The Legend of Pope Joan

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Podcast Transcript

According to the records of the Catholic Church, there have been 266 men who have been pope. 

However, for centuries it was thought that there was another pope not on the list that was different from all of the others. What made this pope different is that the pope was a woman.

Learn more about the legend of Pope Joan, both the fact and the fiction, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Untangling the legend of Pope Joan is difficult because there are so many stories, and many of them are conflicting. 

So the best place to start is to just start with the basics of the story as it has been passed down through the years. 

Sometime in the Middle Ages, it could be in the 9th century, or possibly the 10th or 11th century, there was a girl born in England by the name of Joan, or Joanne, or Joanna. However the story is told, it is always a feminine version of the name John. For the purposes of this episode, I’m going to go with Joan. 

Joan was very intelligent, but education was denied to women in the Middle Ages. 

So, she disguised herself as a man and entered a monastic school in Mainz, Germany. Or perhaps she was original from Mainz, again it depends on the story. 

While at school she excelled and was the top student. She learned Latin and Greek as well as the other liberal arts which was the core of an education in the Middle Ages. 

She eventually became a priest and worked her way up the church hierarchy. She may or may not have been involved with a man and followed him to Rome. 

While in Rome she became a highly respected teacher and during a papal conclave, she was chosen as pope. The entire time she had hidden the fact that she was a woman, and everyone thought she was a man. 

Her papacy supposedly lasted two years and seven months. Her rouse was discovered one day during a procession from St. Peter’s to St. John’s Lateran when she gave birth in front of everyone in Rome….or she gave birth while trying to mount a horse.

Either the public stoned her to death upon the discovery, or she died in childbirth. 

Either way, the Catholic Church supposedly covered up the existence of Pope Joan and denies she was ever a pope to this day. 

For several centuries, this story was accepted as fact in much of the Catholic world. 

There were many authors who spoke of it matter of factly, and the cathedral in Sienna Italy even had a statue of Pope Joan alongside statues of other popes. The statue, however, was ordered taken down by the sitting pope in the year 1601. 

So, the big question is where did this story come from, and how true is it? 

The first mention of a female pope occurred sometime around the year 1250. It was mentioned a Dominican Friar by the name of Jean de Mailly who lived in Metz, France. He wrote a book called the Chronica Universalis Mettensis.  In it, he wrote the following:

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” [Oh Peter, Father of Fathers, Betray the childbearing of the woman Pope]. 

The events which he described supposedly took place in the year 1099, a full 150 years before he wrote it. 

It should also be noted that there is no name attached to the female pope that he described. 

There weren’t a lot of books that were written in the 13th century, and monasteries were the primary centers of learning. Books would be copied and passed around to different monasteries. 

So, it isn’t that surprising that the next couple of mentions also came from Dominican monks. 

The story was next told by a monk named Stephen of Bourbon in his book Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost, and then by another Dominican named Martin of Opava in his book Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum.

Here is what he wrote in the late 13th century, and the embellishments he added to the story:

John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was Pope for two years, 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, afterward, 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 lane once named Via Sacra (the sacred way) but now known as the “shunned street” between the Colosseum and St Clement’s church.

In this telling of the story, the pope now has a name, and her demise becomes different, and there are more details. In particular, he says that the pope was John VIII, which would have put it in the 9th century, sometime around the year 882, almost a full 200 years before the original story. 

The tale of Pope Joan kept spreading over the years and throughout the Renaissance. One of the surprising things about how the story spread is how little resistance there was to it. Most people just accepted it as fact. 

There was even a rumor that after the election of a new pope the cardinals would check under the robes of the new pope to make sure they were male.

Eventually, the church came out and publically declared the story of the female pope to be false. 

Oddly enough, it was a Protestant historian who debunked the story. David Blondel who was a French historian and preacher realized that the story didn’t fit. The gap between when the events took place and when the story first appears was over 350 years. 

He figured it was commentary or satire about Pope John XI, who was very young. Likewise, there was a 16th-century Italian historian who thought the story might have been about John XII, who had a mistress named Joan. 

While the story eventually died down, it never quite went away. There are still people today who believe that it is true. 

However, it is pretty much the universal consensus amongst historians that the legend is false.

If you think about it, it is really hard to wipe a pope from history. 

If you remember back, I did an episode on the Roman concept of Damnatio Memoriae, which was erasing someone from history. Every mention of them, and every image of them was to be destroyed. 

There were even former emperors who had a Damnatio Memoriae decree placed upon them after they died, however, it never worked. It was impossible to destroy all the coins, and everyone’s knowledge of what they know to have existed. 

If Pope Joan had existed and been in office for over two and a half years, then there would have been letters sent to various kings, bishops, and monasteries across Europe. There are literally no contemporary written references to Pope Joan. However, there are many references to the popes that did exist. 

Coins would have been minted for the new pope as the ruler of the papal states. 

Biggest of all, if a pope were found to be a woman, and she actually gave birth in such a dramatic, movie plot fashion, it would have been an incredible scandal, and word would have spread throughout Europe. How did she hide the pregnancy for nine months? Why would she go out in public just when she was ready to give birth? 

Even opponents of the church and pope in the 9th and 10th centuries never brought up Pope Joan in their criticism of the church. 

In the end, the story of Pope Joan reminds me of the legend of King Arthur. He is a person for whom there is little historical evidence, Over time, the story of King Arthur became more and more elaborate, with entire novels being written about him with entire mythology behind him.

The same is true with Pope Joan. Movies and novels have been created telling her story.  

So, there almost certainly wasn’t a Lady Pope back in the Middle Ages. There is no contemporary evidence for it, it would have been impossible to cover up, and the stories that do exist aren’t consistent and appeared centuries after the fact. 

Nonetheless, it does make for a very interesting story.