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I don’t know whether any of you are fans of The Borgias television series which stars Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI. I’m a big fan and have seen most of the episodes either in French or in English. In the first episode, which I saw the last week (I don’t always get to watch the series in chronological order), Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia is busy bribing the other cardinals to get their vote for the election of the new pope. After Rodrigo becomes pope and starts poisoning his enemies, he has to pass a crucial test for the papacy.


When I saw this scene at the end of episode 1, I thought it was a joke. The Pope is invited to sit on a sort of wooden seat with a hole in the middle while his cardinals look on. A servant brings a bowl of water and my first impression was that he was going to wash the Pope’s feet, but no, the servant gropes the pope’s undercarriage and then exclaims in a loud voice: “habet duos testiculos et bene pendentes” meaning he has two well-hung testicles.


I couldn’t believe they were checking to make sure the pope was a man and had not been castrated heaven forbid. It appears that the test was introduced after Pope Joan’s ascension to the papacy in the 9th century. A German woman, Agnes, managed to get herself elected as “Pope John”. Her subterfuge was only learned when she gave birth in a procession to St John Lateran between the Colosseum and the San Clemente Basilica in Rome.


It is believed that the test is still employed today. Men who had deliberately castrated themselves were not acceptable as good pope material, but those who had been involuntarily castrated were acceptable.


The reference for this historical nugget is Alain Boureau’s “The Myth of Pope Joan”. The mediaeval sources relating to the legend of Pope Joan and the masculinity test were collected together in 1600 by the German scholar Johann Wolf in his book: “Sixteen centuries of memorable and abstruse reading matter.”


Talk about a fascinating piece of history.


Have a nice week.


*Originally posted in December 2020