Pope Joan and The House of Whoville

One ot the most charming viral shares at my end of Cyberspace this week was a photo of Pope Benedict in full regalia pre-abdication, accompanied by a whimsical rant on the fashionista/homophobia cocktail that tends to brew in Rome:

“The Pope, wearing a fabulous vintage chiffon-lined Dior gold lamé gown over a silk Vera Wang empire waist tulle cocktail dress, accessorized with a three-foot House of Whoville hat and the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in the Wizard of Oz, on his way to tell us that it’s Wrong to be Gay.”

At first I thought Francis I had already been re-styled in the manner of his predecessor, and that this was one of the many criticisms of his attitude to same-sex marriage. It was a smallish photo, and you couldn’t easily see the man’s face.

But then my eye put two and tow together: The shoes were wrong. All of a sudden I grasped what my eye had taken in but not registered: in all of the photos of Francis in recent days, he has been wearing a simple cassock and black shoes.  A quick search on Google produced proof: only hours before, the Telegraph had broken the story. ‘Pope Francis ditches Red Shoes’.

At one level, it is a good move: Francis has already restored the faith of some by pronouncing himself the austerity pope and trying to dispel any concern that he wasn’t all that interested in poor people during the years in Argentina when he wasn’t a great fan of LIberation Theology. Putting away the papal raiment may go a long way. And it’s also the case that if he is going to be anti-gay, it may make sense to be that way wearing as little lamé as possible, along with non-femme shoes.


Pope Joan. Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF). Cote : Français 599, Folio 88. (saec XV-XVI) Cognac, France. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

But it would be sad if the Prince of the Church were to give up gender-bending altogether. In the middle ages, monks and bishops were encouraged to remember that the man sitting next to them in the choir or the conclave might not be a man. A group of legends from the ancient church told of female saints – some of them, like St Pelagia, repentant prostitutes – who disguised themselves as men in order to begin a new life. These women often made their way to monasteries, and more than one was elected abbot on account of her wisdom and compassion – a medieval version of the modern studies which keep finding that men tend to be more successful at getting managerial jobs, but women tend to be better at actually doing them.

The most famous of the cross-dressing women was Pope Joan, remembered by thirteenth-century historian Jean de Mailly as an unusually bright notary in the curia around the year 1100, who became a cardinal and afterward pope.  (Only in later histories did Joan acquire a name and a nationality – she was English.) It would be lovely to say that a female pope was the solution to the Church’s problems, but Pope Joan was a disappointment. Most versions of her legend involve her having a baby while in office, a sure sign that things had gone awry. If the holy women disguised as men were mostly radiant beacons of virtue, Joan was the exception that proves the rule.

A number of interesting academic studies, such as John Anson’s 1974 article, ‘The Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism’, have tried to account for why the theme of cross-dressing has been so powerful in the history of Christianity. Anson, for example, argued that the ‘hidden woman’ theme was a way of encouraging monks to reflect on the spectre, always present, of same-sex desire. Surely, this kind of reflection is something urgently needed in our own day.

But perhaps the most fundamental lesson of the transvestite nuns is deeper and simpler: things aren’t always what they seem.  This is surely an observation that will never go out of style.

* * *

John Anson, “The Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism: The Origin and Development of a Motif,” Viator, 5 (1974): 1–32.


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