Was there a female pope?

Announcer: Welcome to "Stuff you Missed in History Class," from How Stuff Works dot com.

Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And starting this one on a bit of a personal note. When I was a little kid, I really liked learning the stories of Catholic Saints especially the female saints. And my favorite was Tekla, who I chose as my confirmation name. They tried to kill her multiple times, but she simply refused to die. But one story I had never heard was that of a female pope, but I would have if I'd grown up in the Middle Ages.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, the story of this woman pope popped up near the end of the 13th century, although her time of rule was said to be much earlier, probably the 800s. She's supposed to be German born, but English lineage, and that sums up most of the details that we know about her.

Katie Lambert: And there are many, many variations on this story, but we're going to give you the basics. So when Joan - who's also known as Agnes Gilberta and several other names - was a young woman, she fell in love, and the man she loved was a scholar. Wanting to be with him, she followed him to Athens. But she was a woman, so she couldn't be in this rarefied atmosphere of learning in this Benedictine monastery. And in a story worthy of Shakespeare, she dressed herself as a man, moving up through the ranks at this monastery because she was just so brilliant! And eventually, she reached Rome and the highest position of all in the Roman Church, Pope.

Sarah Dowdy: And supposedly she was Pope for two years. And then the shocking scene happens. During a religious procession from Saint Peter's Basilica, she gives birth while on a horse.

Katie Lambert: What is with the horse stories [inaudible]?

Sarah Dowdy: I don't know. They keep popping up. So she's a sinner. She's a liar, and she's Pope, which makes it so much more embarrassing. She met her demise in one of two ways. She was either sent to a convent, or the Roman's dragged her behind the horse until she died, and stoned her. And perhaps that baby lived, perhaps he did not. But if he did, he became a bishop.

Katie Lambert: So there's the basic story. Again, there are a lot of variations on it. It's pretty crazy isn't it?

Sarah Dowdy: Well and whether you believe it or not, people during the Middle Ages definitely did. And they were encouraged to believe it by the Church. This was considered a very good example of why women needed to remain subordinate to men. Clearly, she was unfit to be the head of the Roman Church. She couldn't even get through a procession without the natural realities of a woman's body popping out of her.

Katie Lambert: Kicking out a baby on a horse.

Sarah Dowdy: Exactly.

Katie Lambert: Silly women, they have no control. And soon, these rumors were everywhere about new popes having to be checked for male genitalia by lower ranking clergy. Supposedly this new papal candidate would sit on a special chair with a hole cut in it, and a deacon or a cardinal would reach down and check to make sure what -

Sarah Dowdy: Check -

Katie Lambert: - should be there was there.

Sarah Dowdy: So we don't have any real evidence that this ritual was real. Our eyewitness accounts aren't eyewitnesses at all. And the chair - there really was a chair -

Katie Lambert: Yeah, the hole in the seats.

Sarah Dowdy: - with the hole exists - was probably just used for an elaborate ritual to enthrone the pope, not to check him out. But the most important point here is that people believed this. That regardless of what we know now, people in the Middle Ages did believe all of this.

Katie Lambert: And that's quite the Catholic ritual right there. Jokesters at the time made the point that since so many of the popes had children, it was probably pretty easy to figure out which ones were guys and which ones weren't.

Sarah Dowdy: Touché.

Katie Lambert: And in the 16th century, it was suggested that all popes should have beards. That way, you could be sure the pope was a man, to which I say, women with a hormonal imbalance can have beards, or if they have hypertrichosis. It's science.

Sarah Dowdy: This is the health editor Katie coming through. So also in the 16th century, the reformation began. And then the church positioned changes. It changes very dramatically because the Protestants are starting to use Pope Joan as an anti-Catholic propaganda piece to point out that there is corruption in the church - major corruption and problems with its hierarchy if something this dastardly could happen. And so the Catholic Church does an about face and claim that, oh, Pope Joan never really existed at all guys. It's just a story perhaps a symbolic one to teach people their lessons, but you can't claim a story is true just because it's popular.

Katie Lambert: But how about now? Now that we've moved along from this strong belief, this conviction in the Middle Ages, and then our about face in the Reformation. We are in at the year 2010. So we have two sides, and we'll start with the first. There was no Pope Joan. So the church position is that as far as papal lineage goes, it's all been men, all the way back to Saint Peter. She's nowhere in the official papal history because there isn't a reason for her to be there. She didn't exist. And they make the point that of all people who would know, it would be the church. They like having -

Sarah Dowdy: We keep a pretty big library guys.

Katie Lambert: Well, exactly, they like having their records. So if anybody knows, it's going to be them.

Sarah Dowdy: The other point denying her existence is that the Catholic Church doesn't deny the existence of bad popes. So -

Katie Lambert: Oh, John the Twelfth, who is quite the sinner.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so they're essentially saying if we admit to pope's who murdered and tortured and fathered loads of illegitimate children, don't you think we'd admit to a female pope?

Katie Lambert: Another strong point is that there isn't a single story about her from her own century. It's not until 400 years later that any of these pop up. And doesn't that strike you as a little bit odd?

Sarah Dowdy: Yes, 400 years in, suddenly a historical figure pops up in the books. It's definitely strange and suspicious.

Katie Lambert: And she was supposedly pope between Leo the Fourth and Benedict the Third. But according to church records, that would have made her pope only for a few weeks, which seems a bit ridiculous.

Sarah Dowdy: It's about how long the ceremony takes, it seems.

Katie Lambert: The investiture.

Sarah Dowdy: And another church position - it was made up by the Protestants after the Reformation because they hate the Catholic Church. And this is definitely not true. We've already disproved this one. The story was around long before the Reformation began.

Katie Lambert: So then we have our other side. There was to a Pope Joan. So our first point - why are there all of these stories about her if she didn't exist? There must be someone this was based on. It couldn't have been made up just out thin air. Or why did the church encourage the belief in it for so long? And everyone at the time accepted it. Surely that says something.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, Katie, I think you mentioned a writer who said, "If there's smoke, there's fire." And that's something to latch onto. But another point is that there aren't any other stories about her from her own time because the church erased them in the 17th century when the Protestants started using her as anti-Catholic propaganda. And in the 15th century there was a bust of her, supposedly in the Siena Cathedral. The face was later changed to make it into someone else. So why would the church do that unless they were perhaps trying to hide her existence?

Katie Lambert: Also in the 15th century, a heretic said in his trial, "Many times have the popes fallen into sin and error, for instance when Joan was elected pope, who was a woman." Not a single person present contradicted him, and it was all clergy. So I have to admit that's a strong point in their favor.

Sarah Dowdy: And going back to the lack of information about her, there aren't really that many records from her time anyways. The 9th century is not known for detailed record keeping. And we barely even have any information about any of the popes. So we can't say that in that little bit of time between Leo the Fourth and Benedict the Third there is conclusive evidence that she didn't exist, or didn't reign between them.

Katie Lambert: Right, or since there were bad records, who even knows if that was a few weeks? It could have been that two years and something that everyone's been saying in the first place. And you know, is it so implausible that a woman could disguise herself as a man and do a man's job?

Sarah Dowdy: Maybe not the birth on a horse part though.

Katie Lambert: Maybe not that part. So we've got our two sides - our point and our counter point. I do have to say, I don't think there was a Pope Joan, but there's another way you could interpret it. Perhaps there had been other female figures in the church whose stories were entangled with hers. Pope Joan is said to be on the High Priestess card in some Tarot decks. But it may actually be a woman named Guglielma , who's also known as the Heretic Saint.

Sarah Dowdy: And she's not really a saint, but she's a 13th century religious woman who did inspire a saint cult devoted to her, which is something that still happens today, I learned recently.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, the narco saints.

Sarah Dowdy: The narco saints. So some of her followers are later burned at the stake! And according to an article from church history, by Mona Alice Jean Newman, inquisitors tore apart her tomb, burned her bones, and scattered her ashes. And of course erased every document that had to do with her life! So she's a person of interest at least.

Katie Lambert: Well, and there are certainly women who have exerted considerable influence over popes - too much for the liking of many. And other women who have inspired great devotion! And perhaps there wasn't a Pope Joan, but there was a woman who was high ranking in the church, and that story turned into something else. So what relevance does that have for us today? Of course the role of women in the church is still complicated.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, the church today maintains that women are of equal value as men, but they're very different, and therefore, they are suited to different roles. And by encouraging women to fulfill the role that nature and God has intended for them, which is motherhood, they're honoring woman's unique gifts, and that's why women can't be ordained priests, much less be a pope.

Katie Lambert: Right. And I'm sure you're all familiar with a critic's response to that. If you've -

Sarah Dowdy: Opened a newspaper.

Katie Lambert: - ever, ever opened a newspaper, and it's not our place to voice any opinion on the matter, but I think we can confidently say that a female pope today would not have to give birth on a horse. And also that Pope Joan might make a really good Halloween costume if you don't mind explaining who you are all night.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, speaking of Halloween costumes, we've gotten some responses after our -

Katie Lambert: Oh right.

Sarah Dowdy: - Egyptian episodes. A few people want to be Mameluke for Halloween, which I think sounds like a great costume, especially if you get that jeweled sword.

Katie Lambert: I'm tentatively planning on being a cannibal queen, but that has absolutely nothing to do with any history episode we've ever done. Unless I can find -

Sarah Dowdy: Unless we can find one.

Katie Lambert: - some sort of historical record.

Sarah Dowdy: Send us your recommendations.

Katie Lambert: Of a cannibal queen. It is interesting though that this story has lasted for so long. We've gotten so many e-mails requesting the Pope Joan story. And I'd like to hear about why you think it's endured. So e-mail us at HistoryPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com and let us know your opinions. And if you have another favorite anti-Pope you'd like us to talk about, again, send us an e-mail. And speaking of e-mail, we have some listener mail for today.

Sarah Dowdy: So our e-mail today is from Virginia. And we were actually fortunate enough to do an interview with Virginia just the other day. She hosts Inside the Podcasting Studio, as well as Tutor Talk.

Katie Lambert: Yes, we like here.

Sarah Dowdy: And we talked to her about what it's like recording this podcast. But she also e-mailed us regarding our Five Stars of the Wild West and our question about what exactly bull-dogging was, and what the modern incarnation of it -

Katie Lambert: It has nothing to do with UDA, in case my fellow Bulldogs were confused.

Sarah Dowdy: We weren't just throwing in some school spirit there. So Virginia wrote us, "As a Texan who has attended many a rodeo, I believe I can answer your question about the modern incarnation of bull-dogging. The one that is probably most like it now is called steer wrestling. A cowboy starts on a horse in the starting box. The steer is also in the starting box, right next to him. When the steer is released, the cowboy must essentially chase it, jump off the horse, and wrestle the steer to the ground. "In order for the clock to stop, the steer has to fall over, at least on its side, if not on its back. The cowboy with the best time wins. If the cowboy breaks the barrier, quote, of the starting box, essentially the same as jumping the gun in racing, he gets a 10 second penalty." And she described a few other similar forms of steer wrestling, which gave me the strong desire to attend a rodeo.

Katie Lambert: Oh see, I decided I was not meant to be a rodeo queen, or a rodeo attendee, but I think you can go to one maybe in Kennesaw. I remember seeing ads in high school.

Sarah Dowdy: I did not want to attend bull fighting though, after this Spanish incident -

Katie Lambert: No -

Sarah Dowdy: - where the bull broke up into the stands and trampled a bunch of people. So I don't know. Maybe I'll change my mind if I watch that Spanish video.

Katie Lambert: We'll talk about it later Sarah.

Sarah Dowdy: So thank you Virginia for talking with us and for sending us your rodeo tips.

Katie Lambert: And if you have cool stuff to send us, again our e-mail is HistoryPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com. We also have a Facebook fan page. You can catch up with what we're doing, and it's a cool way for us to respond to you more quickly than we can in e-mail. And as far as that goes, Bryan with a Y, I'm sorry I spelled your name with an I. Our commenter's are very involved this week. We also have a Twitter feed at MissedInHistory. And again, it's a good way to keep up with what we're doing on a daily basis. I can send out a survey on who wants to date a dragon Lord, and give birth to 100 eggs, and 60 responses.

Sarah Dowdy: How many of you respond?

Katie Lambert: Yes. And that might have given you a clue we we're talking about the Chung sisters.

Sarah Dowdy: So we're going to try to find a way here to wrap up dragon Lords and tie them back into Popes.

Katie Lambert: I think you can do it.

Sarah Dowdy: My connection is Pope Joan is the Dark Ages, we have female popes, maybe, we have knights, and we have dragons.

Katie Lambert: Knights who fight dragons. Oh, and saints who are knights who fight dragons.

Sarah Dowdy: And saints. Yeah, this is getting really good. So if you want to learn more about popes at least, you can check out our article, How the Papacy Works, by searching on the homepage. It's www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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