Movie revives controversy of 'She-Pope Joan'
HER story was considered so subversive that for centuries the Vatican tried to expunge it from the records.
Now a new film has revived the story of Pope Joan -- an Englishwoman who, legend has it, disguised herself as a man and became the only female pontiff.
The film will fuel the debate over whether Pope Joan really existed or whether, as the Catholic Church maintains, she was a mythical figure used by the early Protestants to discredit and embarrass Rome.
For a church that even in the 21st century remains staunchly opposed to the idea of female priests, a female pope was anathema.
The epic stars German actress Johanna Wokalek as the female pope, John Goodman as Pope Sergius II and the Lord of the Rings actor David Wenham as her lover.
It is based on a highly contentious story -- that in the ninth century, a baby girl was born in Germany to English missionary parents. According to legend, she was an unusually intelligent girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to enter a monastery.
She studied for a while in Greece before arriving in Rome, where she became a cardinal and served as physician to Pope Sergius II and was elected pontiff in 853. She supposedly ruled for nearly three years before her deception was found out.
One improbable account claims that she was riding a horse near the Colosseum when she went into labour.
The crowd, shocked and angered to find that the Holy Father was in fact a mother, either stoned her to death or had her dragged through the streets of Rome.
The church has long argued that Pope Joan is not mentioned in contemporary records and that the tale is a fantasy, cooked up by scheming Protestants.
'L'Avvenire', the newspaper of the Italian Bishops' Conference, dismissed the story as "a hoax". But proponents of the tale point out that papal records are almost non-existent in that era.
"The Roman clergymen of the day would have gone to great lengths to bury all written reports of the embarrassing episode," argues Donna Woolfolk Cross, on whose novel, 'Pope Joan', the film is based.
"The Dark Ages really were the dark ages," said Peter Stanford, a former editor of the 'Catholic Herald' and the author of 'The She-Pope'.
"There is absolutely no certainty about who the popes of the ninth century were. It's perfectly feasible that Joan existed." (© Daily Telegraph, London)