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Legends of a medieval female pope can tell the truth, says researcher

This miniature work of art shows Pope Joan, who has just given birth to a child during a Religious procession.

(The New York Public Library)

Medieval legends claim that the Pope Joan was the first and only female pope. And now, an analysis of ancient silver coins suggests that the sacred woman may have lived.

According to legends from the middle Ages, a pope with the name John or Johannes Anglicus, who ruled in the middle of the ninth century, was actually a woman, Pope Joan. For example, a story from the 13th century written by a Dominican monk from Poland with the name Martin claimed that Pope Joan became pregnant and gave birth during a religious procession. [The history of the 10 Most Intriguing Popes]

However, there is still a lot of debate about the question of whether a pope with the name John Anglicus existed, much less whether this pope is a man or a woman. The doubt arises in a part of the a lot of confusion about the identity of the popes in the middle of the ninth century. For example, in the oldest preserved copy of the “Liber Pontificalis,” the official book of the biographies of the popes during the early middle Ages, “Pope Benedict III is completely missing,” study author Michael Habicht, an archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, told the Science.

Exploring the question of whether Pope Joan existed, not only the problems of a religious and historical mystery, but also a factor in the modern discussions about the role of women in the church. “The debate over female ordination in the church is still underway,” Habicht said.

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Now, Habicht has suggested that the symbols on medieval coins show that Pope John Anglicus may exist, and so, Pope Joan may have been real as well. “The coins really are reversed in favor of a covered-up, but true story,” Habicht said.

The investigation began when Habicht was carrying out unrelated work investigates the tombs of the popes in Rome. “In the beginning, I also believed that the story of Joan was purely fiction, but if I have more extensive research, more and more, the possibility arise that there is more behind the story,” he said.

Habicht analyzed silver coins known as deniers, which were used in Western Europe during the middle Ages. Their name comes from the old Roman silver coin known as the denarius. “They are very small, perhaps the size of an AMERICAN dime or quarter,” he said.

The deniers Habicht examined were struck with the name of the emperor of the Franks on the one side and the pope’s monogram — a symbol created using a person’s initials, and on the other side. Habicht focuses on coins previously attributed to Pope John VIII, who reigned from 872 to 882.

The archaeologist said that while some of the deniers had a monogram belonging to Pope John VIII, the earlier ones had a significantly different monogram. “The monogram that can be attributed to the later John VIII has clear differences in the placement of the letters and overall design,” Habicht said.

These coins may have belonged to a different John — John, the Englishman, the potential for Pope Joan, Habicht said. He noted several historical sources suggested that a Pope ruled from 856 to 858. For example, the chronicler Conrad Botho reported that Pope John crowned Louis II of Italy, such as the Holy Roman Emperor in 856, Habicht said.

“The monogram was the forerunner of the current signature,” Habicht said. “So, we could probably even a kind of signature of the Pope Joan.”

Habicht suggested that the order of the popes in the middle of the ninth century, Leo IV of about 846 to 853, followed by Benedict III from 853 to 855, John, the Englishman from 856 to 858 and Nicholas I from 858 to 867.

Previous scientific literature has suggested that these coins are not fakes, Habicht said. In addition, “there is almost no collector market for such medieval coins,” Habicht said. As such, “counterfeiters are not really interested in faking. A number of years ago, a number of papal coins of the ninth century A. D. were offered at auction in New York. Most of the coins are to purchase and returned to the owner.”

All in all, “some will embrace my education and find other evidence for women priests in the first centuries of Christianity,” Habicht said. “Others will reject the idea and a large media noise against such claims. A large mud-pie started to follow. It can always continue.”

Habicht described his findings in a book, “Pope Joan,” by epubli Aug. 28.

Original article on Live Science.

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