Is it Saint Swithin's Day Already?

BERLIN - OCTOBER 19:  Actress Johanna Wokalek attends the world premiere of 'Pope Joan' at the Sony Center CineStar on October 19, 2009 in Berlin, Germany.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

So there's a new movie coming out about the legendary (and I do mean legendary) female Pope of the 9th Century -- Joan. It's the job of movie directors to use good stories rather than tell accurate accounts of history. But we should expect more accuracy in media coverage. Let's see how it's going. The Daily Mail's story begins with a very funny headline that probably wasn't intended to be funny: "Mystery of the pregnant pope: New film reopens one of the Vatican's most enduring wounds." Um, considering that no one with any knowledge of history actually believes in the female pope, it might be better referred to as the "least enduring" wound. Instead:

For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has tried to bury her story. But of all the legends suppressed by the Vatican over the years, this is one that refuses to go away. Now, a new film has brought to life the story of the only female pope -- and it is being shown this week in cinemas cheek by jowl with the Vatican. And there are plans to bring it to Britain.

There's no doubt that the story of Pope Joan is an old one. Though her reign was supposedly for three years in the 850s, her story didn't appear until the 13th century. But it was widely believed for centuries -- even within the church. Most historians think it developed out of anti-papal satirical writings. The first mention was from the chronicle of Jean Pierier de Mailly, but the most popular one cacme from Martin of Troppau's Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum.

It's a great story, not the least of which is because it ends with her giving birth one day while on horseback. Well, really it ends with her being brutally killed.

Either way, it's a great story. Within a couple hundred years, critical scholars had debunked it but the legend lives on and is made into movies and stuff. You can read more about it at the Catholic Encyclopedia. The encylopedia provides two proofs for why it can't be believed. The first is that it's crazy to think a dramatic story about a female pope would not have any contemporary corroboration. The second is that there's no room for a female Pope in the 850s in the interregnum between Leo IV and Benedict III.

The Telegraph story is better:

A new film based on the legend of Pope Joan -- an Englishwoman who purportedly disguised herself as a man and rose to become the only female pontiff in history -- has sparked debate in the Roman Catholic Church.

The film has fuelled disagreements over whether Pope Joan really existed or, as the Church has always maintained, she was a mythical figure used by the early Protestant Church to discredit and embarrass Rome.

Well, there isn't really any knowledgeable disagreement about whether Pope Joan existed and while Jan Hus did talk about her, it was at a time when her legend was widely believed. It's not really accurate to blame Protestants for the legend considering it predates them.

Anyway, it's not just overseas coverage. The Oklahoman religion editor writes:

I wonder if it is causing contention because it brings up questions about things people would rather not talk about, ala "The Da Vinci Code."

You mean questions like, "Should facts matter?" Or what questions, exactly?

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