Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Great Women No.4

The collaboration continues apace between our very own illustraor, Sandy Nightingale and Sandi Toksvig (Star of TV, Radio, Writer, Performer and National Treasure). The Great Women series to date has celebrated Emily Post, Elizabeth Woodville and Dame Ethel Smythe. They are published in The Lady magazine.

We are proud to introduce a very controversial figure. Combining Religion, Power and beards we bring you . . .

Pope Joan
Pope Joan is a rather clear figure in history – either she was the only woman ever to be Pope or some anti-Pope person made up a load of Papal bull.  Thus her title was either Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God or she didn’t have one.

As she may have been made up we can be a little cavalier with the facts. Obviously she would need to live in Rome (the Vatican has rarely moved house) but exactly when is unclear.   This not surprising because it was most likely in the ninth century which was also known as the very Dark Ages when hardly anything was clear.

Fact or fiction she is quite a girl.  If she did exist then she was the only Pope to wreck a Vatican ceremony by giving birth.  If she was a legend then she was a strong enough a story for someone to spend a lot of seventeenth century man hours shredding references to her in history books.

If Joan existed then she was probably originally called Agnes or possibly Gilberta or maybe Jutta (OK, I’m not sure) when she was born in Germany of English missionary parents. Annoyingly for a girl in the ninth century she was very bright which was, of course, unnatural and dangerous. This was a girl who wanted to break the glass ceiling before most people had glass.  They say (you will note I am starting to get vague here) that at the age of twelve she was taken in ‘masculine attire’ to Athens by a ‘learned man’, a monk described as her teacher and lover which even today is a poor combination. 

Anyway she was very clever and Martin of Troppau (who was Polish and wrote the history of the world in the ninth century which must have taken less time than it would now) wrote that ‘there was nobody equal to her’ when it came to studying science.  Eventually, her knowledge of the scriptures led to her election as Pope John Anglicus where Martin reckons she ruled for two years, seven months, and four days before giving the game away by giving birth on the Via Sacra during a Papal procession. 

According to most versions, tourists and passers by were somewhat surprised when Pope John Anglicus tried to mount a horse, went into labour and gave birth to a son. At this point one of two things happened – 

The crowd tied her feet to the horse’s tail, and stoned her to death.

She was banished to a convent where her son grew up to follow in the family business and become a bishop. 

The case for Pope Joan includes the fact that there used to be a statue of Joan alongside all the other Popes in the Cathedral of Siena until Pope Clement VIII, commanded the sculpture be ‘metamorphosed’ into Pope Zacharias. The Church also brought in the ‘chair exam’ after her supposed reign which compelled each newly elected Pope to sit naked on a chair with a hole in the middle while others had a look and declared ‘Mas nobis nominus est’ - Our nominee is a man.  This was surely an embarrassing addition to an otherwise joyous day.
The case against is . . . uhm . . . there are no tea towels for sale with her face on in St Peter’s Square. 


  1. This is delightful. Quirky, unexpected, VERY funny and written with a most delicate pen (or keyboard, which is slightly less poetic, but nevertheless, one must live with one's times). When you have finished the HISTORY OF THE WHOLE WORLD ESPECIALLY ALL THE STRANGE BITS, I will happily queue up to get a signed copy.

    John Howe

  2. PS Do you do tea towels?