Ooh! Pope Joan movie!

Pope Joan as the Whore of Babylon, from an anti-Catholic tarot setOne of my favorite tales about the medieval Church tells of a woman who disguised herself as a man and rose through the ecclesiastical ranks to become Pope, only to be exposed when she gave birth in the middle of a public procession on the Via Sacra in Rome. How’s that for drama? In yo face, Yentl!1

The Church of course denies this ever happened and consider it Protestant Reformation slander. Although the Protestants certainly jumped all over the story with enormous gusto, the earliest source long predates them. Dominican friar Jean de Mailly first mentioned a female Pope in his 1254 Chronica Universalis Mettensis. Set in 1099, this ladyPope story didn’t have the high drama of the Via Sacra birth, just that she dropped a baby while mounting a horse and was promptly tied to said horse and dragged to her death.

It wasn’t until Martin of Opava picked up the tale and ran with it in the third iteration of his 1278 Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum that we get the fully flushed public labor element and the name: Pope John, known as Joan once all is revealed. He also places the story earlier in the 9th century.

John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was Pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the Papacy of one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers . There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and afterwards in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city, and she was chosen for Pope. While Pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St Peter’s to the Lateran, in a lane once named Via Sacra (the sacred way) but now known as the “shunned street” between the Colisseum and St Clement’s church. After her death, it is said she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the Holy Pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter. (Martin of Opava, Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum)

Such juiciness would not be denied and authors from Vatican librarians to Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about her. Once the Reformation kicked in, the story was used as a convenient symbol of Church corruption and as evidence that the papacy wasn’t really necessary at all since Christendom survived the foulness of her lady parts smeared all over the throne of Peter.

The best title in this anti-Catholic vein was from a book published in England in 1675 by an anonymous author who the preface assures us was a most impeccable insider Vatican source. It’s called A Present for a Papist: Or the Life and Death of Pope Joan, Plainly Proving Out of the Printed Copies, and Manscriptes of Popish Writers and Others, That a Woman called JOAN, Was Really POPE of ROME, and Was There Deliver’d of a Bastard Son in the Open Street as She Went in Solemn Procession.

Johanna Wokalek as Pope JoanAnd now, there’s a movie about her based on the biographical novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross. The Church is less than enthused about it, surprise, surprise, but it’s in the top 10 box office hits in Italy. (Italians love them a good historical Church scandal.) Pope Joan is played by Johanna Wokalek, a German actress I’m not familiar with, but John Goodman plays Pope Sergius and that just rules. Also, the cute guy who was Faramir in Lord of the Rings plays her boyfriend.

IMDB tells me it was released in October 2009, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. I swear I will hunt down the sole dingy art movie house it’s playing in, so help me Joan.

23 thoughts on “Ooh! Pope Joan movie!

  1. Fascinating stuff. I think the Catholic church could go a long way to repairing their image if they did two things: Buddy Christ and Hot Chick Popes. It’d certainly give a reason for altar boys to come back to service.


    1. I know it had a one-night-only showing in D.C. back in January. It was a test of audience interest to lure US distributors who were reluctant to pick it up. That show was sold out, but I can’t find any news after that about it playing in wider US release.

    1. Damn, I missed that one too. I might have to make a Pope Joan DVD marathon out of them since it seems likely I’ll never get to see either of them in theaters.

  2. Very interesting indeed. I read Pope Joan many years ago and found it very good. But I have also heard tell that it’s a myth. Of course the Catholic Church will tell us that as that’s what they want us to believe.

    One of the many things throughout history that we will never really know the truth about.

  3. Just to be complete: Faramir was played by David Wenham.

    Also, I hope my professor of “Church and Religion in the early modern age” isn’t reading this blog or he’s going to get a stroke. Even though he has never given us any sources he has always very strongly put forward that the story was slander: from the Protestants to disgruntled “employees”.

    I’m surprised that this movie got out in Italy. If you know the Italian writers duo Monaldi & Sorti, you know their books are blacklisted by the Vatican City while this seems to be more slander-y than their books…

    1. I’m surprised your professor wasn’t aware that the story long predates the Reformation. It really was very famous for centuries before Luther was a twinkle in his mummy’s eye.

      I think Italy as a whole has long since stopped paying large amounts of attention to what the Vatican blacklists. In fact, them making a stink about it probably only adds to the appeal of the book/movie.

  4. The Durrell novel/translation is really funny. I guess this newer book probably takes the whole thing seriously. We’re so earnest about history (even fake history) these days. It’s too bad, really.

  5. I loved the book- the idea of a female Pope is totally intriguing! And I had no idea the movie had already come out- I heard about it a while ago and have been waiting for it. Now I’ll have to go hunt it down too!

    1. I fear we’re going to have to content ourselves with video. So unfair. It better be released in region one or I’ma cloud up and rain all over that production company.

      1. it played one day only in d.c. to see if there was any interest. it sold out and we have not heard a word since then. it’s not playing anywhere and yet it is still not on dvd….i do believe she needs rescuing!!

  6. I read this book for the second time, and I just adore it. I am very happy that they finaly made a movie. When I was in Rome 2 years ago, I was just looking at those old street, thinking ” she might had her baby there or there”. I belive in her exsitence. Love the book,can’t wait to see the moive

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.