Beliefnet
The much-debated story of Pope Joan holds that a woman disguised herself as a man and served as pope for two years in the ninth century. British journalist Peter Stanford investigated this legend and published his findings in 1998. This selection is excerpted with permission from "The Legend of Pope Joan" by Peter Stanford, Henry Holt & Co.

Set against what had increasingly over the course of my investigation been exposed as a weak prosecution case are many positive reasons for believing that the She-Pope was more than a made-up story. The evidence of some 500 medieval writers cannot but impress. Senior papal servants, writing in books dedicated to their masters, endorse Joan unambiguously. Academics and inquisitors accept her as fact. Such widespread belief, filtering up to the pinnacle of power in the Catholic church, cannot lightly be dismissed as a Protestant plot, a fable, or a cipher for some other story of papal skullduggery. Why, for example, did Sienese pope after Sienese pope allow Joan's statue to stand in their home cathedral? The logical answer is that they regarded her, however grudgingly, as a predecessor.

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These substantial testaments to Joan's life are, of course, circumstantial. They do not prove her existence, only that of her cult. Yet, at the very least, a story can exist because people go on believing it. It endures because people want to listen to it time and again. And it transmutes according to their tastes and needs. In that sense Pope Joan is again undeniably true. She was believed in, and people remain fascinated by her and attracted to her.

Yet this appeal can distract from the fact that Pope Joan is much more than a wonderful story. The Vicus Papissa, 'the street of the woman pope' where Joan gave birth and met her end, exists with its shrine, although her statue has been lost. The street was avoided because of Joan by papal processions. Likewise the strange chair for checking the pope's manhood exists and, travelers record, was used. The bust of Joan in Siena existed. And a playful illustration of her labor remains in Saint Peter's at the foot on the baldacchio over the main altar to this day.

And there are more immediate historical reasons for suggesting that Joan be restored to her rightful place among the popes. The details told by the chroniclers fit neatly with the middle of the ninth century. There was, for instance, a celebrated colony of English missionaries in Germany then--hence the name 'Joan the English,' though she was born in Mainz. And it is undeniably true that Greek-educated figures, as Joan was alleged to be, were prominent and revered in Rome at this time. Some, indeed, went on to be elected to the throne of Saint Peter thanks to the system which then prevailed--an unpredictable popular vote which favored the deacons collected around the dead pope, and which occasionally threw up a saintly and scholarly outsider.

All these essential details may have been mangled and exaggerated as the history of Joan was passed across medieval dining-rooms and library desks down the ages but, once ironed out and reassembled, make perfect sense in the context of their time. Nothing is out of place.

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Moreover, when I had moved beyond verifying the details told in the chronicles, I had discovered that the all-male atmosphere of the Church in the ninth century was of very recent vintage. Women like Cuthburga of Wimborne and Hilda of Whitby had ruled over double monasteries of men and women with quasi-episcopal powers. Some scholars, like the American historian Vern Bullough, hold that the official Church was at pains to promote stories of cross-dressing women saints as role models for clever young girls like Joan. Even if you are cursed with a woman's body, the subliminal message went, for curse it was certainly regarded by the all-male hierarchy, if you take on every masculine attribute, you may just gain admittance to the inner sanctum as an honorary man.

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