JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 910
to these dreadful stories this morning on NPR about the Vatican’s relations
with the Roman Jewish community and the abortive WWII papacy of Pope Pius XII—the
papacy of blank and missing compassion—I thought about the missing Papacy of
Pope Joan. Whether or not she existed is
a question of debate; whether she was a pope or not is perhaps even less
debatable. What seems not impossible
though is the ability of a large institution like the Catholic Church to make
the entire issue of unwanted history or legacy to go away.
The historicity of this papacy is long and shows the murkiness of the earliest writers on Joan. She was supposed to have served as pope between Leo IV and Benedict III around the year 850. The fuller versions of her history turn up in the 14th century, although the earliest mentions of a female bishop of Rome go back to the 9th century—Joan remains unnamed though until the 13th century when Martin of Opava’s Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum1(referring to Joan as “John Anglicus” or “John of Mainz”) does so for the first time.
Joan escapes the Middle Ages with a little flair, but doesn’t do so well in the Renaissance. As a Missing Piece in the history of the Papacy she turns up not-so-well represented: for example, she is seen here looking good but turning up bad overall as the Whore of Babylon2. She was treated as a disgrace, and impostor, someone who demeaned the Catholic institution by her sex and deception, though god knows that the history of the papacy is filled with horror stories3 that far exceed the reach of mere deception.
So I was thinking about the piecing-together of the Pope Joan jigsaw and remembered an actual “womanly” jigsaw that could actually be pieced together. This bit came together as a result of a post I did here just two days ago (What Goes Into Making Human Robot Girls, 1941), and was one of a series of intolerably heavy eight-page pamphlets cementing the structure of female social intercourse at the hands of the magazine The Ladies’ Home Journal.
One of these publications—hardly a pamphlet per se, just a folded 11x8 inch sheet of heavy stock—came without a title, presenting itself as a puzzle. The puzzle pieces are parts of two women, “Miss Popular” and “Miss Unpopular”: the reader was to take the publication, cut out the pieces, and reassemble them into hidden role models, with phrases describing each on the back of each puzzle piece, all done without the slightest possible understanding of metaphor or irony.
Miss Popular phrases/descriptors: live wire, plenty of push, wide awake, snappy looker, dependable, genuine, secret keeper, on-her-toes, spick and span, light hearted, all-around-student, straight-shooter, gossip scorner, sympathetic, cheerer-upper, sparkler.
Miss Unpopular’s phrases/descriptors: glory grabber, sour puss, cheater, sob-sister, snooty-snob, wet-blanket, borrower, prissy prig, sharp tongue, gory gossiper, clothes dummy, iceberg, sly and slippery, jellyfish, sticky-sweet, soft soaper (?) and of course fast and loose.
And so girls—or young women—picking up this publication in 1941 were expected to cut this thing up and piece together the proper (paper) role model using the reinforcing traits of meager acceptance printed on the back of the puzzle piece. And poor Pope Joan, whether she was real or not, whether she was imagined or sunk purposefully away into the Pandora’s sisters’ boxes of forced forgetfulness—it really doesn’t matter—is just another woman or part of woman’s puzzle whose blank or missing piece has been extruded, forced into a form more friendly to a world less friendly to women.
1.According to the Chronicon: “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…” [See continued reading section below for more]
3. Borgia and the Medicis not being the least of the story: see E.R. Chamberlin’s The Bad Popes, (1969)
“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.”