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Tucson Weekly When In Rome

Was 'Pope Joan' Real, Or Merely Protestant Propaganda?

By Gaylon Parsons

JANUARY 25, 1999: 

The Legend of Pope Joan, by Peter Stanford (Henry Holt). Cloth, $25.

ALL WRITERS HOPE to be equal to the stories they choose to tell; in practice, the best stories can overwhelm otherwise fine authors, leaving them to hobble along like Quasimodo after a beautiful idea. In the case of The Legend of Pope Joan, Peter Stanford has managed an elegant limp. Pope Joan, or John VIII, was a ninth-century woman of great learning and wisdom who attained the highest office in the church only to die ignobly in the street after giving birth during an Easter procession.

The story, more strange than beautiful, may or may not be more than a legend. Joan may or may not be an invention of a Protestant conspiracy; she may or may not have been a woman, dressed as a man. Numerous versions of the story exist...so many that Stanford muses that Pope Joan may have more in common with that modern-day kid who died from soda and Pop-Rocks than with any verifiable historical figure. He seems never to have resolved his doubt, and the narrative suffers for it, usually in Stanford's timidity and excessive care in making an assertion.

On the other hand, some of his more adventurous conclusions seem suspect. Could the tarot card signified "La Papesse" refer to Joan, or is it simply a version of "The High Priestess" one could logically expect to find in medieval Europe?

As with many aspects of the Pope Joan story, the evidence is inconclusive; however, Stanford respects the possibility that Joan existed, and examines each piece of evidence with a judicious eye. In the age of RuPaul, after all, Pope Joan seems like a perfectly plausible personality. Despite the book's shortcomings, a reader interested in the legend, in modern debate over female priests, or in the history of the Catholic Church would find this piece of detective work informative and accessible.


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