The Vatican's Women: Female Influence at the Holy See

The Vatican's Women: Female Influence at the Holy See

by Paul Hofmann

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The Vatican's Women: Female Influence at the Holy See by Paul Hofmann

Four hundred of the 3,800 people who permanently live or work in the State of Vatican City, the smallest sovereign and independent state on the globe, are women. They are nuns and members of the laity; some are housekeepers of churchmen; others are secretaries, translators, editors, lawyers, and middle-level officials of the papal administration.

Expansive in scope and enlightening in detail, The Vatican's Women recalls women who wielded power in the Vatican, including St. Catherine of Siena, Queen Christina of Sweden, Mother Pascalina (Pope Pius XII's longtime housekeeper and confidante), and Mother Teresa. With an unflinching eye, Paul Hofmann examines the papacy's reaction to Catholic women's (and nuns') liberation, and women's struggles, especially today, to fortify their positions within the Church. The Vatican's Women is a thorough and revealing exploration that will herald a new level of insight and dialogue amongst feminists, theologians, and laypeople alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429975476
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/08/2002
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 214 KB

About the Author

Paul Hofmann was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times for almost thirty-five years and was chief of its Rome Bureau. He is the author of many nonfiction books, including Seasons of Rome and That Fine Italian Hand. He lives in Rome.

Paul Hofmann was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times for almost thirty-five years and was chief of its Rome Bureau. He is the author of The Vatican's Women, and presently a contributor to the Sunday magazine of the Times, as well as its Travel section. He lives in Rome.

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The Vatican's Women

Female Influence at the Holy See

By Paul Hofmann

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Paul Hofmann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-7547-6



Through the centuries Roman gossip and folklore bestowed the nickname "popess" on various women who were believed to wield undue power or influence at the summit of the church. The prototype of them all — whether a myth or (less likely) a historical figure — was supposed to have actually been pontiff herself for some time and to have performed credibly in the job until she was unmasked by biology.

The story of "Popess Joan" was generally accepted as true until the end of the Middle Ages. The New Catholic Encyclopedia 1 recalls that Jan Hus, the Bohemian religious reformer, reproached the assembled prelates and theologians at the Council of Constance (1414-18) "with Popess Joan whose existence no one denied." Bringing up the unwelcome old tale didn't do any good to Hus; the council condemned him as a heretic for doctrinal reasons (not for the Popess Joan story) and had him burned at the stake in 1415.

The saga of Popess Joan (in Latin: Papissa Iohanna) comes in different versions, narrated by chroniclers and preachers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They all apparently drew their material from an old Roman popular and clerical tradition, which may have had its origins in the notorious role that the influential and manipulative women of the Theophylactus clan (see below) played in the early tenth century.

The written sources, including reports by Dominican and Franciscan authors, have as their subject a woman, either German or English, usurping the papal throne for a brief period in the ninth, tenth, or eleventh century. The female impostor's real name is variously supposed to have been Agnes, Gilberta, Glaucia, or — in German — Jutta.

The most widely accepted account was that of the Polish Dominican friar Martin of Troppau (now Opava in the Czech Republic, near the Polish border). According to Friar Martin, Pope Leo IV (847-55), a Roman, was succeeded by one Iohannes Angelicus ("English John" or "Angelic John"?) who styled herself John VIII; nobody suspected that the new head of the church was a woman.

A native of Mainz in Germany, she completed her studies in Athens, Friar Martin reports. When she was to return home, disguised as a man, she stopped in Rome. In the papal city she impressed everybody with her learning, was prevailed upon to stay, and became an ecclesiastical notary. She soon was made a cardinal and, after Leo IV's death, was elected pope.

She exercised the pontifical office with competence and dignity until her true sex was discovered. Secretly she had taken a lover and had become pregnant, concealing her condition under her heavy liturgical vestments. During a papal procession on the road leading from the Colosseum to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the historic see of the bishops of Rome, labor pains set in and she gave birth, prematurely it seems, to a male infant near the Church of St. Clement.

This church was erected in the fourth century and dedicated to the third successor of the Apostle Saint Peter; it was rebuilt in the early twelfth century, still exists today, and is the best-preserved medieval basilica in Rome. That Popess Joan's deception was clamorously uncovered near that church, now known as San Clemente, is unanimously affirmed by Martin of Troppau and the other chroniclers, although they disagree on many other details.

The impostor's punishment is variously described. The consensus is that she and her child died or were put to death. Popular speculation inevitably surrounded the case with lurid fantasies, alleging among many other things that the father of the popess's baby was Satan.

According to the Vatican's official chronology of the pontiffs, Saint Leo IV was succeeded in 855 by Benedict III, a Roman who reigned for less than three years, and was followed by Saint Nicholas the Great, another Roman (858-67). An antipope, Anastasius, known as the Librarian, is listed between brackets as having claimed the papal throne for just a few days in 855 and having died in 880. A Pope John VIII (872-882) is well documented because he prevented the Saracens who had invaded southern Italy from entering Rome by promising them an annual tribute; he was also deeply involved in the politics and wars of Charlemagne's successors and of various nobles in Italy. For the Vatican today, a female John VIII never existed.

In the minds of the Romans, however, the story of Popess Joan was reinforced by the discovery during the Renaissance of an ancient statue representing a male or female god or priest — accounts differ — with a serving boy. It was dug up near the traditional route of papal processions. On a stone nearby was a Latin inscription that was interpreted in different ways. Both finds were on display for some time near the Church of San Clemente, but Pope Saint Pius V (1566-72) is said to have ordered the removal of both the statue and the inscription; there is no trace of either anywhere today. A sculpture, believed to represent Popess Joan, was placed, together with statues of other popes, in the Cathedral of Siena, Tuscany, about the year 1500, but it too has disappeared.

Popess Joan's supposed moment of truth near the Church of San Clemente is believed to have prompted medieval popes to change the route of their traditional procession from what is today Via di San Giovanni in Laterano to the parallel street, Via dei Santi Quattro, to avoid passing the spot. Whenever the pope today visits the Lateran, he arrives there either by helicopter or by car with an escort of security officers on motorcycles, taking various routes, depending on the traffic situation. No formal papal cortege takes place in the area anymore. The Church of San Clemente has long been in the charge of Irish Dominicans.

An early literary adaptation of the Popess Joan tale can be found in De Claris Mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women), which Giovanni Boccaccio wrote in Latin between 1355 and 1359. The book by the French-born, Florentine-educated poet and novelist is probably the first collection of women's biographies in world literature. Its tone is much more sober than his famous Decameron, written twenty years earlier in sparkling and often mocking Tuscan idiom.

De Claris Mulieribus is evidence of the interest in women and sympathy for them that mark Boccaccio's entire oeuvre. Popess Joan is no. 99 in a gallery of 104 portraits of female protagonists, starting with Eve. Many of them are mythical, like Semiramis, Juno, or Helen of Troy; others are historical, like Julia, the daughter of Julius Caesar, and Ioanna, queen of Sicily, Naples, and Jerusalem (no. 104). Boccaccio did not include early Christian martyrs or medieval saints in his series of notable women.

The Joan who was to occupy the papal throne is characterized as "a woman whose unheard-of audacity made her known to the whole world and posterity." Boccaccio gives credit to the theory that she was a native of Mainz on the Rhine and that her original name was Gilberta. Still young, she had an affair with a student and "cast away maidenly fear and shame and fled from her father's house" to study, dressed as a man, with her lover in England. There everyone took her for a brilliant young cleric. When her lover died, she went to Rome, "already mature in years" (which in Boccaccio's time may have meant in her early thirties), and lectured there for a number of years.

Boccaccio places the start of Joan's pontifical adventure in the period after the death of Pope Leo V in 903, although most sources date it at 855, following Saint Leo IV's death. The cardinals, the writer reports, unanimously elected her to the papacy with the name of John VIII. "A woman, then, was the Vicar of Christ on earth. God, from on high, was merciful to his people and did not allow a woman to hold so lofty a place, govern so many peoples, and deceive them with such a wicked fraud."

Many readers of Boccaccio in his own day would have sensed authorial irony in these lines. He stresses that Joan until then had been "remarkably virtuous" but having arrived at the pinnacle of the church, "fell prey to the ardor of lust." She found "someone who would secretly mount St. Peter's successor and assuage her lecherous itching." She became pregnant and publicly gave birth between the Colosseum and the Church of St. Clement "without the presence of a midwife."

The cardinals threw the "wretched woman" into a dungeon, where she died. No mention of her child. Boccaccio notes that "down to our times" [the mid-fourteenth century] the popes during their traditional processions from the Colosseum to the Lateran at the halfway point turn away to take an alternate route because of their hatred of the place."

The story of Popess Joan, endorsed by a writer of Boccaccio's stature, became a favorite theme of the pamphleteers of the Protestant Reformation. The Jesuit scholar and cardinal Saint Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) and other Roman Catholic apologists confuted it as a fable. They received authoritative support from the French Protestant minister and historian David Blondel (1591-1655), who in two treatises, displaying his profound scholarship, declared the tradition of a woman on the papal throne to be a myth. Almost all reputable modern historians likewise reject the Popess Joan story.

A raunchy byproduct is the Roman folk tale of a secret rite performed after each papal election: before proclaiming the new head of the church, the cardinals have him sit on a chair with an opening in the seat and a young cleric crouches underneath to make sure by hand that the newly chosen personage possesses male genitals. Some collectors of historical anecdotes assert that the bodily examination was performed until the end of the sixteenth century or even later. Today quite a few Romans earnestly insist that the test of papal manhood is still a part of secret conclave procedures. This hardy perennial of local folklore may have originated from popular reinterpretation of the function of perforated marble or porphyry chairs (sellae pertuseae) dug up in the ruins of ancient thermae, or public baths, during excavations in the Renaissance era.

How deeply the story or legend of Popess Joan is rooted in popular culture in Italy, France, and other Roman Catholic countries may be seen from her appearance in card games. Popess, complete with triple crown on her head and baby in her arms, is included in old decks of cards along with such characters as Hermit and Justice.

Scheming Females

Undoubtedly historical, on the other hand, were Theodora and Marozia, whose memory may have given rise to the popess story. Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire calls them "two sister prostitutes" whose wealth, beauty, and scheming produced their enormous influence on ecclesiastical politics in the early tenth century. "The most strenuous of their lovers," Gibbon indignantly proceeds, "were rewarded with the Roman miter.... The bastard son, the grandson and the great-grandson of Marozia, a rare genealogy, were seated in the chair of St. Peter."

The English historian — who early in life had converted to Roman Catholicism, only to return soon to the Protestant faith — was never indulgent of the Church of Rome (or Christianity in general), yet he discounted "the fable of a female pope."

Marozia and Theodora domineered in Rome in a turbulent epoch, the nadir of the papacy. The city was haphazardly run by a clique of nobles to which the sisters' family belonged. The lords of Tusculum, ensconced in their fortress in the hillside twenty-five miles southeast of Rome, as well as the Frankish marquesses of Tuscany to the north and the German emperors of the Saxon dynasty, who with their troops periodically invaded Italy, continually interfered in the affairs of church government. Popes were created, controlled, humiliated, insulted, mistreated, deposed, imprisoned, and murdered at the whims of powerful outsiders.

One of the pontiffs of that dark era, Sergius III (904-11), had as his mistress Marozia, a daughter of Theophylactus, a papal dignitary, and of Theodora the Elder who claimed the title of senatrix (woman senator). The pope's licentious affair is reported by the Liber Pontificalis (Pontifical Book), a collection of medieval chronicles and biographical information concerning early popes that is an important source of church history, repeatedly quoted by the official Vatican yearbook (Annuario Pontificio) of our age.

In 931 Marozia had one of her sons, supposedly by Pope Sergius III, elected pontiff with the name of John XI. He nominally reigned for five years, a virtual prisoner in the Vatican, while his mother was in effect wielding pontifical powers for some time — a "popess" in all but name.

Marozia was thrice married: to Alberic I, duke of Spoleto, in 905; to Guido, marquess of Tuscany, in 925; and to Hugh, a Burgundian who styled himself "king of Italy," in 932. The elevation of her and (presumably) Pope Sergius III's son to the papacy as John XI signaled the peak of her power.

Her downfall came quickly. Another son (by her first husband), Alberic II, fomented an uprising of the Roman nobility and had her captured. Marozia was imprisoned in the Castel Sant'Angelo near the Vatican, and nothing was heard of her after the rebellion. She may have died of natural causes or violently in the papal fortress.

Marozia's son Alberic II governed Rome and the church sternly, though not as a pope, and on his deathbed in 954 had the cowed nobles and prelates swear to make his son Octavian the next pope as soon as the pontifical throne was vacant. After the death of the powerless Pope Agapitus II in 955, Octavian was indeed elected pontiff, assuming the name John XII; he was not yet twenty years old.

A respected Lombard chronicler, Liutprand, reports that Marozia's grandson John XII turned the Lateran Palace — then the papal residence — into a "school of prostitution" and that his outrageous conduct prevented female would-be pilgrims from visiting the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, meaning Rome, for fear of rape.

It took more than another hundred years filled with scandal, violence, confusion, and schisms — with nearly thirty popes and antipopes — before the forceful Benedictine monk Hildebrand of Tuscany, as Pope Gregory VII, managed to reform the church. Among other things, he enforced the rule of celibacy for all clerics under his obedience. He humbled the German emperor Henry IV at Canossa in 1077, only to be driven by him into exile a few years later. Rome proclaimed Gregory VII a saint in 1728.

When he was at the height of his political power at the Castle of Canossa, north of Bologna, in 1077, Gregory VII was the guest of Matilda, duchess or margravine of Tuscia (Tuscany). During three decades the well-educated, rich, and influential Matilda, known in her time as the "great countess," lent her support to four consecutive pontiffs against the German (Holy Roman) emperors. In a rare gesture of Vatican gratitude for a woman, Pope Urban VIII, a Florentine, had her remains transferred to Rome and reburied in St. Peter's in 1635.

The "great countess" bequeathed her vast estates to the church, but the papacy was able to take possession of only some of them, while others were won by different claimants.

Catherine's Letters

Another exceptional woman, the visionary and mystic Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-80), could offer the head of the church only advice and prayers, yet her impact on the papacy was of historic importance. Only twenty-nine years old but already considered a living saint, she went to Avignon, France, to urge Pope Gregory XI to end the nearly seventy-year "Babylonian captivity" of the pontiffs and take the government of the church back to Rome. Astonishingly, the illiterate quasinun in the long black cape of a penitent persuaded Gregory, an erudite Frenchman, to take just that momentous step, against the opposition of his cardinals and court and despite great odds.

Caterina Benincasa, the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children of a moderately well-to-do dyer with a large house on the outskirts of Siena, never went to school. As a late-born girl, she never received any formal education and could speak only her soft Sienese dialect. Yet most of the nearly four hundred letters that she dictated to disciples were addressed to popes, the emperor, military leaders, and other important personages and were taken seriously by them. (She wrote also to a prostitute in Perugia and to the prison inmates of Siena.) Her prose in the vernacular of Tuscany — used also by Dante in the Divine Comedy — has enriched the Italian language and literature.


Excerpted from The Vatican's Women by Paul Hofmann. Copyright © 2002 Paul Hofmann. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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