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Dr. Craig Rustici, Hofstra University - Pope Joan?


Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Craig Rustici of Hofstra University examines the myth of Pope Joan and explains how efforts to suppress the legend may have solidified Joan's status.

Craig Rustici is an associate professor of English at Hofstra University where he teaches courses on the history of European literature. In 2006 he published, The Afterlife of Pope Joan: Deploying the Pope Joan Legend in Early Modern England. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

About Dr. Rustici

Dr. Craig Rustici - Pope Joan?

Sixteenth-century visitors to the cathedral of Siena could see something extraordinary. Among the roughly 170 terra-cotta busts depicting Roman pontiffs that adorned the cathedral's nave, they could have found one representing a woman: Pope Joan.

As the story goes, Joan was a German woman who disguised herself as a man to travel with her lover to Athens; there, she devoted herself to intellectual pursuits conventionally denied to women. After some time, she continued on to Rome, where in 855 her reputation for virtue and unsurpassed learning made her the unanimous choice to succeed Pope Leo IV. For more than two years, she governed the Roman Catholic Church as Pope John VIII, administering sacraments, ordaining priests, and consecrating churches. Her reign ended and her true identity was revealed when, during a solemn procession through the streets of Rome, she collapsed and gave birth.

Is the story true? Probably not. A four-hundred-year gap separates the time of Joan's alleged pontificate from the earliest written references to it, and those early reports often express uncertainty about their own factual foundation. Even so, as Joan's appearance among the papal busts in Siena suggests, for centuries the story was widely accepted as true.

And what happened to the bust of Joan? In 1600 the governor of Siena ordered its removal from the cathedral. That order produced documentary evidence of the bust's existence and prompted some to suspect that many other traces of Joan's career had been erased. Then as now, a cover-up could ultimately spotlight what it sought to conceal.

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