She Dressed as a Man and Gave Birth to Her Lover's Child. Is This the Truth about the English Girl Who Became History's Only Woman Pope? RELIGION,POPE,WOMEN

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UNDER the name of John, according to the ancient chroniclers, she was elected Pope in the mid-ninth century, and ruled over the Catholic world for two years, five months and four days.

Her name was Pope Joan, and since the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church has refused to admit her existence. The Vatican regards it as heresy to allow a woman into the apostolic succession. Apart from anything else, it would demolish the argument against Catholic women priests.

But Pope Joan refuses to evaporate into myth. There have been many novels about her, several plays and a 1972 film starring Liv Ullmann. A 1995 Chicago musical about her has been picked up by a New York producer with plans to transfer it to Broadway.

Every century, every decade, Pope Joan finds new supporters. The latest is Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald. In his new book, The She-Pope*, he rounds off his quest for the truth by concluding that Pope Joan did exist, and that, for a short time, she did indeed achieve the papacy.

The account of her life, from which nearly all subsequent historians take their cue, was given by Martin of Poland, a Dominican who was sent to Rome and who rose to become chaplain to Pope Clement IV (1265-68).

History was his passion, and with access to the Vatican libraries he compiled the scholarly, if not always reliable, Chronicle Of Popes And Emperors.

Completed in 1277, it enjoyed enormous popularity during the next three centuries. Few monastery libraries were without a copy.

From his Chronicle, and from other accounts both before and after Martin's, we can piece together a sketchy life of this extraordinary woman.

She was believed to have been born in or around Mainz, in Germany, in about 818 AD. Her parents were English missionaries, who had come to Mainz to join the English colony studying at the Benedictine foundation there. Joan was exceptionally clever, and became proficient in the liberal arts at an early age.

With her parents she visited the monastery at Fulda, celebrated as a centre of scholarship.

Normally, as a woman, the doors of the monastery would have been shut to her from the age of 12, but at least one medieval historian suggests that at Fulda she began dressing as a boy to continue her studies.

Some writers say that Joan went to England briefly - perhaps to one of the five famous women's monasteries which still existed here in the ninth century.

According to Martin, Joan then took a lover at Fulda and went with him to Athens, still in men's clothes, where 'she made such progress in various sciences that there was nobody equal to her'.

FROM Athens she went on to Rome and became a celebrated lecturer. In due course, writes Martin, 'for as much as she was in great esteem in the city, both for her life and her learning, she was unanimously elected Pope. But when Pope, she became pregnant by the person with whom she was intimate'.

Who this person was remains a mystery. One version of Martin's Chronicle claims that Joan was defiled by a secretary-deacon in her household.

Other medieval writers suggest it was the lover who took her to Athens. In any case, she hid her pregnancy until the last moment, when, surprised by birth-pangs during a papal procession from St Peter's to the Lateran, she gave birth to a son in a narrow street, now called the Vicus Papissa, between the Colosseum and the Church of St Clement.

There are various accounts of what happened next. Some say Pope Joan was set upon and killed by the outraged populace, and buried where she fell which is why, for centuries, the papal cavalcade, on its way to the Lateran, always made a detour so as to avoid the spot.

Others claim that she was thrown into prison and died there, or that she was deposed and took the veil, and her son became Bishop of Ostia. …