Supposedly, almost one thousand years ago, a woman rose to the top of the Catholic church and became Pope. Of course, she was disguised as a man, which was only uncovered when she gave birth. For the most part, this story has been dismissed as just that, as there are no contemporary records. There is no gap in the Papal timeline and not even any enemies of the Papacy gleefully highlighting this scandal.
However, the legend of Pope Joan has captured the imagination of many, leading to novels, films and art. It has also inspired Louise Brealey’s play Pope Joan, performed recently by the National Youth Theatre. Shoshana Devora went to the production, held in a church, to review it for The F-Word.
Shoshana finds much of Pope Joan thought-provoking, but is unconvinced by the Pope’s sudden and various changes in heart. She writes:
Brealey contrasts scenes of Pope John preparing for Easter Sunday, with Joanna, the girl she once was. We see that Joanna was a curious, inquisitive and religious child, full of questions and desirous of knowledge but denied learning due to her accident of birth as a woman. Joanna, aware of the restrictions upon her, chooses to cut her hair and don male clothes in order to enter a seminary and pursue learning. She excels there but is constantly punished for her obstinate insistence on recognising non-traditional texts and opinions. She believes in a Christianity where Jesus valued Mary Magdalene: a scorned character for Medieval Christians.
However, there is a glaring gap between the young girl and the older Pope, and at no point do we see just how the idealism of Joanna transforms itself into the somewhat stiff cruelty of the Pope. We understand why Joanna chooses to live as a man, but not why the behaviour she then enacts is so vindictive.
The photo, by Helen Maybanks, shows Pope John in a red robe walking through a church, hands together in prayer, followed by a man in monk’s garments holding a flaming torch.