Friday, December 30, 2005Anyone else out there catch last night's Diane Sawyer ABC Primetime special on "The Mystery of Pope Joan"? I have to confess I'd heard bits and pieces about the legend of the 'female pope' for years, so I wasn't too surprised the show wasn't entirely enlightening on the matter. Despite heated contentions from both sides, no one knows if there really was a 9th Century German woman named Johanna who ascended to the pontificate, only to be murdered by a mob two years later after giving birth on a Roman road. We'll probably never know for certain, but what's truly interesting is the subtext and tenacity of the legend - and its modern day context.
Why a "Pope Joan" special now? Maybe the attention surrounding Pope Benedict XVI's extension of the traditional Catholic "hard line" and crackdown on gays in the church, or maybe the fact a major Hollywood film about the Pope Joan legend is in the works? [Liv Ullmann starred in an obscure 1972 film on the topic, according to IMDb, and Harry Ufland ("Last Temptation of Christ") is reputed to have been associated with the new project for several years] My thoughts:
A quick Google reveals the Pope Joan legend is often cited as an example of "rampant anti-Catholicism." Why "Anti-Catholic"? Because it suggests that Church officials could have been duped by a mere woman? Because it seems so improbable that a female could rise through the ranks unnoticed, and if she did, that the evidence of her existence could have been erased over the centuries?
First of all, let's try to get rid of the Hollywood image of the story, where we imagine that some Angelina Jolie in sackcloth managed to fool the Fathers with a little feminine wile and chest-binding. This being the 9th Century, our Joan of legend (like everyone else) probably looked far older than her years, and like all clergy wore baggy multiple layers of heavy clothing year-round. With apologies to my fellow Central European sisters, some of us in our later years would have no problem passing as old men, even in silk babushkas - and remember, this is the Modern Age. Think of what Pope Iohannis Anglicus ("English John" after the British missionaries who reportedly brought Christianity to Joan's hometown of Mainz, Germany) - er, Joan, might have looked like back then, sans Clairol and waxing?
In all seriousness, there are many true historical accounts of cross-dressing women who "passed" as men undetected for years; and when a woman's inner desire for existence and self-actualization collides with a horribly misogynist historical period, there's no telling what a gal would do. [There's an interesting French-language site on La Papesse Jeanne. If you prefer to brave goofy autotranslation, click here for an "English" version. Also, check out this German Päpstin Johanna page with numerous historical images.]
As for the improbability of Pope Joan's existence being erased from historical records, consider this: in our world of rapid travel, ubiquitous communications, redundant electronic records and the Internet, "facts" and even people still seem to disappear around the world with startling ease. Go back over a thousand years, to days when literacy and recordkeeping were confined to the clergy and a fraction of the rich, and when there was essentially no means of communication between geographical regions. Is it really that improbable that the facts of a person's existence - even a Pope's - could be nullified with a little creative book-cooking and ecclesiastical housecleaning? I think not. The Dark Ages were "dark" for many reasons, not least of which were the epoch's propensity for silencing and secrecy.
We know news shows are designed to squeeze and tease the audience into watching the entire program, but how (un?)intentionally funny and adolescent was it that the Primetime show bumpers continually alluded to the "mysterious chair used to test the Pope's manhood"? In the
Yes, ABC basically kept viewers glued to the screen for a full hour by suggesting we were going to discuss a secret ritual where a church deacon fondles the new Pope's goolies in full view of the assembled Conclave, exclaiming the Latin equivalent of *"he has testicles, and they hang well!" Now, does this sound more like a ceremony fit for the solemn Roman Church - or a bad college fraternity hazing rite?
One would think that if male gonads were so essential to Church status, proving one's biological manhood would be required much earlier in process; say, upon entry to the priesthood? Would the Conclave truly wait until the white smoke rose before checking if the papabile was a he or a she? If there actually were a "testiculos habet" ritual, I would wager its purpose was more to weed out the eunuchs and castrati rather than the women. Some say the proper utterance is actually, "Duos testiculos habet...," or "he has two testicles" - perhaps an allusion to the ancient Levitical constraint that those with "crushed" (injured, or even undescended) testicles are among the many imperfect souls who must not approach a holy altar.
It seems the chair exists, but is it really a ritual "sorting hat," so to speak? Given the "Coronation Chair's" Latin name of record, the sedia stercoraria, I suspect its true purpose it something far less divine. Yes: it's probably a commode of a design common to the Medieval era. A Pontifical Pooper, if you will. [If you don't believe me, look up the Latin root of the term "stercoraceous."] One gentleman on the Primetime special tried to tell Diane Sawyer that the chair is actually a "sella obstetrica," an old obstetric chair used by women during childbirth.
Perhaps it was, but why on Earth would the new Pope sit on an obstetric chair, of all things, at his coronation? One intervew-ee said the porphyry chair [same Latin root that gives us the word "porphyria," the name of the rare real-life blood disorder claimed to be the source of many vampire legends] was used because it was made of the rarest, most expensive form of purple stone known (but a toilet??)
Another scholar explained to Sawyer that the Church used the chair as an allegorical symbol of the new "Holy Father giving birth to the Mother Church." Eh? Sawyer all but laughed in his face. Now, if that doesn't sound like a mixed message with its roots in pagan female-centered religions, I don't know what does. In sum, questioning the history of the "Pope Joan" legend is no more "Anti-Catholic" than questioning the reasons we've gone war in Iraq is "Anti-American." Ahem...let me rephrase that. In any case, a historical instance of a cross-dressing female Pope might be no more sacrilegious than some of the other odd folk who are reputed to have been Pontiff over the centuries.
To paraphrase an old saying, "if Pope Joan never existed, it may have been necessary to invent her." I shall leave you dangling on that note, so to speak. Have a safe and wonderful New Year's Day!