A young Catholic woman dresses up as a man and joins the priesthood (not hard, given that the robes they wear), goes to Rome, and ends up as the pope. She then gets pregnant and delivers the child on a public street during a procession in which she is wearing the full papal regalia. The bystanding worshippers, outraged by the revelation of her deception, kill her and bury her by the roadside. This is the story in a new German film called Die Papstin.
Far fetched? Perhaps, except that the film is based on events that might have actually happened. The September/October issue of The New Humanist has an article by Sally Feldman (not available online) that looks at the story of ‘Pope Joan’ who supposedly lived in the ninth century. The catch is that even though there are about 500 reports on this episode written from early medieval times to the 17th century, there are no contemporaneous records of what happened during her time, which has rightly called the Dark Ages, and the powerful Catholic Church would have had every reason to expunge any mention of such an embarrassing episode.
The article points out that this story has been investigated by many people and even though unproved is quite widely known and believed. In the course of investigating it, Peter Stanford, the former editor of the Catholic Herald discovered a chair that was used in papal elections in medieval times that had an odd key-shaped hole cut in the seat. According to accounts, before the election of a new pope could be confirmed, the would-be pope was required to sit in it and then the youngest deacon present would have to reach up through the hole and confirm the pope’s ‘eligibility’, if you catch my drift. Such a precaution might well have been the result of the Pope Joan episode.