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Tom Chaney. R758A review: The Legend of Pope Joan

Of Writers and Their Books No. R758: First appeared 15 April 2007 in the Hart County Herald.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Tom Chaney. No. R757: The Price of Murder, a review

By Tom Chaney

Below the horizon of the past

Peter Stanford, vacationing in Rome, borrowed a friend's apartment facing a small square near the church of Saint Clement. He became intrigued by a shrine about the size of a guard booth across the way. With a faded fresco of a Madonna and child, this edicola had the air of an unkempt country cemetery "once loved and tended but today forgotten by all but a handful of devoted souls."


A search of available guide books revealed but one reference to the place. "The whole house [was] pulled down by order of Pius IV in 1550.... The fact remains that for centuries the Romans told the story of how an Englishwoman called Joan succeeded in being elected as Pope John VIII."

Stanford, an English journalist who had been editor of the London newspaper The Catholic Herald, was off in search of the ninth century woman, named pope in 853 whose disguise, according to legend, was revealed when she gave birth to a son in the street in front of Stanford's lodging. Papal processions for centuries turned aside to avoid passing the site of this most uncomfortable event in the holy succession.

Thus Peter Stanford traces the mystery of the holy she in his fascinating book The Legend of Pope Joan (Berkley Books, 1999).

Search though he might, no contemporary documentation of Joan/John was to be found. The earliest references were made in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries -- the latter by Martin Polonus -- both before the Reformation. The tale of Joan was picked up by various protestants who used the story to reinforce the corruption of Rome.

In distilling the legends Stanford argues that Joan was German, not English -- probably the daughter of an English missionary sent to the heathen Germans at Fulda. The doors of the church, once open to women scholars and leaders, were closing. Joan assumed the disguise of a man in order to pursue her career as a scholar. She studied in Greece; was fluent in several languages; and came to Rome where she rose in the church to the point of election to its highest office upon the death of Pope Leo IV.

"Fact and fiction, reality and myth," Stanford poses. "The word myth, often employed in the context of Pope Joan, is much abused in our own times." It is often taken to refer to something which is not true, "only a myth. Yet in the classical world and in various religions and popular cultures for centuries thereafter, myths had a much more positive purpose -- to illustrate a truth through events which may be partially true but also substantially embellished.... It [mythology] had a broader purpose -- to build on events or human experience to draw out realities that are perhaps too elusive to be discussed or even faced in a logical and coherent fashion."

The story of Joan is not black or white; not true or false; not reality or myth. Potentially she was an historic character at the "centre of a myth in the old fashioned sense" recreated for a series of purposes in different periods.

"While this is a distraction and an obstacle for the investigator trying to ascertain whether Pope Joan ever existed, it could not be a wholly negative process. Without it Joan might have disappeared over the historical horizon altogether."

Stanford continues to examine the legend or myth of Joan from the early ecclesiastical attempts to banish her from memory, through the protestant attacks on the church, to the adoption of Joan by feminists seeking to advance their own cause in the twentieth century.

He traces the dramatic and fictional use of the story of Pope Joan in the last couple of centuries. Bertolt Brecht as a young playwright in 1921 considered Joan as a topic for the stage. He was frustrated by the lack of contemporary information.

In 1982 Caryl Churchill's play Top Girls portrayed Joan as a solemn, unforgiving, masculine creature who drinks too much. The play was later produced by Joseph Papp's theatre in New York.

In 1995 Christopher Moore produced the musical Pope Joan in Chicago. A frank celebration of the female pope, it was picked up by the producer of Hair and given a larger-scale production in Chicago. Director David Zak saw Joan as the equivalent of the modern woman in business finding her career blocked by the glass ceiling.

Joan's most enduring role has been as one of the stars on her own tarot card. One reader consulted by Stanford saw the popess card as akin to the joker -- the odd one out, unpredictable, a keeper of secrets.

The historical Joan, therefore, has vanished from tangible view much as the towers of a coastal city vanish below the horizon in the wake of a ship sailing out of port.

"I am convinced," concludes Stanford, "that Pope Joan was an historical figure, though perhaps not all the details about her that have been passed on down the centuries are true.... With such an uncomfortable slice of history as Joan -- comprising equal measures of fact, distorted fact and the subsequent embroidery of well-natured but unsatisfactory fiction -- chronology cannot be all.

"A dancer to different tunes down the ages, Joan has fitted the mood of many periods, be they anti-clerical, anti-Catholic, feminist, romantic or erotic."

Stanford comes in the end to a middle point. "She achieved the papacy at a time when the office was hopelessly debased and corrupt, was moderately successful but that her triumph was short lived."

Her tenure is no more obscure, he observes, than many another pontiff of the age.

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This story was posted on 2012-04-15 10:13:02
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