The Pregnant Pope - Mystery Files
The Year is 1099. The place is Rome, Italy. A Papal procession is slowly moving through the streets. The Holy Father is shifting uneasily in his sedia gestatoria - a sort of Sedan chair that is used to transport the Pope on processions such as this.
The procession is snaking through the alleys and backstreets when it becomes apparent to the entourage that all is not well with the Pope. His face contorts in agony as he lets out a scream of pain. The procession grinds to a halt in a backstreet somewhere between the Colosseum and the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The Holy Father's retinue rush to his aid, then watch in horror as the Pope gives birth to a child.
So runs the legend of Pope Joan, but is is true - was there ever a female Pope?
The Catholic Church have always denied that there was ever a female Pope, claiming that Pope Joan was merely a mythical figure, however, the chroniclers who, in their writings claim that a female Pope - Pope Joan did exist were no mere lightweight hacks, they were some of the most distinguished high-calibre writers of their time - Papal Chamberlains, Archbishops and Bishops.
Their stated motives in recording the story of the female Pope were simple historical accuracy. Critics point out that the first written records of the alleged incident were recorded some two to three hundred years after the event, but this is true of many (if not most) of the other Popes of the dark ages - Popes which the Catholic Church are happy to accept as genuine. Joan,the female Pope, however, is a different story.
Is the Catholic Church happy to accept all the other Popes and yet disregard Joan simply because she was shown to be a female pope?
Joan - the Female Pope
Officially, there has never been a female Pope, and only ever one English Pope -Pope Adrian IV in the 1150's. A number of Medieval chroniclers however, record another English Pope - John Anglicus (John the English) who they state reigned for exactly two years, seven months and four days from AD 855. But John was the Pope who was to later create panic and consternation within the Catholic Church when he was shown to be not John - but Joan - Not just a female, but a female pope!
The medieval writings tell that Joan was the daughter of English missionary parents who took her with them to the final resting place of St. Boniface at Fulda in Germany, and it is here that she was raised.
She was said to be extremely bright and spent most of her time in the many libraries that were founded by St. Bonniface. When she reached the age of twelve, she was told that it was now her duty to marry and produce children, and not to continue studying with the boy scholars.
She refused to do this and disguising herself in a long tunic complete with Monk's cowl, she ran away to continue her studies accompanied by a man described by some chroniclers as her teacher, by others as her lover - There is every chance of course, that he was both.
They travelled to Greece - One of the great educational centres of it's time - and it was said that Joan made a strong impression on all of Greece with her superior learning. She stayed in Greece until the 840's and then moved on - to Rome.
Her fame as a person of great learning grew and she came to the attention of Pope Leo IV (who, just like everyone else, was under the impression that she was a man). He was so impressed that he promoted her to his select inner circle.
She became a favourite of the Pope, and towards the end of his life, as he lay dying on his deathbed he recommended that John (Joan) should succeed him as the Holy Father. Largely thanks to this recommendation, she got the job and Joan became the first (and probably the last) female Pope - she was known as Pope John.
The "female Pope" was not recognised as such, her subterfuge was perfect. She was regarded a good ruler with powerful oration skills, and all was well - Until the fateful day that she gave birth to a child in the most public possible manner. Some versions of the story say that one of her Bishops (who was strongly suspected of being her lover), instead of coming clean and admitting that this was a female Pope, tried to placate the stunned onlookers by saying that it was all God's will - That God was perfectly capable of allowing men to have babies if it was part of his great plan to do so!
The Roman people were, by all accounts, unconvinced by the argument and, depending on which version you believe, The female Pope and her child was either put to death, or sent to live out her days (with her child) confined to a nunnery.
What evidence is there that the female Pope existed?
Although the Catholic Church insist that the female Pope Joan never existed, there are a number of strange items and customs associated with the office of Pope that perhaps suggest that a female Pope once reigned as pontiff.
- During Papal processions, it is said that the Pope will ritually turn his back on one particular Roman street. It is popularly known as "The Shunned Street" and contains a wayside shrine or "Edicola" which is said to be the spot where the female Pope Joan gave birth. Despite a 17th century attempt to re-dedicate the shrine with a statue of Our Lady, the site is still the main attraction for visitors seeking evidence of the Female Pope.
- In the Centre of St. Peter's in Rome, is an altar that is only ever used by the Pope. It has an altar-cover known as a "Baldaccino" which was produced in the 17th century by the sculptor Bernini, the base of which depict eight strange figures. Seven of the figures portray a woman's face, apparently in stages of agony - She is wearing a Papal crown (indicative of a female Pope). The eighth face however, is of a baby, beneath which is a representation of a large swollen belly. Beneath the belly there appears to be contracted folds of skin, giving the impression of a birth in progress.
- Hidden in the depths of the Vatican Museum is a very special chair. The "Stedia Stercoraria". This is a chair of an unusual design, a commode-like construction with a large keyhole shaped orifice cut into the middle of the seat. The seat is popularly known as "The Ball-Feeling Chair". It was used in the Election Ceremony for Popes. The method of it's use has been recorded by many medieval travellers: Before an appointment as Pope could be confirmed, the candidate had to disrobe and sit it the special chair. The youngest Deacon present would then be required to kneel down and reach under the chair to confirm that the candidate did possess testicles.
The obvious questions are - If there never was a female Pope, then:
- Why does the Pope turn away from "The Shunned Street"?
- What is being depicted on the "Baldaccino" in St. Peters?
- Why was the "Stedia Stercoraria" - the "Ball feeling Chair" deemed necessary?
There may be another rational explanation for all the above (other than the legend of the female Pope being true) - But I'll be honest with you - I can't think of one - Can You?
More Vatican Secrets
Some other Hubs in the "Mystery Files" Series
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