat in the chair described above, and he described how it was different from the below-mentioned "Roman toilet".

And btw, perhaps Segnbora-t recalls Benedict III coming quickly up the stairs, but I was not around back then, so I can't be as sure.

I have real trouble understanding how anyone could believe this a story like this one. First off the stoning death of 'Pope Joan' after giving birth during a public processional... Give me a break. We're supposed to think that she could not have come up with some excuse to be indisposed rather than being out on parade? It is one of those details that just scream "this is a legend". "Yeah, and then she had a baby when she was being carried around in her pope thingy. Then a mob killed her." "Whoa, gnarly." And of course the stories disagree on if she was in fact killed or even what she was doing when she had her son. (Who was either killed or went on to be a bishop.)

Next up the infamous marble throne, the sedia stercoraria, really was a throne of sorts. It was a Roman toilet for use with a chamber pot. Only a fool would fail to realize what this was used for. Or someone with very little historical (or practical) knowledge. If this is a big secret thing why would they have a chair installed? Why not a quiet disrobing back in the Sistine Chapel after his election?

Very compelling is the fact that the story didn't circulate before the 13th century. Was this real history one would expect some account a little closer than four centuries after the fact. Stories like this, or Jefferson having relations with a slave, are written about at the time. They do not just pop out of no where centuries later unless they are made up. So why are their shrines to her if she didn’t exist? Why do we put up plaques to Sherlock Holmes? Will someone think he was a real person in centuries hence just because there are cast bronzes of him in Baker Street?

In addition there is the inconvenient records of Pope Benedict III, the actual Vicar of Christ at the time. Everything from minted coins to paper records shows only Benedict III, there is not a Pope John VIII until AD 872. Nor is the fact that Martin of Polonus, an important historian, wrote about her in 1265 at all compelling. He is just repeating an urban legend he heard. Franklin D. Roosevelt, yes the president of the US, wrote about Sherlock Holmes as if he were real. Does that mean he was? Or because any of the hundreds of other noted scholars from our time have done the same?

Lastly there is the supposed credentials of Mr. Peter Stanford himself. He is the former editor of the Catholic Herald in London; does this prove that he would be inclined to be friendly to the church? No more than it would prove that I, a former Catholic, would be biased in favor the Vatican. Nor is being Catholic proof against believing nutty things, I think rather the opposite is true.

I'm no friend of the Roman Catholic Church, but this story belongs in the same category as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Amusing if you don't take it seriously and she was definitely not real.

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