262: The Legend of Pope Joan by Peter Stanford

by Gerard

262.13: Stanford, Peter. The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. 185 pp. ISBN 0-8050-3910-4.

Dewey Construction:

  • 200: Religion
  • 260: Christian social and ecclesiastical theology
  • 262: Ecclesiology (Study of Church doctrine)
  • 262.1: Governing leaders of churches
  • 262.13: Papacy and patriarchate

While on vacation in Rome, journalist Peter Stanford , watching the people weave in and out of the piazza, came upon a peculiar phenomenon. Every once in a while, a woman would leave flowers at a small gate. Once he looked inside the gate, he saw a small sculpture obscured by the darkness. After consulting numerous travel guides, he discovered that this was the purported site of a very special aedicola (small shrine). The aedicola was the shrine of a woman who, legend has it, elected to be the Bishop of Rome. But the Bishop of Rome has another title—His Holiness The Pope.

Peter Stanford’s Legend of Pope Joan chronicles his investigative journey to find the truths (if any) around the possible popess. He starts with the medieval chroniclers of the 14th century. Every so often, there is a whisper of “Joan the English”, a female who donned a monk’s frock and eventually became the head of the Catholic Church. A piece here, a line of marginalia there, and soon a faint outline is visible through the haze of history.

Unfortunately, all this is for naught. Almost all of the references are just continuations of medieval folklore and Protestant tales used to discredit the Church. Also, they are 400 to 500 years after the supposed date of her election. There are no contemporaneous reports of Pope Joan. The fun, however, comes from the fun of the speculation. Stanford travels around Europe, exploring libraries and monasteries for clues and references to Joan. Most of them claim that Joan was elected to the papacy in 853 after a lifetime of hiding in a clergyman’s clothing. In 855 (as the story goes), she became pregnant (fathered by a local cardinal), hid it for a while, and on a ride through Rome (along the Vicus Papesse) gave birth. This came as a shock to her retinue. They discovered her true identity and had her executed for disgracing the Church.

A great deal of the work covers Church history and the role of women in it. From Hildegard of Bingen to modern historians, we see how the both the society and the Church have viewed the women that interact with them. Joan becomes the test case as Stanford guides us through her potential backstory and through the philosophy of the age. It was a slim book, but was packed with interesting ecclesiastical history.