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Pope Joan

The only female pope contends that she regards being a woman and, in particular, a mother more significant and miraculous.

Having learned to 'transubstantiate' (line 1), made the Vatican her home and involved herself in all the ritual and male-dominated culture of the church, Pope Joan 'came to believe' (line 17) that she 'did not believe a word' (line 18). For the leader of the Church to come to such a conclusion is a serious matter and the fact she is a woman reinforces the satire on the whole organisation. She tells 'daughters and brides of the Lord' (line 20) that she felt closer to God when giving birth, an experience that no male pope could ever have but there is a suggestion that the controlling source of pain she experiences has a male source. The nearest she felt to feeling the power of God was during labour rather than when on her 'papal chair' (line 8). Her description of 'blue-green snakes of smoke' (line 5) when speaking of incense lends the ritual of its burning a sinister quality, especially as she says is 'coiled around the hem' (line 6) of her robe. She feels 'twice as virtuous' (line16) as men even in the role she comes to repudiate as insignificant. Instead of 'blessing and blessing the air' (line 9) she comes to bless palpable motherhood.


Pope Joan supposedly reigned, under the title of John VIII, for slightly more than 25 months, from 855 to 858, between the pontificates of Leo IV (847-855) and Benedict III (855-858). It has since been shown that a gap of only a few weeks intervened between Leo and Benedict and that the story is entirely apocryphal although Joan's existence was regarded as fact in the 15th century.

transubstantiation: in the Catholic Church the transformation of bread and wine, during the consecration of the mass, into the body and blood of  Christ.

in nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti amen: Latin for words of blessing, 'in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit amen.