The Legend of Pope Joan

unknown via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 
unknown via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain  / unknown via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Have you heard the story of the woman pope? You’ve probably heard that there was one, but the details are a little skimpy. That’s true—the details are quite skimpy, even for those who have read up on the subject, or seen one of the movies about Pope Joan. 

In the early 9th century, a German girl named Agnes (or possibly Gilberta) wanted an education. There was a school run by English missionaries, but it only taught boys—so Agnes cut her hair and donned the robes of a student and became Johannes, or John. She learned several languages, reading and writing, and theology. She fell in love with a monk, who took her to Athens, and later to Rome, all the while disguised as a priest named John Anglicus, or John the Englishman.

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At the Vatican, she impressed all those around her with her knowledge and ability with languages. She rose from the humble position of scribe to cardinal, although we don’t know how long that took. When Pope Leo IV died in 855 CE, the cardinals selected John Anglicus to be the next pope. She took the papal name John VIII. She apparently ruled the church pretty well for a couple of years, but then that fateful day came.  

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As Pope John was walking between St. Peter’s and the Church of the Lateran in Rome, she began to falter. And then she gave birth! The event blew her cover, and when the surrounding crowd realized that the pope was actually a woman, they threw rocks at her, killing both her and her child. Or maybe she was dragged behind a horse until she died. Or maybe she was sentenced to be hanged. Or maybe she survived the ordeal, and was driven from the Vatican to be confined in a nunnery.

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The trouble with this story is that it’s not true. Sure, there are written accounts, and several clues in history that lend credence to the story. But those don’t add up to the Pope Joan in the story.

The earliest mention of the Pope Joan story was written in the 13th century. One account, by Jean de Mailly in 1254 CE, mentions an unnamed female pope, who supposedly reigned around 1100 CE. The better known version of the story is attributed to Dominican chronicler Martinus Polonus in 1278 CE. This account places Pope Joan as ascending the papal throne in 855 CE after the death of Leo IV. She reigned for two years before her sex was discovered when she gave birth on the streets of Rome.

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The story was widely circulated due to Polonus’s reputation, but it’s very possible that the tale could have been added to his writings by someone else. Indeed, Polonus’s story has two different endings: In one, Joan died right after the birth of her child, and in the other, she retired to a convent and lived a long life of penance, while her son grew up to be a bishop. The dual endings didn't matter, though; many in the Middle Ages believed the Pope Joan story. It was so different that it was easy to remember, and a great tale to tell.

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The rest of the details, of Pope Joan’s childhood and travels before becoming a pontiff, were added over the next couple hundred years by authors and scribes who embellished the story.

There are no written accounts of Joan’s papal reign in the 400 years between the supposed event and the writings of Jean de Mailly and Martinus Polonus. Pope Benedict III succeeded Leo IV in 855 CE, in many well-documented chronologies. Benedict was pope until his death in 858, which barely eclipsed the supposed reign of Pope Joan. But few people in the Middle Ages actually read those dry chronologies.

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There were a couple of times when a newly chosen pope would sit on a chair with a hole that resembled a toilet, called the sede stercoraria. Since the Pope Joan story was pretty well-known, it was assumed by many that an examination of a new pope’s testicles had arisen from that scandal to make sure the pope was indeed male. Such a throne was used in the installation of Pope Paschal II in 1099 and Gregory XII in 1406. The general consensus among historians is that both chairs, which may have once been toilets or birthing chairs, were taken from royal or imperial estates and were used due to their lavish appearance or their historical connections. Another school of thought is that any such examination was to make sure the new pope was intact and had not been castrated in accordance with Deuteronomy 23:1. However, one would think that if any such examination occurred, it would be before a priest rose to the level of cardinal.        

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An old tarot card called La Papessa is thought to be fashioned after Pope Joan. It represents hidden knowledge and unseen forces. Others say that is a misunderstanding, and the card originally represented the Mother Church. In any case, most decks changed the title to the Priestess.

It is said that no pope will walk on the road, called the Vicus Papissa, where Pope Joan gave birth. It is also said that the street where it allegedly happened is just too narrow for the pope and his entourage to use. Vicus Papissa has been translated to “the street of the woman pope,” but in reality it was named after a member of the Papes family, who once lived there.   

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The tale of a female pope could have originated with anyone trying to discredit the papacy. Pope John VIII (872-82) in particular was derided by some for his weakness, and had been compared to a eunuch or a woman. Or it could have been a satirical story on the corruption and weakness of the papacy in the tenth century, called the Dark Age, or saeculum obscurum. The story was later used by Protestants to discredit the Catholic hierarchy. This is still being done. And all along the way, the story is a cautionary tale for women, warning that daring to take a man’s place can only end badly.    

Any way you look at it, the legend of Pope Joan is nothing more than a legend—but the fact that it stuck around so long is in itself a fascinating piece of history.