The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth

The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth

by Peter Stanford

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A quest for the truth behind one of history's most perplexing mysteries. The story of Pope Joan, an English woman who disguised herself as a man and became pope in the middle of the ninth century, has seized people's imagination for over a thousand years. Despite dismissals of the tale as an improbable—indeed, impossible—historical fantasy, the leg


A quest for the truth behind one of history's most perplexing mysteries. The story of Pope Joan, an English woman who disguised herself as a man and became pope in the middle of the ninth century, has seized people's imagination for over a thousand years. Despite dismissals of the tale as an improbable—indeed, impossible—historical fantasy, the leg persists. Is the tale nothing more than folklore invented by Protestant propagandists determined to undermine the authority of the papacy? Or did Joan really exist, deceiving the authorities and becoming pope? As the controversy over women in the Catholic priesthood continues and the Church—which, until the Reformation, took the story of Pope Joan as gospel—dispels rumors that will not be quashed, it is time to look beyond the fantasy for facts. In this wide-ranging investigative account, which reaches from secret histories to conspiracy theories, medieval carvings to tarot cards, transvestite saints to a tale about a pope giving birth in the street, Peter Stanford delivers a major piece of historical detective work that may convince even the staunchest of skeptics.

Editorial Reviews

Megan Harlan
. . .the lack of primary source evidence. . . makes Joan's legend impossible to prove. But Standford renders the myth itself—how this woman who penetrated the ultimate men's club has been represented, reviled, and revered for more than a millenium—in fascinating detail. -- Entertainment Weekly
The legend has it that a brilliant English woman, disguised as a man, managed to reign as Pope in the years 855 to 857 and that during a papal procession she gave birth to a son, right there on the street, and was instantly stoned to death by the outraged citizens of Rome. Stanford has undertaken a comprehensive and well-documented search to determine the validity of the legend, a task made rather difficult, if not impossible, by the mists of history, a wealth of contradictory evidence and the frustrating bemusement of the Catholic Church.
Since the 13th century, Joan's story has turned up in song, play, novel, history, biography and numerous medieval texts. Stanford's book is a good summary of all this with interesting tales of religious cross-dressing, Church conspiracies and wonders such as a unique marble chair, residing now in the Vatican Museum, that was used for several centuries after Pope Joan to determine the correct gender of Popes.
Despite the fact that Stanford's predilection for referring to Pope Joan as "the she-pope" conjures up images of a feral, befrocked female in white papal garments howling at the moon from Saint Peter's, Stanford's story is an interesting one, particularly on the cusp of the Millennium. Unfortunately, his writing does not sparkle, and too often becomes a somewhat dull recitation of historical possibilities.
-Marshall Cohen
Library Journal
British journalist Stanford (The Devil, LJ 9/15/96) engagingly relates the legend of the English woman who, disguised as a man, was elected pope in 853 and deposed or killed in 855 when her gender became known, perhaps because she gave birth. Stanford's careful research finds much support for the basic historicity of this widespread myth. He recounts his journeys to find manuscripts telling of a pope between the reigns of Leo IV and Benedict III and discusses the possibility that Protestants altered manuscripts by inserting Joan in order to discredit the papacy. Stanford discovers visual art depicting women functioning as celebrants of the Eucharist, as well as references to statues of Pope Joan, stories of her burial, and a seat new popes sat on to have their ownership of testicles verified. Carefully researched and of broad interest; recommended for general and specialized collections.--Carolyn M. Craft, Longwood Coll., Farmville, VA
Kirkus Reviews
A flimsy argument for the existence of a female pope in the ninth century.

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Chapter One

`Rome has spoken; the case is concluded' Saint Augustine of Hippo

In overcrowded cities like London, you get used to living without a view. Save for a favoured few whose homes are cheek by jowl with the great parks, historic churches, or the river, there is seldom anything of interest outside your window unless you are an inveterate curtain twitcher or an aspiring member of Neighbourhood Watch. Holidays, however, are different. You find yourself in strange and intriguing places. You are an outsider with the incentive and the time to find a spot where you can sit back and watch the world go by.

    My late-spring sojourn in Rome had been hastily arranged. A friend offered his flat and I wanted to get away. It all seemed perfect, fated even, for those tempted by predestination. But the summer heat had come early and after a couple of over-ambitious rambles around the streets and shrines of this warm nest of the Renaissance, sunstroke threatened and lethargy set in.

    The apartment was what estate agents might call ingeniously planned -- tiny and claustrophobic. It did, however, have one redeeming feature, enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that overwhelmed the studio room. I would collapse most afternoons into the big, deep, pink armchair in front of this opening, catching whatever breeze was around and pretending to read one of the doorstopper tomes I had brought with me -- classically long, potentially enthralling but in my weakened state hardly page-turners. More often than not, I was content to gaze out on the square below.

    It could hardly be described asbeautiful, in the way that, say, the Piazza Navona is majestically beautiful in its perfect proportions. It had no equivalent of Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain in the centre. Indeed, it was barely a square -- more like the confluence of a number of streams where the via dei Querceti widens and flows into several other roads.

    The people made it a place. Italians have a marvellous habit of living their lives with great drama on the street. For them this small space was stage enough. The world outside my window was a daily soap opera with the flower seller, the greengrocer and the newspaper vendor interacting with each other. Occasionally they were interrupted by a passing pilgrim or the ironworkers and stone masons who have made this area, at the foot of the Coelian Hill, their quarter. It was a play in a thousand tiny acts, shared intimacies, significant looks, cold shoulders, heated exchanges, wounded exits stage right to the slightly seedy coffee bar, all observed without fear of being spotted from my box in the sky.

    The backdrop to this plot was more functional than spectacular. For days I hardly noticed it at all. The architecture of this backwater of Rome, tucked away between the Colosseum, commanding as it does the main traffic artery, and the great cathedral of Saint John Lateran -- once the headquarters of Christianity until the popes, on their return from exile in Avignon in the fourteenth century, decided to make the Vatican their base -- was nothing to write home about, at least in Roman terms. It has, like every corner of this city, at least half a dozen sites that any other town would celebrate with plaques and signposts, but for Rome they are the `B' and `C' list celebrities -- the Basilica of Saint Clement, built on the ruins of an earlier pagan temple and emphasising Rome's many histories; the twelfth-century fortress Church of Santi Quattro Coronati; and the Irish College, a seminary with colourful figures and legendary hospitality.

    The main visitor routes bypassed what could be seen from my aerial vantage point. The whole area had an insular feel, cut off from the everyday business of Rome two streets away on the main drag of the via San Giovanni in Laterano, bustling between the centro storico and the popular housing areas beyond the basilica. This was an enclave within a city, a back garden of trees, wistaria and weeping bushes rambling over the crumbling walls that flanked the streets leading away from the square. Even the traffic, the constant accompaniment to life in Rome, was intermittent. The occasional ancient Fiat, roaring into life with a rattle like cutlery in a tumble-drier, would drown the buzz of conversation, but for the most part what cars, taxis and cycles there were, passed or parked unnoticed.

    There were, of course, lulls, intervals in the performance punctuated only by the regular -- and I thought in the early hours of the morning remorseless -- ringing of the bells of Saint Clement's. And it was in these breaks that my eyes would scan the set. The shuttered windows, the anonymous doorways, the firmly bolted gateways, the back entry to the store-room of the local pizzicheria offered little sustenance to the imagination. So my attention settled on the little shrine -- or edicola as an Italian friend corrected me when I offered her a guided tour of my panorama -- directly opposite my window. It looked more like a sentry box, bolted to the wall, guarding the point where the via dei Santissimi Quattro Coronati began its steep ascent from the square to the church itself. Occasionally funereal carnations would decorate the shrine. I suspected that it was the flower seller finding a home for blooms well past their sell-by date in a budget gesture of devotion. But try as I might, I never witnessed her placing them there behind the locked gates.

    I once sat out in the square, among the parked cars, watching the edicola in the hope of putting a face to its decorator. To pass the time, I scribbled away with inconsequential thoughts and sketches in my notebook. This seemed to attract an undue amount of attention from those drivers -- mainly elegant women -- who left their cars double and triple parked. Two or three stood staring nervously at me and then got back in their vehicles and drove off. Might they be the secret edicola devotees, I wondered? Italian women are famously pious, and there is often a direct link between the strength and superstition of their faith and the cost of their clothes. Or did they think I looked like a car thief? Perhaps I should have shaved, but I was on holiday.

    Finally one woman, her hennaed shoulder-length hair glinting strange shades in the morning sun, revealed the truth. She came over and asked if I was a plain-clothes policeman noting down her registration number to give her a fine. I had a suspicion her hand rummaging in her Gucci bag presaged the offer of a bribe, but when I denied it, she shrugged and said, `It's what happens today.' And then she walked off. Confused and slightly flushed, I abandoned my vigil soon afterwards.

    I couldn't quite get the edicola out of my mind and, wandering home one lunch-time a few days later, I spotted a card attached to a garish cocktail of purple and pink carnations. `My inspiration,' the simple message read. I peered in at the edicola. Despite the flaking ochre-coloured walls, its interior was dark. A faded fresco of the Madonna and Child could be made out beyond the greenish grille. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, I saw that it was beautiful without necessarily bringing anything new to its overworked subject. Striking an incongruous note, there was also a ghastly, cloying statuette of Saint Anthony of Padua, clearly a more recent addition. There was something in the neglect and irreverence with which this peeling wayside edicola was treated -- its sides had that day been plastered by bill stickers advertising 30 Giorni, ironically a church-operated magazine -- that appealed to the melancholy romantic in me. The almost fluorescent colour of the flowers against the pale, sandy-coloured, dirt-encrusted background seemed very poignant. The edicola recalled in my mind those overgrown angels and crosses you find in unkempt countryside cemeteries, once loved and tended but today forgotten by all but a handful of devoted souls.

    Later still, I was ensconced in my armchair, staring out as I wrote my diary and it occured to me to record this hackneyed pensee. To lift it out of the mire of the commonplace I decided to add a little detail and so searched for any reference to the shrine or indeed the area in the many guidebooks that littered the flat -- a reproach, I had already decided, to my lack of sightseeing gusto.

    Was the phantom flower donor the only champion of this wayside edicola? Evidently yes. Most guides did not even give it a mention. They took you straight from the wonders of Saint Clement's through the Quattro Coronati -- with its legend of the Christian stone masons who refused to make a statue of a pagan god and who were martyred for their defiance -- and on to Saint John Lateran. However, in one book I happened across an intriguing clue. In her Companion Guide to Rome, the English historian Georgina Masson finds herself in the square below my window, looking up the hill to Santi Quattro Coronati.

Walking up it we pursue exactly the opposite route to that taken in the old days by the papal cavalcade or the `possesso' on its way to the Lateran; and thereby hangs one or the most fabulous tales of Roman folklore. The papal cavalcade proceeded up the via dei SS Quattro Coronati to this point and then changed over to the via di San Giovanni in Laterano, because in the lower part of the street there was a house known to the Roman populace as that of `Papessa Giovanna'. Some fragment of a classical relief, showing a woman with her breast bared and a child in her arms, marked the spot; this was removed and the whole house pulled down by order of Pius IV in 1550. How it came to be associated with the fantastic legend, or perhaps even gave rise to it, is not known. But the fact remains that for centuries the Romans told the story of how an Englishwoman called Joan succeeded in being elected as Pope John VIII.

It was at this spot, Masson continued, that Joan, who had hitherto disguised herself as a man, was revealed when she gave birth to a child in the street. `Both she and it', Masson concludes, `were killed by the outraged populace and buried by the roadside.'

    A fantastic legend indeed. This had certainly not been on the curriculum of my Christian Brothers' school. I was taught that Nicholas Breakspear as Hadrian IV was the only English Pope. A woman pope in an organisation that prides itself, in its clerical reaches at least, on being an all-male club would be a sensation with profound implications for the ongoing debate on women priests. The Catholic church's objection to female ordination is based not on scripture but on tradition. There never have been women priests so there never can be. That argument might be difficult to sustain if once a woman had sat on Saint Peter's throne.

    What is more, one of Catholicism's proudest boasts concerning the papacy -- that there is an apostolic succession down from Christ to Saint Peter and thence on to his successors, all of them by this token divinely ordained -- would be subject to some revision if a woman had been part of that unbroken line. For even if Joan fooled the men around her, she could not have tricked God. He would have known her real identity and gender. Did God want a female pope? And if he did, where does that leave the current Catholic ban on women at the altar?

    My mind was racing ahead, shaking off my holiday lethargy. Ms Masson was careful in describing as a legend her account of what might have taken place outside my window. Legends are usually a sliver of fact mixed with a large dollop of fiction. What was real, I wondered, and what fantasy?

    A renewed search along the flat's shelves and thereafter in one of Rome's several English bookshops yielded further if inconclusive clues. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes did not include its account in the main chronological section. Joan clearly was not someone to be mentioned in the roll-call of honour of popes, though many a male interloper, the `anti-popes' who had seized the throne by force against the will of the Church, was nevertheless included. Joan was relegated to an appendix. The same details were rehearsed as had been relayed in Masson -- though it had her down as `a native of Mainz in Germany, not England' -- and some references were given to various medieval chronicles that told the tale. The tone was sceptical, but ended with a curious tale that Joan had given rise to stories about popes having to undergo a test to prove they were men.

     This was beginning to ring a bell. When I was editor of a Catholic newspaper in London, one of our regular columnists, a Welsh priest called Father John Owen, a man with a tendency to speak the truth even when it hurt, had recorded just such a tale as fact.s There had been a cardinal whose anointed role it was, when a new pope was selected, to touch the candidate's testicles to make sure he was a man. There had even been a special chair to carry out the procedure. The article had prompted a deluge of rude letters from other priests, usually a sure sign that the author was on to something, but perpetually battered and bruised by such assaults I had never followed it up.

     Back in my own chair, I was fascinated. Here was something interesting, a holiday distraction. Where, I wondered, as I looked out of the window, might the little edicola fit in? The Madonna and Child, surely, could have no part in this tale of deception and skullduggery. Then another explanation occurred to me, shocking at first, but just possible. Could this be another woman with her infant, a woman by repute the antithesis of Christ's mother, a con-woman with her bastard child at her breast minutes before she was murdered for her treachery, the woman described in Georgina Masson's account? Had Anthony of Padua been added later to give the shrine a veneer of orthodoxy? Was the phantom florist worshipping Our Lady, or the memory of a woman who shocked the church to its foundations? Could the bas- relief that Ge0rgina Masson writes of have survived, or been copied in such a way that both Joan and the Virgin were venerated in a single image? This neglected edicola might just have a story to tell after all.

The international headquarters of Catholicism is a place where the outward signs of devotion and belief are often contradicted by what goes on behind closed doors. On one level, Rome - in many of the rituals associated with particular spots - sports almost pagan beliefs in what the old Penny Catechism used to deem signs and wonders. The beautiful sixth-century church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, for instance, gives its blessing to a strange circular mask-like face in the porch known as the 'Bocca della verità'. The mouth is open and visitors are challenged to place their hands inside. Those who have not followed the path of truth risk having their hands bitten off. The church authorities apparently see no harm in this ancient superstition.

     And on another more everyday level, there is the strong whiff of hypocrisy that pervades God's business address on earth. During my stay, one priest was planning a court challenge to a hospital's refusal to

place him and his partner on a waiting list for in vitro fertilisation treatment. Like many couples, they wanted a child. But he had taken a vow of celibacy. His actions prompted shrugs and laughs among the characters outside my window, but no disbelief, and certainly no calls for his resignation.

     Only in Rome would this be possible. Hypocrisy in northern Europe revolves around not mentioning things, covering up double standards and double-speak for what those doing it often judge to be positive reasons. In Rome, and more generally in Italy, hypocrisy takes another and more negative form, a devil-may-care attitude. The Romans have even cobbled together their own word for it - menefregismo, literally 'I couldn't give a fuck'ism'. It pervades local, regional and national politics. And it affects the way the society functions. The Father who wants to be a father prompts only thoughts of 'good for him if he can get away with it'.

     Here in Rome then, only in Rome, could the story of Pope Joan seem possible. Only here might a woman in drag have pulled off the ultimate scam.

Behind its castellated walls the Vatican Museum contains a dizzying array of treasures. Michelangelo's Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, the 'Raphael Rooms' decorated by the master of the Italian Renaissance, priceless tapestries, early maps, even horse-drawn car- riages all attract a constant procession of awestruck admirers. The Catholic church is custodian to one of the greatest, largest and most eclectic collections of art, artefacts and ob}ets in the world.

     With their knack for organisation and compartmentalising every aspect of human existence, the Vatican authorities offer four well- signposted routes around their vast exhibition hall of a museum. Even those who opt for the most arduous option see only a fraction of what is on display. Tucked away in antechambers and dusty corners are exhibits that have been left in a kind of limbo, technically within the fold of the museum but outside the boundaries of the authorised version. They are unexplained and often unlit, glimpsed only by those who lose their way or else show extraordinary cussedness and independence of spirit in refusing to be regimented on ready-made route marches.

     It was for just such a musty corner that I was heading with my new- found purposefulness. A bit of digging had identified the Gabinetto delle Maschere ('Mask Room') as containing the infamous 'ball-feeling' chair. In the entrance hall of the museum, various closures were announced, but there was no mention of the Gabinetto, nor of the larger Galleria delle Statue which leads to it. So I took a deep breath and scaled the long, gently sloping and circular ramp that rises up from street level to the ticket desks. I paid my money and followed the signs, through a courtyard and past a gaggle of Korean nuns whose passive stares refused to meet my eyes. These were the only women allowed any sort of official role in the contemporary Catholic church and even then as a kind of superior line in laity. Nuns have never had any claim on clerical status. What would they make, I wondered as I galloped up some steps, across another courtyard and through the sculpture gallery to the Gabinetto, of the idea of a woman pope?

    My path was blocked by a `No Entry' sign and a chain. A smart young man in an expensive suit with a badge identifying him as a Vatican Museum employee was standing nearby. I explained -- with just a hint of hyperbole -- that I had come all the way from London to see one item in the Gabinetto and wondered if it were possible, for a few moments only, for him to let me in. It was, after all, only a matter of unhooking the chain.

    He appeared genuinely sympathetic to my predicament, but patiently explained that it was much more complicated than I imagined. He led me to a more senior colleague -- in the Vatican Museum seniority is designated by a uniform and a surly attitude. The room was closed, he proclaimed, because of a shortage of staff. He directed me to the Information Desk on street level to make my representations.

    As I retraced my steps, I caught sight of myself in one of the security mirrors, pushing past smiling, relaxed holiday-makers, a frown of impatience imprinted on my forehead, a man possessed. Not for the last time in the months ahead, I wondered what on earth I was doing looking into the riddle of Pope Joan, playing ecclesiastical detective in the manner of Ellis Peters's Brother Cadwael. The pink armchair that had been my holiday home suddenly beckoned.

    The Information Desk attendant was wholly unimpressed that I had once edited a Catholic newspaper in London. Whether it was the editing, the paper or those weak-kneed, liberal-minded, quasi-Protestant English Catholics he objected to, I could not fathom. `Are you a student of art?' The attendant put it in a neutral tone, taking a pad out of his desk. It was going to take a white lie.

    A second, younger, man was summoned by telephone to accompany me. I assumed that we were off to the Mask Room. But no, we arrived via two lifts in the administration block. At least it avoided the stairs again. I was handed over to a mustachioed man in a uniform behind a desk. He asked me how long I needed. `Five minutes.' I was trying to be accommodating. He disappeared. Five minutes passed. I began to worry that I was having my allotted time here in the waiting room.

    On the stroke of five, he returned with a middle-aged woman. She had another form for me to fill in. `Art student' I carefully inscribed in capitals. Again it acted as an absolution. Then she disappeared. Finally another young man in short sleeves appeared in the room. He was to accompany me, he explained, but first he needed to find his jacket. Old-world courtesies are important here. Nakedness, even of arms, is only tolerated in the exhibits.

    Finally we set off, back to the main ticket hall and through the galleries. Half-way there, I was handed over to another guardian. `No staff,' he explained apologetically as he undid the chain on the Mask Room. `Never open.' I resisted pointing out that a time-and-motion study could easily yield at least half a dozen potential guardians, all of them currently underemployed with form-filling and five-minute absences.

    The Gabinetto delle Maschere was being used as an informal storeroom, bits of lighting equipment, scaffolding and scraps of black paper everywhere, covering what is its principal attraction, a mosaic floor, taken from Hadrian's Villa at nearby Tivoli. It includes masks in its design. Hence the name of the room. With eyes downcast to take in this marvel of antiquity, you could easily miss the huge commode-like chair in aubergine marble which sits in the window recess. It carries no explanatory note, only a thick coat of dust.

    It's a strange object. There is, for a start, something curious about its proportions. The seat is very high and has cut into it a keyhole shape, the stem open to the front. On closer examination it could be an elderly, rather grand commode, once used by popes, perhaps, but now an embarrassing reminder of their humanity. However, the chair back is at a curious reclining angle, far too relaxed, it would seem, for any practical bodily movement. And the legs, too, are unusual -- two slabs of marble down either side, ending in a flourish in the shape of a lion's claws, but leaving the centre, under the keyhole, open and uncluttered.

    Variously known as the sedia stercoraria -- which translates as the `dung chair' -- or, rather more understandably, as the `pierced chair', this then was the object used to test the sex of newly installed popes before they were handed the keys of Saint Peter. Any candidate chosen by his peers to occupy the papal throne was required, before his election could be verified, to sit on this elaborate seat while a young cardinal took advantage of its design to touch his testicles.

    There was only one way of testing this theory against the object before my eyes. My guardian angel had wandered off, leaving me all alone in the Mask Room. The chair wasn't behind railings and had, from the patterns in the dust, recently been used as an impromptu cupboard. It was almost inviting weary passers-by to sit down. With a glance behind me, I plonked myself down. It felt like a desecration. The Vatican Museum has the aura of a church and all my childhood training revolved around not touching anything in God's house. Pulse racing, white-faced, I leant back and back and back. As I'd thought, this could not be a commode. The angle of the back was more like a deck-chair. But the keyhole shape, I noticed as I brought my spine vertical, was in precisely the right place for the test.

    I slid off with a nervous jolt and tried to rake and rearrange the dust patterns with the pages of my notebook to cover my sacrilege before the attendant returned. When he reappeared I was studiously buried in scribbling. With a smile, I hurried off, tripping over the disengaged chain as I made for the exit before a thunderbolt struck.

    The story of checking the pope's masculinity may be a fantastic and much-ridiculed legend, I thought, but it stood up to the scrutiny of a casual investigation. In my mind I was already on to the next stage -- finding an eyewitness to this bizarre test. For that I would need a library.

There were more check-points to pass before I could keep my appointment with Father Leonard Boyle, the Irish Dominican who runs the Vatican Library. Since the Vatican functions -- like Monaco, San Marino and Andorra -- as a miniature sovereign state, you have to show your passport before you can enter the hub of the Catholic church via the Porta Sant'Anna. No one had mentioned this to me, however, and when I presented myself there several days later, it was only a British Museum reader's card that saved me from deportation.

    Offices in Rome tend to be huge with high ceilings to keep them cool in the height of the summer. Father Boyle's was no exception and dwarfed its resident. A slight man in his late fifties, his clerical garb was smart and exact. He had the air of a doctor working his way through a list of patients as he collected me from the reception room. I recounted my past career and my present interest in documentary evidence of strange tests on new popes and the history of Pope Joan. I had half expected to be shown the door for even breathing her name, but Father Boyle rested back in his chair, the faintest trace of a smile on his face.

    As he considered his response, the phone rang and he disappeared behind his monumental desk to deal with the arrangements for a group of pilgrims who wanted to see round the library. He was all charm and affability in conversation with the caller. I began to feel hopeful. The Catholic clergy contains many troubled, tortured and difficult individuals, hiding behind its power structures, but occasionally you meet wonderful, charming men, at ease with their vocation and channelling their energy into their chosen field with good humour and exceptional learning. Father Boyle might just be one of this endangered species.

    Once he'd finished his call, Father Boyle sauntered almost casually across his office and dropped a bombshell. I had happened upon the Vatican's unofficial expert on Pope Joan. Some thirty years previously, he explained, when as a young priest he had been based with his fellow Irish Dominicans at the ancient basilica of Saint Clement near my holiday flat, his enthusiasm for history had set him off researching -- among the many other legends connected with the area, he stressed -- the woman he jokingly referred to as `the local hero'.

    The church -- and he delved into an adjoining stock-room to produce his booklet on Saint Clement's -- is on the route of the possesso mentioned by Georgina Masson. `I even used to annoy the then rector', he recalled with a conspiratorial laugh, `by trying to persuade him to put a plaque up to her in the street outside, just to pull his leg.'

    A Donegal man, Father Boyle has spent nearly four decades in Rome, the last eleven in charge of the Vatican Library and its priceless collections of 150,000 volumes of manuscripts. One of the perks of the job, he said, was that it had given him a chance, in increasingly rare quieter moments, to follow up some of his youthful passions. Like Pope Joan.

    He began listing some of the medieval manuscripts that referred to Joan. While I recognised a few from my initial reading, Father Boyle appeared to be talking about a Domesday Book's worth of sources. Before my eyes Pope Joan was transformed from potentially the creation of one long-forgotten writer of malicious fairy-tales into a regular feature of medieval literature about the papacy.

    As if reading my mind, Father Boyle made his position clear. `The most interesting part of the legend', he said, resting back against his desk, `is not whether it is true or not. Of course it's not.' He must have sensed that I was crestfallen. `But where did those medieval chroniclers get the story from? That's where the real detective work needs to be done. More to the point, if they all copied each other, where did the first person get it from?'

    He was several steps ahead of me, but his enthusiasm was contagious. The next few days -- and possibly weeks -- unfolded. In a library. For Father Boyle, it was a manuscript mystery, a question of sources. The task -- not an easy one, he freely acknowledged -- was to search out the source of an ancient Chinese whisper.

    First I needed to be quite sure that he felt there was no truth in the story. `Elements in it are true,' he conceded. `For instance, it's quite true that popes were in the habit of stopping off at San Clemente on their way from the Vatican to the Lateran. They passed that way. If it was the middle of the day they would stop for lunch and if it was evening, they might stay the night. That this happened in the early Middle Ages can be proved. But the whole story of Pope Joan -- no.'

    `Weren't you ever tempted to take your research further?' I ventured, knowing the answer. He gestured at the heaps of papers waiting for his attention all around him as if to say `one day, perhaps'. On cue, the telephone interrupted our conversation again.

    `Another thing you should be looking at', he continued when he put down the receiver, `is the role of Bernard Guy, the arch-inquisitor.' Father Boyle had, it seemed, allocated me the task of tracking down Pope Joan. I noted the name. `He was the role model, I've been told, for Umberto Eco's hero in The Name of the Rose.' Guy, Father Boyle said, was a tough historian who dedicated himself to separating the wheat from the chaff when it came to legends, yet he left the story of Joan `a bit in the air'. `He repeats her legend and adds the words "as it is said". He doesn't say it's true, but then he doesn't dismiss it.'

    There were other parts of the riddle that needed probing. Like the role of his own order, the Dominicans, in promoting the story of Pope Joan. `It was largely Dominican writers who were involved. Martin of Poland was a Dominican and a very distinguished lawyer. So if it was a trick, why would he have written about her?' Another name to note. I was twitching to get on.

    In the library itself, the card index revealed a plethora of references to Joan. They were half-way through computerisation, Father Boyle explained, as he took me on a short tour of the facilities. Oblivious to my very un-Roman desire to sit down straight away and go through the sources, he led me to the coffee bar that he had established for users of the library.

    My cappuccino downed with unseemly haste, I was about to take my leave when I managed to articulate a thought that had been niggling away for some time now. Wasn't the story embarrassing for the Vatican, I asked. Should he be helping me and, more to the point, should I be contemplating researching such a tale?

    `Nicely embarrassing.' He grinned. `No one gets in the least worked up about it.' And then he considered. `It's not even embarrassing. These stories are just taken as part of it all. It is flattering that the Church has so much woven around it.'

Meet the Author

Former editor of London's Catholic Herald, Peter Stanford appears regularly in the Guardian and the Indepent. The author of The Devil (Holt, 0-8050-3082-4) ("A vivid, impish and tantalizing work on the dark side."-Melvin Bragg), he lives in London.

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