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Pope Joan

Was There Really a Female Pope Named Joan?

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Woodcut illustration (leaf [p]4r, f. cxxxiiii) of Pope Joan, hand-colored in red, green, yellow and black, from an incunable German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Giovanni Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris, printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474.
kladcat/Wikimedia Commons

There is a persistent and popular legend that a woman once managed to rise to the office of pope. This tale got its start some time during the Middle Ages and continues to be repeated today, but there is little if any evidence supporting it.

The earliest reference to a popess can be found in the 11th century writing of Martinus Scotus, a monk from the Abbey of St. Martin of Cologne:

    “In AD 854, Lotharii 14, Joanna, a woman, succeeded Leo, and reigned two years, five months, and four days.”

In the 12th century, a scribe named Sigebert de Gemlours wrote:

    “It is reported that this John was a female, and that she conceived a child by one of her servants. The Pope, becoming pregnant, gave birth to a child, whereof some do not number her among the Pontiffs.”

The most famous and detailed account of the Pope Joan comes from the Chronicron pontificum et imperatum (The Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors), written in the mid-13th century by Martin of Troppau (Martinus Polonus). According to Troppau:

    “After Leo IV, John the Englishman (Anglicus), a native of Metz, reigned two years, five months and four days. And the pontificate was vacant for a month. He died in Rome. This man, it is claimed, was a woman and when a girl, accompanied her sweetheart in male costume to Athens; there she advanced in various sciences to the extent that her equal could not be found. 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 companion. Not knowing the time of the birth, as she was on her way from St Peter's to Lateran she had a painful delivery, between the Coliseum and St Clement's Church, in the street. Having died after, it is said she was buried on the spot.”

Legends say that a stone slab marked the spot where Joan gave birth and was buried, but out of embarrassment Pope Pius V had it removed in the late 16th century. There is also supposedly a statue on this street depicting a mother a child — representations of the popess and her infant.

Believers in the legend point to a number of things that they claim support its truth. Papal processions stopped using the street in question. Popes starting being carried around in a chair with a hole in the bottom, supposedly designed to allow cardinals to check the gender of the person using it. As late as 1600, there was evidently a bust of Johannes VIII, femina ex Anglia in a row of papal busts at the Siena Cathedral.

The legend should probably be rejected. First, there aren’t any contemporary accounts of a Pope Joan — the first reports come hundreds of years after she supposedly ruled. Second, it would be difficult if not impossible to insert a papacy of more than two years anywhere that Pope Joan is alleged to have existed. A papacy of a few days or months may be credible, but not of multiple years.

Perhaps just as interesting as the legend of Pope Joan is the question of why someone would take the trouble to invent the tale in the first place. The legend was most popular during the Reformation, when Protestants were eager for anything negative that could be said about the papacy. Edward Gibbon argued that the source of the legend is likely the extreme influence that the Theophylact women had on the papacy during the 10th century. In the 16th century, Cardinal Baronius wrote:

    “A certain shameless strumpet called Theodora at one time was sole monarch of Rome and — shame though it is to write it — exercised power like a man. She had two daughters, Marozia and Theodora, who were not only her equals but could surpass her in the exercises that Venus loves.”

The details of their lives are generally unknown and Baronius may be unfair in his assessment. It is likely, however, that the women were connected to as many as four popes of the era: mistresses, wives, and even mothers. Thus, while there may not have been an actual Pope Joan in the 9th century, women did exercise extraordinary influence over the papacy for a time during the 10th.

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