Groping the pope

I’ve just finished teaching CTHTHEO 254/354 Continuity and Change, a survey of the history of Christianity between c500 and c1600. It coincided happily with TV3’s screening of The Borgias.

In the first episode Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (played by Jeremy Irons) is elected Pope Alexander VI (r1492-1503) and before his election is announced, he’s required to sit on a portable throne while his nether regions are groped by a functionary. The assembled cardinals are then assured: habet duos testiculos et bene pendentes (he has two well hung testicles).

Pope Joan giving birth during a procession. Illustration from Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium et reconditarum centenarii XVI (1600)

Some of the students in Continuity and Change already knew about the ritual and its connection with the story of Pope Joan. It’s alleged that this test of the pope’s masculinity was introduced after “Agnes” a German woman of English descent managed get herself elected as “Pope John” in the 9th century. Her subterfuge was only found out when she gave birth somewhere between the Colosseum and the basilica of San Clemente while on a procession to Saint John Lateran (there’s a little edicule at the corner of via dei Querceti and via Santi Quattro which is said to mark the spot — but probably doesn’t).

People I once thought quite reliable have assured me that the ritual shown on the Borgias (or something like it) was performed well into the 20th century. Ex-MP and raconteur Giles Brandreth likewise claims on BBC’s QI, that it “still happens”. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve even passed this anecdote on to a class or two.

Habet! ("He's got them") illustration from Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium et reconditarum centenarii XVI (1600)

But in fact it doesn’t happen and and never did. It’s not clear whether the story of Pope Joan or that of the ceremonial grope came first. However, as Alain Boureau suggests in The Myth of Pope Joan, the two became connected in a well circulated rumour which coloured what eye-witnesses to mediaeval and early modern papal coronations believed they were watching. The result was the oft-repeated report of a, “a public rite always seen by others, never by the narrator” (Boureau, 27).

In fact there were at least two rituals involving seats or chairs around the Lateran basilica, both of them connected with the papal election and coronation. One of these seats was called the sedes stercoraria or stercorata (the “dung seat” or commode). Cardinals ritually seated and then raised the pope from the chair in the portico of the Lateran basilica. This was supposed to represent the words from Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:8 (“He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap – de stercore erigit pauperem — to make them sit with princes, and inherit a seat of honour). The pope then went into the Lateran basilica and was invested with symbols of office as he sat alternately on two seats made of porphyry. Both seats had holes in them; they were originally either posh toilets or birthing chairs. One is apparently preserved today in the Vatican Museums (though I don’t trust anything anyone tells me about this stuff any more). The 15th century historian of the papacy Bartolomeo Platina confused matters by claiming (understandably) that the “dung seat” was the one with the hole in it. Whatever the case, rumours of a gender test became attached to the ritual involving a seat with a hole, and thus handy access to the papal undercarriage.

The mediaeval sources relating to the legend of Pope Joan and the gender test were collected together in 1600 by the German legal scholar and antiquarian Johann Wolf in a book with the racy title, Sixteen centuries of memorable and abstruse reading matter. This became the chief source for later purveyors of the Pope Joan legend and of the papal gender test. Thanks to the wonders of Google Books, a digitized version can now be read online, and it’s the source of the illustrations above.

All of this leaves unanswered the question of where the original rumour came from. Alain Boureau’s Myth of Pope Joan deals in lavish and entertaining detail with the origins and long life of Pope Joan story. The female pope may have her origins in Roman carnival rituals designed to mark and mock the papal coronation. Interestingly, too, the oldest surviving version of the story is from the mid-13th century, about the time a cult developed in Italy around Saint Guglielma, who was venerated by her followers as the Holy Spirit incarnate. Her successor, a Sister Maifreda was described as a “popess” and Guglielma’s “vicar” on earth.

Regarding the test itself, I haven’t been able to find any source earlier than the connection made between Pope Joan and the ritual chairs. I wonder whether the rumour echoed some earlier procedure for ascertaining whether or not a bishop was a eunuch. The Canons of the Council of Nicea (and western canon law subsequently) forbade the ordination of those who’d deliberately castrated themselves. On the other hand they permitted the ordination of those who’d been involuntarily castrated — e.g. by barbarians or doctors — so this conjecture is a pretty flimsy one.

I’d welcome any further information.


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About Nick Thompson

Lectures in Church History at the University of Auckland
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6 Responses to Groping the pope

  1. Mark says:

    A little bit of library trivia … she alone has the LC subject heading “Legendary Pope”

  2. Nick Thompson says:

    Thanks for the link, Mark. We’re thinking of having some Theology film evenings next year. If the new version’s obtainable (and worth watching!) it might be a good addition to the “season.”

    Someone needs to write a research article on the ideological commitments of the Library of Congress subject headings – though preferably not me.

  3. Pingback: Long, shiny, gleaming, steaming hair | Auckland Theology, Biblical Studies, et al

  4. Ari Frankel says:

    this post looks most convincing to me, in that ” it wasn’t to check for females masquerading as males, but to make sure that males had not been subject to self- or forced castration”: http://popes-and-papacy.com/wordpress/the-sedes-stercoraria-and-the-legendary-pope-joan/

  5. News Reader says:

    I just found your blog from a link on the BBC website in a story about the papal conclave:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21514787

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