According to Medieval legend, Pope Joan (also known as Pope Joanna or La Papessa) was an female pope who allegedly reigned for less than two years in the 850s C.E. under the name Pope John VIII/Johannes VIII (formerly John Anglicus). She is described as being a very theologically gifted orator with a perspicacity for spiritual discourse. However, she apparently hid her female identity in order to be accepted as a man because only males can become popes. Her female gender was allegedly discovered when she gave birth during a papal procession from Saint Peter's Basilica to the Lateran. She was apparently killed for her trickery, and, according to lore, all subsequent popes to this day turn their heads when passing this site.
Although Pope Joan is regarded by most modern historians as fictitious, she was, for several hundred years, accepted as a real, genuine pope. Indeed, statues of Pope Joan once stood in the Vatican before they were later removed, and her legend suppressed. Alain Boureau argues that the origins of the story likely derive from the carnival and parody traditions of the twelfth century, while others have argued that the legend began as anti-papal satire.
The legend of Pope Joan can be found in many medieval sources. The most widely cited text is the thirteenth century Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum written by Polish chronicler Martin of Opava, which describes the background of Pope Joan (John Anglicus) as follows:
"John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was pope for two years and seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the papacy of one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers. There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and afterwards in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city, and she was chosen for pope. While pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St Peter's to the Lateran, in a narrow lane between the Coliseum and Saint Clement's church. After her death, it is said she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the holy pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter."
This event is said to have taken place between the reigns of Benedict III and Nicholas I in the 850s. Versions of the story appeared in sources earlier than Martin; the one most commonly cited is Anastasius Bibliothecarius (d. 886) a compiler of Liber Pontificalis, who would have been a contemporary of the female Pope. However, the story is not found in reliable manuscripts of Anastasius. In fact, only one manuscript of Anastasius' Liber Pontificalis contains a reference to the female Pope. This manuscript, in the Vatican Library, bears the relevant passage inserted as a footnote at the bottom of a page, out of sequence, and in a different hand, one that certainly dates from after the time of Martin von Trappau. In other words, this "witness" to the female Pope is likely to be based upon Martin's account, and certainly not a possible source for it. The same is true of Marianus Scotus's Chronicle of the Popes a text written in the eleventh century. Some manuscripts of it contain a brief mention of a female Pope named Joanna (the earliest source to identify her with a specific name), but all these manuscripts are, again, later than Martin's work. Earlier manuscripts do not contain the legend.
There is only one source for a female Pope that certainly antedates Martin of Opava, and this is the Dominican Jean de Mailly, who wrote slightly earlier in the thirteenth century. In his chronicle of Metz, Chronica Universalis Mettensis, he dates the scandal not to the 850s but to 1099, and writes:
"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: "Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum" [O 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."
From the mid-thirteenth century onwards, then, the legend was widely disseminated and believed. Joan was used as an exemplum in Dominican preaching. Bartolomeo Platina, scholar of the Vatican Library, wrote his Vitæ Pontificum Platinæ historici liber de vita Christi ac omnium pontificum qui hactenus ducenti fuere et XX in 1479 at the behest of his patron, Pope Sixtus IV. The book contains the following account of the female Pope:
"Pope John VIII: John, of English extraction, was born at Mentz (Mainz) and is said to have arrived at Popedom by evil art; for disguising herself like a man, whereas she was a woman, she went when young with her paramour, a learned man, to Athens, and made such progress in learning under the professors there that, coming to Rome, she met with few that could equal, much less go beyond her, even in the knowledge of the scriptures; and by her learned and ingenious readings and disputations, she acquired so great respect and authority that upon the death of [Pope] Leo [IV] (as Martin says) by common consent she was chosen Pope in his room. As she was going to the Lateran Church between the Colossean Theatre (so called from Nero's Colossus) and St. Clement's her travail came upon her, and she died upon the place, having sat two years, one month, and four days, and was buried there without any pomp. This story is vulgarly told, but by very uncertain and obscure authors, and therefore I have related it barely and in short, lest I should seem obstinate and pertinacious if I had admitted what is so generally talked; I had better mistake with the rest of the world; though it be certain, that what I have related may be thought not altogether incredible."
References to the female pope abound in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about her in De mulieribus claris (1353). The Chronicon of Adam of Usk (1404) gives her a name, Agnes, and furthermore mentions a statue in Rome which is said to be of her. This statue had never been mentioned by any earlier writer anywhere; presumably it was an actual statue that came to be taken to be of the female Pope. A late-fourteenth century edition of the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, a guidebook for pilgrims to Rome, tells readers that the female Pope's remains are buried at Saint Peter's. It was around this time when a long series of busts of past Popes was made for the Duomo of Siena, which included one of the female Pope, named as "Johannes VIII, Foemina de Anglia" and included between Leo IV and Benedict III. At his trial in 1415, Jan Hus argued that the Church does not necessarily need a Pope, because during the pontificate of "Pope Agnes" (as he also called her), it got on quite well. Hus' opponents at this trial insisted that his argument proved no such thing about the independence of the Church, but they did not dispute that there had been a female Pope at all.
In addition to the existence of textual sources about Pope Joan, there are also numerous medieval folktales. Once such story describes Joan as the illegitimate daughter of a former Pope and had a vision from God that she should succeed her father and become Pope. Another folktale says that a street in Italy is named after her and her body is buried beneath it. In some tales, Pope Joan is not murdered after being revealed as a woman. Instead she is deposed, lives the rest of her life in a convent and her son is made Bishop of Hostia.
The Tarot, which surfaced in the mid-15th century, includes a Papesse with its Pape (since the late 19th century called "The High Priestess" and the Hierophant in English). It is often suggested, with some plausibility although no real proof, that this image was inspired by the legend of the female Pope.
In the 1290s, the Dominican Robert of Uzès recounted a vision in which he saw the seat "where, it is said, the Pope is proved to be a man." By the fourteenth century, it was believed that two ancient marble seats, called the sedia stercoraria, which were used for enthroning new Popes in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran had holes in the seats that were used for determining the gender of the new Pope. It was said that the Pope would have to sit on one of the seats naked, while a committee of cardinals peered through the hole from beneath, before declaring, "Testiculos habet et bene pendentes" — "He has testicles, and they dangle nicely." Not until the late fifteenth century, however, was it said that this peculiar practice was instituted in response to the scandal of the ninth century female Pope.
Since the fourteenth century, the figure of Pope Joan has taken on a somewhat "Saintly" persona. There are stories of her figure appearing and performing miracles. Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) wrote in his Chronica de le Vite de Pontefici et Imperadori Romani that after Pope Joan had been revealed as a woman:
"…in Brescia it rained blood for three days and nights. In France there appeared marvelous locusts which had six wings and very powerful teeth. They flew miraculously through the air, and all drowned in the British Sea. The golden bodies were rejected by the waves of the sea and corrupted the air, so that a great many people died." (Francesco Petrarch Chronica de le Vite de Pontefici et Imperadori Romani).
In 1675, a book appeared in English entitled A Present for a Papist: or the Life and Death of Pope Joan, Plainly Proving Out of the Printed Copies, and Manscriptes of Popish Writers and Others, that a Woman called JOAN, was really POPE of ROME, and was there Deliver'd of a Bastard Son in the open Street as She went in Solemn Procession. The book describes among other stories, an account of the purported Pope Joan giving birth to a son in plain view of all those around, accompanied by a detailed engraving showing a rather surprised looking baby peeking out from under the pope's robes. The book was penned "By a LOVER of TRUTH, Denying Human Infallibility." According to the preface the author had been "many years since deceased" and was "highly preferred in the Church of Rome." Furthermore, the preface indicates that the book was first printed in 1602.
In 1587, Florimond de Raemond, a magistrate in the parlement de Bordeaux, and an antiquary, published his first deconstruction of the legend, Erreur populaire de Pape Jane, which he followed with expanded editions the following year and in 1594. The tract applied humanist techniques of textual criticism to the Pope Joan legend, with the broader intent of supplying sound historical principles to ecclesiastical history. Thereafter, the legend began to come apart, detail by detail. Raemond's Erreur populaire went through fifteen editions, as late as 1691.
In 1601, Pope Clement VIII declared the legend of the female Pope to be untrue. The famous bust of her, inscribed Johannes VIII, femina ex Anglia, which had been carved for the series of papal figures in the Duomo of Siena about 1400 and was noted by travelers, was either destroyed or recarved and relabeled, replaced by a male figure, of Pope Zachary.
Most scholars today dismiss Pope Joan as the medieval equivalent of an urban legend. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes acknowledges that this legend was widely believed for centuries, even among Catholic circles, but declares that there is "no contemporary evidence for a female pope at any of the dates suggested for her reign," and goes on to say that "the known facts of the respective periods make it impossible to fit [a female pope] in."
The legend of Pope Joan was also discredited by French Huguenot scholar David Blondel (1590-1655), a mid-seventeenth century Protestant historian, who suggested that Pope Joan's tale may have originated in a satire against Pope John XI, who died in his early 20s. Blondel, through detailed analysis of the claims and suggested timings, argued that no such events could have happened.
The Catholic Encyclopedia elaborates on the historical timeline problem:
“Between Leo IV and Benedict III, where Martinus Polonus places her, she cannot be inserted, because Leo IV died 17 July 855, and immediately after his death Benedict III was elected by the clergy and people of Rome; but owing to the setting up of an antipope, in the person of the deposed Cardinal Anastasius, he was not consecrated until 29 September. Coins exist which bear both the image of Benedict III and of Emperor Lothair, who died 28 September 855; therefore Benedict must have been recognized as pope before the last-mentioned date. On 7 October 855, Benedict III issued a charter for the Abbey of Corvey. Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, informed Nicholas I that a messenger whom he had sent to Leo IV learned on his way of the death of this pope, and therefore handed his petition to Benedict III, who decided it (Hincmar, ep. xl in P.L., CXXXVI, 85). All these witnesses prove the correctness of the dates given in the lives of Leo IV and Benedict III, and there was no interregnum between these two popes, so that at this place there is no room for the alleged popess.”
It is also notable that enemies of the Papacy in the ninth century make no mention of a female Pope. For example, Photius I of Constantinople, who became patriarch in 858 C.E. and was deposed by Pope Nicholas I in 863 C.E., was understandably an enemy of the Pope. He vehemently asserted his own authority as patriarch over that of the Pope in Rome, and would certainly have made the most of any scandal of that time regarding the Papacy. But he never mentions the story once in any of his voluminous writings. Indeed, at one point he mentions "Leo and Benedict, successively great priests of the Roman Church".
No source describing a female pope exists from earlier than the mid-12th century, almost exactly four hundred years after the time when Pope Joan allegedly existed. It is hard to believe that an event like a Pope unexpectedly giving birth in public and being stoned to death would not be mentioned by any writers or historians at the time.
Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe argue that a more plausible timeframe would be 1086-1108, when there were several antipopes, and the reign of the legitimate popes Victor III, Urban II and Paschal II was not always established in Rome, since this city was occupied by Emperor Henry IV, Henry IV, and later sacked by the Normans.
This is all in agreement with the earliest known version of the legend, by Jean de Mailly, as he places the story in the year 1099. De Mailly's story was also acknowledged by his companion Stephen of Bourbon.
It has been argued that manuscripts and historical records were tampered with in the seventeenth century, when Pope Clement VIII decreed that there had never been a Pope Joan. But this claim is highly unlikely. It would have required an immense effort to remove her name from all documents, in every library and monastery across Europe. Such a vast conspiracy would have been almost impossible to carry out. Protestants would have assuredly protected evidence in their possession that disparaged the papacy. Moreover, any such tampering would be easily detectable by modern scholars. Either passages would have to be physically erased from manuscripts - something that obviously leaves marks - or the manuscripts would have to be completely destroyed and replaced with forgeries. However, scholars can date manuscripts quite accurately on the basis of the materials used, handwriting styles, and so on. There was no mass destruction, forgery or alteration of manuscripts in the seventeenth century.
Against the weight of historical evidence to the contrary, then, why has the Pope Joan story been so often believed, and so often revisited? Some writers, such as Philip Jenkins have suggested that the periodic revival of what Jenkins calls this "anti-papal legend" has more to do with feminist and anti-Catholic wishful thinking than historical accuracy.
The sedes stercoraria, the thrones with holes in it at St John Lateran's did indeed exist, and were used in the elevation of Pope Pascal II in 1099 (Boureau 1988). In fact, one is still in the Vatican Museums another at the Musée du Louvre. They do indeed have a hole in the seat. The reason for the hole is disputed. It has been speculated that they originally were Roman bidets or imperial birthing stools, which because of their age and imperial links were used in ceremonies by popes intent on highlighting their own imperial claims (as they did also with their Latin title, Pontifex Maximus).
Alain Boureau quotes the humanist Jacopo d'Angelo de Scarparia who visited Rome in 1406 for the enthronement of Gregory XII in which the pope sat briefly on two "pierced chairs" at the Lateran: "the vulgar tell the insane fable that he is touched to verify that he is indeed a man" a sign that this corollary of the Pope Joan legend was still current in the Roman street.
Medieval Popes, from the thirteenth century onwards, did indeed avoid the direct route between the Lateran and Saint Peter's Bascilica, as Martin of Opava claimed. However, there is no evidence that this practice dated back any earlier, let alone that it originated in the ninth century as a deliberate rebuff to the memory of the female Pope. The origin of the practice is uncertain, but it is quite likely that it was maintained because of widespread belief in the Joan legend and that it was thought genuinely to date back to that period.
Although some medieval writers referred to the female Pope as "John VIII," the real Pope John VIII reigned between 872 and 882, and his life does not resemble that of the fictional female Pope in any way.
A problem sometimes connected to the Pope Joan legend is the fact that there is no Pope John XX in any official list. It is sometimes said that this reflects a renumbering of the Popes to exclude the woman from history. Yet, as historians have known since Louis Duchesne's critical edition of the Liber Pontificalis, this renumbering was actually due to a misunderstanding in the textual transmission of the official papal lists, where in the course of the 11th century, in the time after John XIX, the entry on John XIV had been misread as being referring to two different popes of this name, who then came to be distinguished as Iohannes XIV. and Iohannes XIV. bis ("John XIV the second"). The existence of a "second" pope John XIV was widely accepted in the thirteenth century, and by consequence the numbering of popes John XV thru XIX was regarded as being erroneous. When Petrus Hispanus was elected pope in 1276 and decided for the papal name John, he meant to correct this error in enumeration by skipping the number XX and having himself counted as John XXI, thus acknowledging the presumed existence of John XIV "bis" in the tenth century who had nothing to do with the alleged existence of a pope John (Joan) VIII in the ninth century.
This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.
2003. ISBN 0195154800
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