Sunday, 21 October 2012


“Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition” - Timothy Leary

Pope Joan (Johanna), according to legend, was a female Pope who supposedly reigned for a few years some time during the Middle Ages. The story first appeared in 13th-century chronicles, and was subsequently popularised and embellished throughout Europe in what was probably at the time, the equivalent of our “urban legends”.

The story of Pope Joan was widely believed for centuries, though modern scholars consider it fictitious, perhaps deriving from folklore that was transformed into historical writing, perpetuated perhaps by anti-papal satires. The first mention of the female pope appears in the chronicle of Jean Pierier de Mailly, but the most popular and influential version was that interpolated into the Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum by Martin of Troppau, later in the 13th century.

Most versions of the Pope Joan story describe her as a talented and learned woman who disguises herself as a man, often at the behest of a lover. In the most common accounts, due to her considerable intellectual abilities, she rises through the church hierarchy, eventually being elected pope. However, while riding on horseback she gives birth, thus exposing her true sex. In most versions, she dies shortly after, either being killed by an angry mob or from natural causes. Her memory is then shunned by her successors. In some stories her baby survived and eventually became Bishop of Ostia.

There have been a few attempts at transporting Pope Joan’s life into literature and film. The Modern Greek writer Emmanuel Rhoides (1836-1904) published his novel “Pope Joan” (Papissa Ioanna) in 1866, which resulted in his excommunication from the Orthodox Church on account of the book’s scathing attack on the clergy. The novel has been translated into English by Lawrence Durrell. In 1996, Donna Woolfolk Cross published her novel “Pope Joan” on which the film of 2009 was based. There is an earlier 1972 film version of “Pope Joan” starring Liv Ullman and directed by Michael Anderson with a scenario by John Briley.

At the weekend, we watched the 2009 version of “Pope Joan” , directed by Sönke Wortmann and starring Johanna Wokalek, David Wenham and John Goodman. The film was a German, Birtish, Italian, Spanish production and despite its €22,000,000 estimated budget, it didn’t give the impression of an expensive film. The costumes of the nobles, for example, were rather tinselly and reminded one of 1970s TV historical series. The settings, the crowd scenes and the CG cities are below average in their details, but still quite effective in the context of the story. If one did look carefully, one would be well aware of watching a low-budget movie (for comparison, “The Chronicles of Narnia – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” of 2010 had a budget of $155,000,000).

All things considered, however, the movie was quite engaging and despite its 150 minute run time, kept our interest up all the while. The plot chronicles the whole life of Johanna, from a precocious and intellectually gifted young girl in a back village of Germany to her elevation as Pope Joan in Rome. A romantic story interwoven with the more meaty parts of the script adds interest and exemplifies the battle between the flesh and the spirit that human beings are often engaged in.

The acting was generally very good, with Johanna Wokalek doing an excellent job as Joan/John and David Wenham playing a suitably heroic male lead and as Joan;s love interest. One of the pleasant surprises was John Goodman (of TV’s “Roseanne” fame) well cast as Pope Sergius, Joan’s predecessor. Some of the minor roles were also well acted, although others were only caricatures.

The film highlights the plight of ordinary women in medieval times, their lowly social position aided and abetted by the retrogressive attitude of the church and the writings of St Paul. Clever women must have abounded in those times, just as they do in any age. This film celebrates such an intellectually gifted woman, and although the story may be the stuff of legend, it is an illustration of what women are capable of and how they can excel in fields that had been traditionally reserved for men.

Having seen this movie, and knowing that Pope Joan is fiction, I would dearly love to see a big budget movie based on the life of a real life remarkable woman, St Hildegard of Bingen. Nevertheless, despite all of its shortcomings, its occasional “preachiness” and the caricaturisation, it is an interesting film to see.

1 comment:

  1. I read a novel called Pope Joan in the mid 1960s, but I cannot remember the author's name. It was a real hoot of a story :)

    No wonder the Catholic Church was furious. Certainly Pope Joan was not mentioned in any contemporary chronicles; that was to be expected if the story was not true and DEFINITELY if the story was true. But the church went further - that the story was malicious, designed by malevolent Protestants. How silly... the story long pre-dates Luther.