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Medieval Women in Modern Fiction

Pope Joan, Did she really exist ... or didn't she?
Posted: 06 Mar - 07:15 am  


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Donna Cross' novel, Pope Joan, provides much food for thought where the lives of medieval women are concerned. Set during the 9th century in France (then Frankland) and Rome, it focuses on a woman named Joan who, according to numerous accounts down through the years, disguised herself as a man (John Anglicus) who eventually rose to sit on the papal throne for approximately two years. According to the author's in-depth research, the Catholic Church by its own admission began expunging mention of Joan’s name in their records during the 17th century. Regardless, there over 500 remaining accounts of her papacy in other ancient manuscripts, two of them being the “Liber pontificalis”, a copy of which still exists today, and the well documented trial of Jan Hus for heresy in 1413 (in which she is cited as one example of Popes who had committed crimes again the church, i.e. in her case by masquerading as a man). The author’s research also revealed that “In 1276. after ordering a thorough search of the papal records, Pope John XX changed his title to John XXI in recognition of Joan’s reign as Pope John VIII.” Further, for approximately 600 years (up to the 16th century), the papal consecration ceremony included the use of a “chair exam”. This consisted of a chair with a hole in it (akin to a toilet seat) that exposed the genitals, usually to a deacon, who would then confirm to those gathered that the nominee was “indeed a man”. This very chair survives in Rome today and, although the Catholic Church doesn’t deny its existence, they vehemently deny that it was used for this purpose. Interestingly, a comprehensive eyewitness account of Pope Innocent VII’s coronation in 1404 included the “chair exam”. Since medieval women were considered little more than chattel, it isn’t surprising that some of them resorted to disguising themselves as men; in fact, there are numerous verified accounts of it happening. Sadly, due to the many gaps in history and the fact that those in power often rewrote it to suit themselves, we’ll never know for certain whether or not Pope Joan actually existed. Regardless, I think there’s a lot of good evidence pointing to the possibility that she very well may have.
Tamara Mazzei
Posted: 06 Mar - 02:14 pm  

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Hi Pat,

I loved this novel and I think it's a great example of a medieval woman in modern fiction. While I don't agree with you that she existed, lots of ink and keyboard time has certainly been expended in arguments about it in the last thousand years!

Questions about her existence aside, I think the way her story has been "used" is also very interesting. e.g., the pageants and plays staged by various Protestant groups in the late 1600s when their were rumours that Charles II was considering an alliance with Catholic France. I love this bit which appeared in a 1675 tract called A Present for a Papist:.

A Woman Pope (as History doth tell)
In High Procession Shee in Labour fell,
And was Deliver'd of a Bastard Son;
Thence Rome some call The Whore of Babylon.

I also think it's interesting that whether she lived or not, lots of people in the High Middle Ages definitely believed she did. As you said, there are lots of accounts and references to her in later documents; it's just that there isn't any until 400 years after she was said to have lived. OTH, I think it's worth noting that the controversies about Joan and the "debunking" of her story by historians do seem to have a whiff of mysogyny about them.

Posted: 07 Mar - 03:34 pm  

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I would agree with everything that Tamara says. Having had a glance on Google yesterday, I found a fairly convincing site that has explored the story of Pope Joan in detail and has arrived at the reluctant conclusion that she is an urban legend. http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pardos/P...peJoanHome.html

What is interesting though is that a good author can immerse us so deeply in the world they create that they take us with them. The best novels make us want to know more - to go and investigate for ourselves and find out more about astonishing lives. I'm sure Sharon Kay Penman did a wonderful amount of PR for Richard III, and Llewelyn ap Iorwerth and his wife, Joanna, natural daughter of King John. Ditto Anya Seton with Katherine Swynford. How many people would have heard of her were it not for the novel? If Pope Joan did exist, it's an incredible story. If she didn't, why was she invented? Fascinating!

Wendy A Zollo
Posted: 08 Mar - 07:28 am  


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What is interesting though is that a good author can immerse us so deeply in the world they create that they take us with them. The best novels make us want to know more - to go and investigate for ourselves and find out more about astonishing lives.

Which is exactly in MO the function (beside the enjoable read biggrin.gif ) of historical fiction especially when its main character is a female.

Debating whether Pope Joan lived or not is in of itself a fascinating discussion - and isn't that what hist-fict (concentrating on novels written about women) supposed to do...make us search out the real entity or the urban legand...regardless it makes us think and ponder about the medieval women's role in *their* lives.

Wendy Z

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