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Her Holiness? the TRUTH Behind the Legend of POPE JOAN

Medieval Views on Women

"The female sex is in some respects inferior to the male sex, both as regards body and soul..."

"If the two sexes are designed by nature for a homogeneous organic co-operation, then the leading position or a social pre-eminence must necessarily fall to one of them. Man is called by the Creator to this position of leader, as is shown by his entire bodily and intellectual make-up."

From the official position of the Roman Catholic Church on the subject of the unsuitability of women serving as priests.

Partial Chronology of the Popes:
844 - Pope Sergius II
847 - Pope Leo IV
853 - Pope John VIII
(Pope Joan)
855 - Pope Benedict III

Joan's Accidental Education

"I will put enmity between you and the woman" (Genesis 3:15) was one of the first verses of the Bible that Joan learned. Being a woman, she was never taught.

Yet, Joan always managed to be cleaning up the room when her elder brother was struggling through his lessons. Their father wanted his son to be a scholar but poor John had no aptitude for it. In an effort to improve the young boy's scholarship, their father had him beaten until his memory improved. Then one day, John was asked a question. Joan, who stood behind her father's back, mouthed the right answer. John repeated it and their father wept with joy.

Strange thing: John could never get the answers right unless Joan was present. John said that his little sister was his good luck charm. So Joan was present for all the lessons, all the tests, and she helped John pass them with distinction.

Joan's Purposeful Progress

John was terror stricken when news of his scholarship reached the local monastery. There he had to pass a written examination. Yet Joan and John, when dressed in the bulky clothes of the day (which included a big hat), could pass for one another. So Joan took the exam and got every question right.

Their father was overjoyed to receive the news that John was to be accepted into the best monastery in the region. Their mother thought it prudent to marry Joan off immediately afterwards as she was tired of both her children.

Joan Escapes Into Brother John

Yet Joan and John had conceived a bold and daring plan. They got permission for Joan to walk with her brother on an errand to town. Then pair went in opposite directions. John changed his name to James and became a mercenary. Joan became John: she cut her hair, bound her breasts, and never looked back.

In those days, the Roman Catholic Church was hungry for talent. Those who could become better than their teachers were transferred to even tougher schools. It takes decades but Joan's talents as a healer finally brought her to Rome itself.

By then, Joan had became a seasoned doctor, relying on her own observations as to what did and did not work in healing by working the most desperate cases. Her superiors were delighted to let her roam the city, heal those who could not afford it, and then share her findings with the house. For this medical research was making her house quite prestigious and, more importantly, very attractive to its rich patrons.

Joan Meets Philip, They Become Friends

Joan had only been in Rome for a few weeks when she met Philip. He was the director of burials in Rome: it was an undemanding job that allowed him plenty of time for his own studies. Philip was none to pleased to be called from his reading room to reason with the "little hellion" (what his men called Joan).

Joan had refused to let his man bury a woman who they clearly thought was dead. Rather rudely, Joan told Philip that his men were "idiots" and that she would not allow them to "condemn a poor, ailing Soul to an untimely death."

Philip was a proud man. Before long, they were screaming at each other, nose to nose, like an irate baseball player and an immoveable referee. Joan finally convinced Philip to allow her a week to revive the woman. He agreed and four days later the woman emerged from her coma.

Philip apologized. Joan explained to him how she knew it was a coma (she called it "deep sleep"). So, whenever a death was in doubt, Philip called Joan in to consult so that no "further errors" were made. Soon, the two of them became fast friends.

"The Unholy Alliance" of Joan and Philip

Both Joan and Philip were outsiders.

She, because she was a foreigner (from what was later Germany) and very unconventional (she disregarded "accepted wisdom" if she thought it was wrong).

He, because he was a Roman insider (a sixth son of a wealthy family) who lacked ambition (he did not care for politics or advancement in the Church) and very irreligious (he skipped services, claiming untruthfully that duty called him away).

Joan Becomes a Physician to Pope Sergius

Joan's "miracle cure" of the coma victim, attracted the attention of the ailing Pope Sergius II. Despite her own desires to continue working among the poor, Joan was officially transfered to the Lateran Palace, where she was at the beck and call of the Pope and his inner circle.

Philip had an office there and her transfer allowed them to spend more time together. Since many in the Palace had "special friendships", no one objected to their quite obvious preference for one another's company. Plus it made Joan "happier with the bitter servitude!"

Pope Sergius liked food, drink, and other pleasures of the flesh... and was constantly making himself ill. Joan was run ragged in tending to him. Although the Pope had many doctors, he often preferred Joan's simple, natural cures.

After helping to save Sergius from a close brush with death, Joan collapsed. She had a high fever but she refused to take off her clothes. So "her friend" Philip was sent to reason with her. Yet Joan knew that once her true sex was revealed, she might be killed.

Philip Learns and Keeps Joan's Secret

After getting Philip to swear that no one else but he would see her naked, Joan passed out. In those days, bodies were considered evil and the desire to be heavily clothed was seen as a mark of purity... so her request did not seem unusual to anyone. Yet it did not take Philip long to discover the truth about Joan.

Philip kept her secret and nursed Joan back to health.

Once she was recovered, the panic striken Pope Sergius had Philip reassigned to become her personal attendant. His only job was to keep Joan from falling ill again.

So no one at all objected when Philip moved into Joan's chambers. Soon they became lovers. Joan was familiar with contraceptives which she often dispensed to women whose lives were at risk as a result of too many pregnancies. Philip and Joan became inseperable.

Joan Becomes Part of Pope Leo's Inner Circle

When Pope Sergius died, Joan and Philip resumed their work among the poor. This attracted the attention of the next Pope, Leo IV. Like Joan, he was more interested in bettering the lives of the Roman people than in making the churches more beautiful and profitable.

Leo's greatest accomplishment was the building of the wall around Rome (that bears his name) to fend off Saracen (Arab) attacks. His reforms antagonized career politicians who were undoubtedly behind his murder just after the "wall that could not be built" was finished.

However, the career politicians failed to recognize how greatly Leo was loved by the ordinary people of Rome. Their outrage over Leo's death was only quieted by the immediate election of Joan, the "little Pope", who had been Leo's "right hand man" during the construction of the wall.

Joan's Surprise Election as Pope John VIII

Joan and Philip were making love when their door was pounded on. Philip hurriedly dressed Joan who was astounded to learn she had become Pope.

After an all night discussion with Philip, Joan emerged the next day to confront the Cardinals who had elected her... without her having submitted her name for nomination! She told them that it would be impossible for her to accept the Papacy without Philip's "help and support" and so she was willing to step down.

Neither Joan nor Philip could believe that the Cardinals would allow her "domestic arrangement" to continue uninterrupted. Such a thing was unheard of! Popes may have filled their beds with their "special friends" but for a Pope to openly live with another person was something that Joan could not believe would be permitted.

Since the Cardinals had agreed to her "unusual demand," Joan was forced to accept the post. The first time she went out among the people Joan realized that they would have no one else except the "little Pope"... so as Pope John VIII, she officially accepted the title. Even the irreligious Philip told her that "your Papacy is the will of God, so you must submit to his judgment!" So Joan publicly swore to carry on in the "noble tradition" of Leo.

The Reluctant Pope Joan Turns Reformer

Having worked so long among the poor, Joan knew exactly how the city should be improved to make it cleaner, safer, and stronger. The Cardinals were too fearful to oppose Joan's plan to upgrade the infrastructure of streets, sewers, and sanitation.

Although they were horrified, they did not object to Joan's campaign of educating women about natural methods of contraception. What angered them the most was her constant diversion of funds from their pet projects like building more churches.

Since Joan did not owe her position to the Cardinals, she became ever bolder in openly disregarding their wishes. She was the "People's Pope!" and the more she did to improve their lives, the more secure she became in her power.

When Joan planned a school for the education of women, she finally united all the Cardinals as her mortal enemies. The one thing on which they could all agree on was the "enmity between them and the woman." The knives were out for Joan: everyone, except for Philip, started working to undermine her.

Pope Joan's Plan for Disaster Relief

However, just as they were beginning to really hamper her efforts, God seemed to intervene on her behalf again. It was Joan's finest hour: her courageous response to the crisis caused by the flooding of the Tiber River.

Despite the risk to her personal safety, Joan went out on a boat and personally helped to direct the relief efforts. The ever faithful Philip was by her side. Their presence gave hope and comfort to all who saw them. In the days and weeks after the flood, Joan and Philip were everywhere, doing whatever they could to help.

The Cardinals were outraged when Joan dipped into the treasury to help feed, clothe, and house the flood victims. "When would this upstart foreigner's excesses ever end?" many wondered. Yet they only made these comments to one another.

Inspired by Joan's "can-do" attitude, many of the rich and powerful families lent a hand... embarrassing the selfish, grasping, Church politicians into helping more than they wanted to do.

Trouble in Joan and Philip's Paradise

Joan seemed unstoppable... and yet Philip was deeply worried about her.

He had to run after her with food because she would not stop to eat. Often, he had to bodily carry her to bed because she would work from morning until night. For Joan would not miss a single service that the Pope was required to perform which was often a full day's work by itself... and was followed by a full night's work of supervising all her reform efforts.

Philip became withdrawn... and this was what finally attracted Joan's attention.

His voice shook with tears as she got him to admit the problem: they had not made love in months. Without another word, Joan stripped and they made love... forgetting for once to take the usual precautions: it proved to be a fatal mistake.

Joan's Final, Fatal Easter

In the month before that fatal Easter of 855, in the third year of her reign, Joan began to suffer from dizziness and nausea. She attributed it to overwork. Stress had given her an irregular menstrual cycle ever since becoming Pope. So she was not alarmed by the lack of a period. Indeed, Joan was quite confident that she was approaching menopause.

Philip was not so sure... he wondered if she could be pregnant. When he suggested this possibility, Joan dismissed it but agreed to take some time off... after Easter... to be discreetly examined.

The Easter procession fell on an unusually hot day. Joan's robes and vestments were very heavy... she was exhausted. She reached the Via Sacra: felt the stabbing pain in her stomach and the gush of bloody fluid. Then a barely formed fetus fell to the ground. Papal guards quickly carried Joan and the 'evidence of her sin' away.

So many people had seen what had happened... that rumors instantly swirled through Rome. Joan did not die on the spot as legend has it.

The Death of Pope Joan

Once Joan saw Philip's head on a plate along with his severed "male apparatus" - and she had no wish to live. Joan prepared the poison herself. After the physicians were satisfied that "it would leave no visible mark", she took it.

Then the surgeons removed her breasts and inserted Philip's genitals into Joan's body... so that she would look like a man. Yet they botched the job... and the oozing blood from the incisions on Joan's chest and from Philip's severed genitals bled through the burial robes.

No one was fooled but "forms must be observed" and Joan was given a very modest Papal funeral. Then church officials got busy removing every trace of her Papacy... but the legend survived... and now the truth is out!

Credits: from one who witnessed it all.



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