One of my go-to books for a quick flip-through is Eamon Duffy’s history of the Papacy, Saints and Sinners. It’s a perfect mix of serious, important history and absolutely w i l d nonsense. The Renaissance popes in particular were generally up to no good, and even when they weren’t they were weird in surprising and delightful ways.
Take Julius III. Ol’ Jules was known for two things. The first was a normal papal scandal, in which his adopted nephew, Innocenzo, who upon Julius’s ascension found himself promoted to cardinal from his previous position of monkey-keeper. This wasn’t a case of mere nepotism, however: rumors persisted that their relationship wasn’t so Innocenzo, and Thomas Beard went so far as to imply that it was Julius’s practice “to promote none to ecclesiastical livings, save only his buggerers.”
That sort of thing wasn’t too uncommon among popes of the time, although it was a bit unseemly. No, what really creeped everyone out about Julius III was his thing for onions. Quoting directly from Duffy, “Julius revolted everyone by his passion for onions, which he had delivered by the cartload.” Imagine eating so many onions that your onion consumption becomes a noted historical fact. Heroic.
But anyway, the wildest thing in Saints and Sinners is something that never happened at all. Apocryphal stories are great, because they deliver stories that are both good enough to be repeated and juuuuuust on the edge of believability. And the best apocryphal story around the papacy is the one about the wholly imaginary, crossdressing Pope Joan.
Pope Joan exploded into legend in the 13th century and before long she became an accepted part of papal history. Joan, who went by ‘John’, was highly promiscuous and finally blew her cover by giving birth during a procession, an act which would have been considered unusual in a Pope. To enhance believability, the story makes heavy use of a confusion of Johns during Late Antiquity, some understandable gaps in the calendrical record, and of course some good old deep-seated misogyny.
The structure of the Joan story itself is less interesting than the fallout. As it circulated, it got incorporated into other stories about the papacy. In particular, the legend of Pope Joan got used to explain a pretty curious couple of chairs, the sedia stercoraria. For reasons nobody could quite work out, the sedia had some large holes in the seat. I imagine some enterprising bullshitter, practicing upon a credulous audience, came up with the idea of using Joan’s story to, uh, fill the holes in these chairs. Here’s Duffy again:
[B]y the mid-fifteenth century, travellers and humanist historians were apparently seriously repeating as fact the preposterous tale that when the new pope sat down in the first of these chairs, a junior cardinal approached and knelt in order to reach up under his robes and feel his genitals: the cardinal then cried out ‘Testiculos habet,’ and the crowd responded joyfully ‘Deo Gratias.’
Yes, this was actually something people believed. There were even illustrations!
At this point I could tie this all back into Julius III and his kindly nephew Innocenzo but I think that’s a little too much, even for me. What I really love about this story is the fact that it’s running a bank-shot off the Pope Joan legend to create what feels like a whole-ass Monty Python sketch. It’s a little Rube Goldberg machine of storytelling, going from a plethora of Johns all the way to Testiculos habet without breaking a sweat. Deo Gratis.
This is Secret Base Media Club. Every Wednesday, a member of Secret Base staff will talk about what they’re reading and anything else they happen to be enjoying. Feel free to join in the conversation or start your own — books, movies, music, tv shows, sports (hah!) are all fair game.