We are not popes

World premiere in Fulda’s Schlosstheater: On Friday evening, "The Pope – The Musical" came on stage there. The model for the musical provides the novel best-seller of the same name. The bishop of Fulda spoke earlier of "another piece in the mosaic of a frivolous fiction".

Behind the musical is the Fulda "spotlight Musicalproduktion", which already brought the historical musicals "Bonifatius" (2004) and "Elisabeth – The Legend of a Saint" (2007) to the stage. The composer and librettist of "Pope Joan" is "spotlight" managing director Dennis Martin. Sabrina Weckerlin can be seen and heard in the title role – as she did in the Elisabeth musical. In Fulda the musical is to be performed until the middle of August. With its "Popes" novel, which is partly set in Fulda, Cross reached into the 9. Century going back history of a P?pstin Johanna on.

There is "no, really no proof at all" of the existence of a Pope Joan, Algermissen stressed. Everything was pure fiction and based on legends. Serious historians have long since shelved the case of the popes. Nevertheless this fairy tale is cooked up again and again and believed, so the bishop.

What a narrative material
The story is too good not to be true: The girl from the Middle Rhine, inquisitive, shrewd and androgynous, sneaks into the 9. The Pope enters the men’s monastery in the nineteenth century. Seizing the opportunities for education and career offered there, she arrives in Rome and deceives the church leadership there for years: as a religious, healer – and finally pope! What a narrative.

That’s probably what New York author Donna W thought. Cross. In 1996 her best-selling novel "The Pope" was published. Last year it was made into a film by Sonke Wortmann. Not least because of this film adaptation, many Germans take the material at face value. But even despite the premiere of "The Pope – The Musical" in Fulda on Friday, the Pope remains what the experts have long recognized her as: an effective legend of the 13th century.

How well one can argue and polemicize, on high historical and on stocking level, was to be experienced, when the novel of Cross, which partly takes place in Fulda, stormed the bestseller lists and caused a media hype. Criticism of the church often functions as a Pavlovian reflex that is easily triggered. With blurb sentences such as this one: "The life of Johanna von Ingelheim, whose existence is known up to the 17th century, is a matter of great interest to the reader. The story was widely known in the sixteenth century and only then removed from the Vatican manuscripts.". The medieval historian Horst Fuhrmann, on the other hand, rates the scientific value of the novel at that of "Asterix and Obelix".

Propaganda weapon
The story of Joan has always been an excellent propaganda weapon – but it has also worked in the other direction: the end of Joan, as reported by the chronicler and Dominican Martin of Troppau in 1277, could also be used as a parable for the traditional distribution of roles in society: The pope does what is in the nature of a woman; she gives herself to a man, becomes pregnant and gives birth – during a procession near the church of San Clemente, of all places.
She dies in the gutter like a whore; just punishment from God for her attempted deception?

To cite evidence for or against the existence of a female pope is difficult, given the paucity of sources from the 9. This is a laborious business in the early twentieth century, in which one almost inevitably encounters large gaps and factual contradictions. And who really likes to mentally comprehend the bulky convolutions of the specialist historians in the end?? It is more comfortable to conclude from a silence of the sources that all evidence for the scandal has been eliminated. That however would have succeeded amazingly completely.

The Johanna story was embellished over the centuries – perhaps just because no evidence was available. "Possibly," according to Erlangen professor Klaus Herbers, an expert on the pope’s history of the 9. According to the legend of the late seventeenth century, "the legend also defies explanation in some points, because in the Middle Ages, as today, people were able to invent a scandal or a scandalous story without a precise background and without a concrete occasion."

In other words, with the available sources it might be difficult to convince someone who wants to believe something specific of the opposite. In fact, there was no shortage of manipulation of ecclesiastical documents and representations in the Middle Ages. Thus, the discussion about Johanna – also called Jutta, Gilberta, Agnes or Glancia – resembles a dispute about the Pope’s beard. The Germans may have been pope for six years – but pope not.

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