Vileness in the Vatican
A delve into Catholicism’s delinquent past
to expose some peculiar Papal proceedings.


Putting a corpse ‘on trial: Pope Formosus didn’t have much to say for himself…


Film Director Ron Howard made a curious statement: “I have very close friends who are very devout Catholics, and I talked to them before the Da Vinci Code, and it was very difficult for them, but I talked to them before Angels and Demons, and they said the scandal, abuse of power and violence was part of church history, which you can read about in the Vatican bookstore.” I’ve not been in the Vatican bookstore, but based on available evidence, he could well be right. Separating all the piety, prayers, marble, frescoes, satins, silk and gold of Catholicism’s HQ from a sinister past is a heavy historical curtain, behind which lurks tales of events so bizarre, so breathtakingly irreligious they would have propelled the first Pope, St. Peter, straight back into his old job as a Galilee fisherman.
Roman Catholicism is one of the most historically catalogued, recorded and selectively written about faiths in the world today. At the time of writing there have been 266 Popes. Many of the very early Popes, beginning with St. Peter himself, were martyred, but since then at least 15 have been assassinated. Murder, poisoning, arrest and imprisonment, starvation and strangling by rivals may seem at odds with the gentle ‘turn the other cheek’ creed of a simple Judean carpenter and his disciples, but that’s just the standard doctrine for the congregation. For Bishops, Primates and Cardinals it takes political guile, guts and cunning to get on the Vatican ladder, and only the most calculating among the higher clergy make it to the top. How well or badly you perform when you get there will go down in ecclesiastic history. And here’s a necessary note of crudity; if you do make it to the Pontifical throne, as we shall see, you’ll also need balls.

The Pornocracy

The vicarious versions of Vatican lore and legend down the centuries are the work of numerous dedicated religious scribes and monks. Many reports are highly cautious, seeking not to disturb the ecclesiastic hierarchy of their time. However, some spice up their texts by daring to include much older rumour and speculation. Therefore, although from the first century AD to the present, there is a long, varied chronicle which aims, often somewhat imprecisely, to record the Church’s progress, between its chapters are tumultuous periods, such as that in the 10th and 11th centuries, the saeculum obscurum, a ‘Dark Age’ as described by Caesar Baronius in 1602. With its sexual profligacy, corruption, murder and nepotism, this age is known today as ‘The Pornocracy’.
Baronius (1538-1607) was an Italian Cardinal and Roman historian, famous for his Annales Ecclesiastici which appear in twelve folio volumes. If Baronius and some other scribes are to be believed, many religious misdemeanours were hidden or written out of the Holy ledgers. What remains reads like propaganda designed to preserve the pious image of the Church of Rome. However, those monks or priests were the tabloid media of their time, and knew a good story when they heard one. One 13th century scribe known by his Latin name Martinus Ordinis Praedicatorum, which means ‘Brother Martin of the Order of Preachers’ , found some yarns irressistible. He came from the Silesian town of Opava. Today it’s better known by the German name, Troppau. So the Czechs call him Martin of Opavy, and to the Germans he’s Martin von Troppau. We don’t know when he was born, but he died in 1278, leaving behind at least one particular anecdote which still sends the church into denial overdrive.
Whether or not you’re religious, if you’re visiting the Eternal City, Rome, a tour of the Vatican might be high on your agenda. Some tours of the Papal domain show you more than others. For example, in the Vatican’s museum known as the Gabinetto delle Mascheren you’ll see a curious, throne-like chair originally known as the sedia stercoraria.


Not available at IKEA; the ‘how’s your meat and two veg’ chir.


It looks like a commode. Some guides will tell you it’s a Papal toilet. Yet there’s a more colourful possibility. It has been reported down the ages that in this chair (and apparently there’s more than one) before being elected, the new Pope, minus his pants and with his holy vestments hitched up, was required to sit on this peculiar seat with his naked genitalia hanging through the hole. Priests especially selected for the task would then kneel at the rear or side of the chair and through a special opening would plunge their hand to feel for the Pontiff’s meat and two veg. Once it was established that the Papal candidate had balls, the priests would announce to the rest of the inspection party “Testiculos habet et bene pendentes” (“He has testicles and they are hanging well.”). Relieved, the gathered cardinals would loudly praise the Lord, reassured that the election could proceed. The origin of this dubious ceremony is said to be connected to one of the Church’s most denied chapters in history – that for two years, 855-857, the Pope was a woman. Back to Brother Martin of Troppau.

Pope Joan gives birth in the street. Nobody called the Midwife.

One of Martin’s other famous works, the Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum was probably intended for young students as a history of the Papacy. Hugely influential, over 400 manuscripts of this work are known. It was ground-breaking in its graphic lay-out; each double page had fifty lines representing fifty years. The left-hand pages show the history of the papacy, with one line per year, and the right-hand pages give the history of emperors. It’s here, ‘reading between the lines’ that the legend of Pope Joan (also referred to as John VIII) appears. Catholic scholars, however, are keen to point out that Martin, who referred to her as Johannes Angelicus, is writing over three centuries after the fabled event.
This is the story according to Martin of Troppau;
“After Leo IV., John Anglus, a native of Metz, reigned two years, five months, and four days. And the pontificate was vacant for a month. He died in Rome. He is related to have been a female, and, when a girl, to have accompanied her sweetheart in male costume to Athens; there she advanced in various sciences, and none could be found to equal her. So, after having studied for three years in Rome, she had great masters for her pupils and hearers. And when there arose a high opinion in the city of her virtue and knowledge, she was unanimously elected Pope. But during her papacy she became in the family way by a familiar. Not knowing the time of birth, as she was on her way from St. Peter’s to the Lateran she had a painful delivery, between the Coliseum and St. Clement’s Church, in the street. Having died after, it is said that she was buried on the spot; and therefore the Lord Pope always turns aside from that way, and it is supposed by some out of detestation for what happened there. Nor on that account is she placed in the catalogue of the Holy Pontiffs, not only on account of her sex, but also because of the horribleness of the circumstance.”
Martin upset the church in the 13th century by regurgitating this story, but he wasn’t the first to do so. An earlier mention of the female pope appears in the Dominican Jean de Mailly’s early 13th century chronicle of Metz, Chronica Universalis Mettensis, The female Pope isn’t named here, and, surprisingly, the action is set in 1099. So, according to according to Jean:
“Query. Concerning a certain Pope or rather female Pope, who is not set down in the list of Popes or Bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man and became, by her character and talents, a curial secretary, then a Cardinal and finally Pope. One day, while mounting a horse, she gave birth to a child. Immediately, by Roman justice, she was bound by the feet to a horse’s tail and dragged and stoned by the people for half a league, and, where she died, there she was buried, and at the place is written: ‘Oh Peter, Father of Fathers, Betray the childbearing of the woman Pope.’ At the same time, the four-day fast called the “fast of the female Pope” was first established.”
In earlier versions Joan is referred to by different names, and especially as Agnes or Gilberta. Marianus Scotus (1028–1083), was an Irish monk and chronicler who spent time in Rome and settled in Mainz, Germany. In his chronicle he inserts the following passage: “A. D. 854, Lotharii 14, Joanna, a woman, succeeded Leo, and reigned two years, five months, and four days.”. Sigebert de Gemblours was a Belgian monk and chronicler, born about A.D. 1030, educated in the convent of Gembloux, and died in 1112. Some scribes had accused Sigebert of inventing the story of Pope Joan yet his insertion of the same story in his highly regarded chronicle is said to be an interpolated passage in the work of Anastasius Bibliothecarius, or Anastasius the Librarian (810 – 878) chief archivist of the Church of Rome. This fits into the time period Joan was supposed to occupy. However, Joan’s many critics and deniers will pinpoint this period as the very proof that the female Pope never existed as she would have ruled between Pope Leo IV and Benedict III, and as Baring Gould points out:
“The historical discrepancies are sufficiently glaring to make the story more than questionable. Leo IV died on the 17th July, 855; and Benedict III was consecrated on the 1st September in the same year; so that it is impossible to insert between their pontificates a reign of two years, five months, and four days. It is, however, true that there was an antipope elected upon the death of Leo, at the instance of the Emperor Louis; but his name was Anastasius. This man possessed himself of the palace of the Popes, and obtained the incarceration of Benedict. However, his supporters almost immediately deserted him, and Benedict assumed the pontificate.”
So are we to believe that the usurper, the antipope Anastasius, rapidly imprisoned Benedict, was announced to the faithful, took the throne, occupied the Lateran Palace and was deposed all within the space of six weeks? It could be argued that had the Church suffered the embarrassment of a female Pope who gave birth in the street, any subsequent scribe and chronicler would be duty bound to cook the books and play fast and loose with compressed dates to bury the story. Yet it remains too salaciously enticing to fade away. The story of Joan is Hollywood gold, and indeed two films have already been made; a 1972 version starring Liv Ullman, and 2009’s epic Pope Joan starring Johanna Wokalek and John Goodman.
Of course, come the Reformation and the rise of Martin Luther, any grubby yarn to bash the Catholics with would be eagerly taken up. For example, the radical Czech heretic John Huss (1639-1415) totally believed in Joan’s existence and even took the female pope as an example that the Papacy was a pointless institution. Martin Luther (1483-1546) echoed Huss’s belief in the female Pope, much to the mortification of Europe’s Catholics, whose attitude was summed up thus: “A myth of monstrous growth, a deliberate invention of the Dominicans and Minorites of the fourteenth century. What mockery must not this story excite among the Mohammedans ! ” Whether or not the Muslims had any interest in a female Pope remains unclear.



For a serious medieval priest or monk, spending time in Rome was de rigueur. Adam of Usk (1352-1430) was a Welsh priest from Monmouthshire. He spent four years in Rome and in his Chronicle he described a papal procession from St. Peter’s to the Lateran;
“After turning aside out of abhorrence for Pope Agnes (sic), whose image in stone with her son stands in the straight road near St. Clement’s, the Pope, dismounting from his horse, enters the Lateran from his enthronement.”
What became of the statue of Joan is unknown, but its presence in Rome was reported by other chroniclers, and was particularly noted by Martin Luther.
At Siena, inside the cathedral is a gallery of terra-cotta busts. They represent the images of 170 popes, in random order. Baronuis, the Vatican librarian, wrote in the 17th century that one of the faces was a female – Joan the female Pope. Baronius recorded that the pope at the time wanted to destroy the statue, but rumour has it that the local archbishop didn’t want it to go to waste. Therefore Joan’s features were chipped away to be remodelled as Pope Zachary (679-752).

At the Basilica in St. Peter’s Square are 17th century carvings by Bernini, which include eight images of a woman wearing a papal crown. These images show the progress of a woman giving birth and the child being born. Is the woman Pope Joan?
The spot in Rome where Joan came off her horse and gave birth is marked today by an ancient portico, where both locals and tourists still leave flowers to this day. It’s just three blocks from the Colosseum, at the foot of the hill leading up to the medieval Quattro Coronati abbey-fortress.
Finally, why is there a card in the Tarot pack which represents hidden knowledge and is known either as ‘The Popess’ or ‘The Empress’? All in all, if the story of Pope Joan is true, it is remarkably sad and does little for the Vatican’s chequered 2,000 year reputation. If Rome venerates the mother of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and if women can become saints, why couldn’t women be priests? The Church tells us one of the main reasons is that Jesus himself chose 12 male apostles. There were many women available that he could have chosen, but he only chose 12 males and they in turn chose men to continue their ministry. The argument therefore is that a precedent was set, which became a rule. However, the early Christian church had no hard and fast rule against clergy being married with children. Some Popes had sons who in turn became Popes themselves. Considered as the first Pope, the fisherman of Galilee, Peter was a married man. Pope Joan, real or mythical, remains buried because of her sex.
However, her story is easily overshadowed throughout history by the often bizarre behaviour and attitudes of Vatican’s male management. Half a century after Pope Joan was consigned to the papal waste bin, a macabre event took place in Rome which would seem to have little to do with Holy Scripture.


Born in Ostia, Bishop of Portus in 864, the 111th man to rule the Church of Rome, Formosus (816 – 896) was Pope from 6 October 891 to his death in 896. He seems to be a man who acted on impulse, but during those five years as Pontiff he certainly made some miscalculated moves which guaranteed him unpopularity with the Vatican hierarchy. He became a travelling diplomat for the Vatican, visiting Bulgaria and France, and earlier, in 875 he persuaded the King of the Franks, Charles the Bald, to let Pope John VIII crown him as Emperor. In 1872 Formosus was in the running to be elected as Pope, but against a complicated political background he left the court only to be summoned back by Pope John VIII under threat of excommunication. He doesn’t seem to have been able to put a foot right, being accused of all manner of assorted misdemeanours, such as deserting his own diocese and seeking the Bulgarian Archbishopric, conspiring with ‘iniquitous men and women’ against the Holy See, despoiling Rome’s cloisters, performing a divine service against a Roman Law forbidding him to do so. This list of charges was thrown at Formosus in July 872. Thus he was excommunicated and banned from Rome. Yet his luck would change; it was six years later before the sentence of excommunication was lifted. In 883, John’s successor Pope Marinus I gave Formosus his diocese of Portus back. After the reigns of Marinus, Pope Hadrian III (884–885) and Pope Stephen V (885–891), Formosus was elected Pope on 6 October 891. However, he hadn’t run out of ways to offend Rome. As well as having to fight off the Saracens who were attacking Lazio, Formosus was unhappy that Rome was under the rule at the time of the Spoletan Holy Roman co-emperors Guy and his son Lambert, Formosus approached King Arnulf of the East Franks and invited him to invade Italy and liberate the country from the control of Spoleto. In Rome in 896 Formosus crowned Arnulf Holy Roman Emperor in St. Peter’s Basilica, but while preparing to attack Spoleto, Arnulf was seized with paralysis and returned to Germany. All these machinations had caused a political firestorm in Rome, and conveniently, on 4 April 896, leaving the discord unresolved, Formosus died. He was succeeded by Pope Boniface VI.
There had been riots in Rome but Boniface only lasted 16 days as Pope, dying (some say of Gout). On May 22 896 a new Pope, Stephen VI took the throne. His papacy had been sponsored by the very political ruling faction Formosus had sought to defeat, the powerful House of Spoleto. Formosus may have been mouldering in the grave for almost a year, but Stephen VI was a vindictive pontiff whose irrational rage against a dead man was to lead him to the one act he’d be remembered for.
In January 897 Formosus’s decomposing corpse of was exhumed and put on trial in what has become known as the Cadaver Synod (or Synodus Horrenda) The rotting body, decked out in all his finest papal vestments, had to be propped up on a throne to ‘answer’ questions and accusations, represented by Deacon who acted as a defence counsel (although he had nothing to say). Stephen ranted and raved at the putrefied defendant, accusing him of receiving the pontificate while he was still the bishop of Porto, still acting as a bishop even though he had been deposed, and all the earlier charges laid on Formosus which had led to his excommunication were wheeled out afresh. As the poignant heap of decaying papal power wasn’t able to respond, and no doubt his defending Deacon counsel felt, in this case, that silence meant sense and safety, the trial wasn’t going well for Formosus. (No doubt had he spoken, he’d have uttered the classic “Got me bang to rights, Guv…”)
Needless to say he was pronounced guilty of all charges. All ordinations performed by Formosus were annulled. But the indignity didn’t end there. The three fingers of its right hand (the blessing fingers), were hacked off. His sacred vestments were ripped off and the corpse was clad in the basic clothes of a layman. He was buried once more, but didn’t stay under the soil for long; they dug him up again and threw the cadaver into the River Tiber. Legend has it that some fishermen retrieved the body and eventually he had a proper burial. Another version tells us that when the corpse was tossed into the river,

“During the night there was a great thunderstorm, and the level of the Tiber began to rise. A monk of the monastery of St Acontius near Porto was warned in a dream by
the ghost of Formosus that his body would be found along the shore, and so it was. The body was recovered and quietly buried in the monastery.”

Even allowing for the barbaric punitive behaviour of the times, the public of Rome were outraged by Stephen’s behaviour. As if God himself had intervened, following the Cadaver Synod an earthquake hit the Lateran Palace and destroyed the basilica. It was the kind of omen even priests and cardinals respected. Stephen VI’s reign only lasted six more months before he was deposed, his papal insignia torn from him. He ended up in prison, where he was conveniently strangled.
Whether or not you are religious, with two millennia to choose from, Vatican history is packed with fantastic stories for the avid reader. Saints and sinners, miracles, heaven and hell. What you choose to believe will be as challenging as the foundation of the faith. As the author of Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller (1891-1980) wrote: “Moralities, ethics, laws, customs, beliefs, doctrines – these are of trifling import. All that matters is that the miraculous become the norm.”

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