It has long been believed that in the year 850 AD, the pope was not only English but also a woman: John VII, popularly known as Pope Joan.
Although historians sneer, the tale was first told by Anastasias, a papal librarian who was her contemporary. The oldest surviving account comes from Martin, a monk, who wrote in his Chronical of Popes and Emperors in 1265…
‘It is claimed this John was a woman, who as a girl was taken to Athens disguised as a boy by a lover. There she became so learned she had no equal. Coming to Rome as a man, John joined the Church as a teacher, attracting many students. Opinion of John was so high that at the Pope’s death, he was the unanimous choice. John became pregnant when Pope, and through ignorance of the exact date, gave birth while in procession from St Peter’s, in a narrow lane by the Colosseum.’
Other versions end with more detail, often contradicting each other. One says the mob were so incensed they ripped her limb from limb; another that she was dragged through streets behind a horse and stoned to death. A happier ending tells she was banished to a convent and her son grew up to be the Bishop of Ostia.
In 14 & 15 hundred, churchmen visiting Rome, including Martin Luther, spoke of a statue in a narrow street by the Colosseum of a woman in papal regalia, holding an infant. While others saw her bust placed correctly within a succession of papal busts in Sienna Cathedral. Apparently both were destroyed during the 17th century.
In the 9th century conditions were certainly right for the story to be true. Contemporary records are fragmentary at best. When Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, died in 1840, the Carolingian Empire collapsed. Chaos raged through France, Germany and Italy. Arab forces sacked Rome in 846, a mere decade before John’s election.
If the story is not true, then why do medieval clerics say the Pope was physically checked during coronation?
Adam of Usk speaks of a porphyry chair pierced beneath so a young cardinal could reach up to check the papal plums.
In 1490 Felix Haemerlein added the luckless prelate had to shout… ‘He has testicles!’
To which the gathered cardinals replied, ‘God be praised!’
Witnessing the coronation of Pope Alexander, Bernardino Coreo causally mentioned… ‘When the sacred rite was ended and the touching of the pope’s testicles done, I returned to the palace.’
No longer used, the pierced chair languishes in obscurity in the Vatican; consigned to a remote window recess.
And now to finish with a terrible joke…
1st Man: ‘Want a ticket for the Papal ball?’
2nd Man: ‘Can’t dance!
1st Man: ‘It’s not a dance; it’s a raffle.