Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Most Famous Pope Who Never Lived: Debunked Myth of Pope Joan to be a Movie

Source: Pope Joan film sparks Roman Catholic Church row - Telegraph

So, the long debunked myth of "Pope Joan" is to be made into a movie, it seems.  The claim is that sometime during the 9th or 10th century, a woman disguised herself as a man and rose up in the ranks of the Church hierarchy, becoming Pope and eventually discovered when she gave birth while travelling through the streets of Rome.

The List of Popes as Counter-Evidence

The problem is, despite claims to the contrary, the popes of this time period were known:

There were a few brief interregnums (897-898, 928-929, 935-936, 964-965, 972-973, 984-985).  Could we say she was Pope during one of these times?  No.  Reading JND Kelly (an Anglican) in his work, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, we see the dates were of a short duration.

  • The interregnum of 897-898 was from the death of Theodore II in November to the election of John IX in January
  • The Interregnum of 928-929 seems to be a matter of a few days (Kelly indicates that actually there was no interregnum between Leo VI and Stephen VII)
  • The interregnum of 935-936 was from the death of John XI in December 935 to the election of Leo VII in January 936
  • The interregnum of 964-965 involved an emperor exiling Benedict V in 964.  When Benedict V died in 965, John XIII was elected.  There was no room for a Pope Joan in this time.  Benedict V was the lawful pope at this time.
  • The interregnum of 972-973 was from September 962 (Pope John XII) until January 973 (Benedict VI)
  • The interregnum of 984-985 was the first one in this period which can be called "extended" lasting from August 984 (John XIV) to August 985 (John XV).  During this time, there was an antipope who had imprisoned and starved Pope John XIV to death.  The election of a new Pope could not take place until the antipope (so-called Boniface VII) died.

So as we can see, there were no periods of known gaps between popes which we cannot account for.

The Claims of when "Pope Joan" existed can not be verified

The documents from which dates are given when "Pope Joan" was supposed to have reigned, have one problem: We know the history and the Popes when she was supposed to reign.  The work The Chronicles of Popes and Emperors by Martin of Troppau (died 1297) claims that Pope Joan, as "John Anglicus" succeeded Leo IV (died 855) and reigned 2 years, 7 months, 4 days.  This would mean her reign would be approximately 855-858.

There is a problem however.  The successor to Leo IV was Benedict II, who was known to be elected on September 29th 855.  During part of his reign, he was imprisoned by the antipope Anastasius for about six months in 855.  We have historical mentioning of him in the supposed period where "Joan" was supposed to reign.  So the problem is: No space for a "Pope Joan" reigning 2 and a half years.

Another source, The Universal Chronicle of Metz, by Jean de Mailly written between 1240 and 1250, asserts "Joan reigned after Bl. Victor III (died Sept 16,1087).  There was a seven month interregnum between his death and the election of Bl. Urban II (March 12, 1088).  During that interregnum, we had the interference of antipope Clement III.  So again, we can account for the history of this time.

Other claims were for AD 915 (covered by the reign of Pope John XIV (AD 914-928)), and AD 1100 (the reign of Paschal II from 1099-1118)

So again… no room for a "Pope Joan."

The Appeals to Vague History, Irrelevant Authority and Arguments from Silence

Because the actual documents cite dates which can be disproved, one of the popular claims is that it happened sometime when there are scanty records.  The Telegraph claims she was "elected pontiff in 853, after the death of Pope Leo IV."  However, this date was when St. Leo IV was Pope, and we know St. Leo IV died on July 17, 855, while his successor Benedict III became Pope on Sept 29, 855.

The Telegraph goes on to say: "But proponents of the story point out that papal records are almost non-existent in the 10th and 11th centuries and that even male popes are barely documented."  "Barely" is a weasel word.  It means we may not know much about the Popes in these years, but we do know they existed and when.

It is also interesting to note that the Telegraph speaks of the 10th and 11th centuries, when the allegation of Pope Joan was cited as being in the 9th century by the same article.

The Telegraph claims: The Catholic Church has long argued that Pope Joan is not mentioned in any contemporary records and that the whole tale is a fantasy, cooked up by scheming Protestants.

No, that is not true.  Nor is it the Catholic teaching.  As I pointed out above, we know of records from the 13th century… which predated Protestantism by a bit over 200 years.  No, what the Church says about Protestantism and the legend of Pope Joan was that it was commonly invoked as a "proof" against the Papacy (See Patrick Madrid's article on why the claim would not disprove the papacy). 

Indeed, it was Protestant David Blondel (1590-1655) who debunked the story.

It is unfortunate that there was a lot of false accusations slung from both sides during the Reformation, but let's not add to them.  Now if only the Telegraph would remember this…

The Telegraph article goes on to say:

"Joan's absence from contemporary church records is only to be expected. The Roman clergymen of the day, appalled by the great deception visited upon them, would have gone to great lengths to bury all written reports of the embarrassing episode," argues the American writer Donna Woolfolk Cross, on whose novel, 'Pope Joan', the film is based

This would be an Argument from Silence fallacy.  Yes it could happen that records could be destroyed.  It could also be the case that said records never existed.  If one wants to claim records were destroyed, let us see the evidence for the claim.

(For the record, Donna Woolfolk Cross holds a BA in English and an MA in Literature and writing.  She is an author, not a historian.  She cannot be appealed to as an expert… that would be the fallacy of irrelevant authority.)

The Telegraph article holds an embarrassing contradiction as well.  Another 'expert' says:

"The Dark Ages really were the dark ages," said Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald and the author of 'The She-Pope: a quest for the truth behind the mystery of Pope Joan'.

"There is absolutely no certainty about who the popes of the ninth century were. We have to rely instead on medieval chronicles, written hundreds of years later."

So, which was it?  Were records burnt or merely written 300 years later?  Why can I look up every Pope on the list in the 9th century and find information on them?

(For the record, Stanford was required to resign from the Catholic Herald in 1992 on account of his collaboration with Kate Saunders on the wretched book Catholics and Sex which rejected the Church teaching on contraception.  He is a journalist, not a Historian, and has no qualifications to speak on the subject as an expert).

The Problem With the Whole Claim

We have history of the times which do account for the Popes.  We have no reports from these times that a Pope Joan actually existed.  These records of Pope Joan did not appear until the 13th century.  To give you an example of how big a difference in time this was, it would be like saying accounts first appearing in 2010 would be considered proof of events taking place in the 1600s. 

The thing about historical documents and events is we can assess them from other documents who make reference to them.  If contemporary documents mention these things we can be relatively certain that the document or event in question was known in this time.  If there is no mention, the possibilities are:

  1. People were not aware of the event or document during that time
  2. The event did not happen or the book did not exist at that time
  3. Something happened to the documents which mentioned these things

#1 could be true of people who were completely unknown or documents which were written and fell into obscurity without attracting attention.  #2 is a reasonable conclusion, though to avoid the argument from silence we generally say "there is no evidence in favor of this claim" instead of "this never happened."  #3 would require some sort of reference to some sort of event which could explain the loss.

For example, we do know of Patristic works making reference to the writings of certain saints which no longer exist.  We do know that during the reign of Diocletian (244-311), many Christian writings were destroyed, and some other destruction of writings took place in earlier persecutions.  In these cases, we know what the titles were, and occasionally we have some fragments cited quoted by other patristic writers.  However, we can't speculate with any accuracy as to what documents which we don't even know existed might have said.

This is the problem with the "Dark Age" records being "destroyed" as a defense of the Pope Joan myth.  What destruction?  What document?  What author?

In fact, to claim "the documents must have been destroyed" is nothing more than admission that there is no documentary evidence available to evaluate.  It is speculation that such documents existed, let alone what they might have said.

If we claim that a story is true, and base the claim on a purported lack of evidence against the story, the purported lack of evidence says nothing in favor of the story.  The question is, what evidence does one have to support the claim?


The Pope Joan myth argues that at some undocumented time between the 9th and 11th centuries, there was a woman Pope named Joan.  It can't produce a history, a reign or any evidence which is not refuted by known history.

In other words, there is no history in the Pope Joan story, and real history which needs to be explained away before it could be taken seriously.  So why all the interest in the story now?  Cui bono?  Like the upcoming Hypatia movie, the whole thing smells of an agenda.  The Church hates women, hates sex, hates science, hates… well fill in your own word.  It's been done to death.  At any rate, the movies are not being made to present a historical story, but to bash the Church as an enemy of a favored ideology.

The current movie project is based on a work of fiction by an author who has no background in history, using sources which are secondary to create an allegation that there was a Pope who was a woman for the purpose of arguing that the Church is wrong in its teachings (See the Madrid article referenced above as to why this doesn't work).

There's only one thing the movie lacks however: Facts.

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