Pope Joan: The Legend of the Only Female Pontiff in History

Pope Joan is still remembered as a defiant character that managed to trick the Catholic Church.

Isabel Cara

Pope Joan: The legend of the only female pontiff in history

Pope Francis I, is the 266th successor of Saint Peter according to Catholic history. Jorge Bergoglio, isn’t only the first Pope Francis in history, when he was named leader of the Catholic Church, he broke all sorts of records. Among those are, being the first pontiff from the Americas, the first to be born on the Southern Hemisphere of the Globe, and impressively, the first pope coming from outside Europe since the 8th century, right after Gregory III a Syrian Pope.

However, these aren’t as impressive as Ioannes Anglicus, best known as Pope Joan or Popess Joan, the alleged first and only woman that sustained the title of Pope. What? a Female Pope? That’s right, according to this medieval legend, who many still take as real, there was once a woman who managed to trick the entire Church and, disguised as a man, managed to hold the most prestigious title a priest could have. What was her story, and why do some historians still think she was real? Let’s delve into that.

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The First Accounts of Pope Joan

First things first. According to the story, which has been replicated over and over throughout the centuries in books, paintings, sculptures, films, and even tarot cards, Pope Joan ruled for over two years in the mid 9th century. However, where her story gets more inclined to be nothing else than a legend is that there aren’t real accounts of her from those times. The truth is that the very first direct mentions of Joan can only be traced back to over three centuries after her life.

The first mention appeared in some 13th-century chronicles by two Dominican friars, Jean de Mailly and Stephen of Bourbon. As a matter of fact, they only mention an alleged nameless popess who led the Catholic Church during the nineteenth century and whose identity was revealed on a procession. Mailly even talks about a grave without a name with the epitaph, “Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum” (O Peter, Father of Fathers, betray the childbearing of the woman pope). His chronicles, actually start with the Latin word ‘require,’ which means that the information has yet to be verified.

Neither Mailly nor Bourbon’s version gives much detail into Joan’s story (not even her name), but around the same century, appeared another chronicle which has become the most known and most quoted when talking about Pope Joan. This account is included in The Chronicle of Popes and Emperors written by the Dominican monk Martinus Polonus. He is the one who actually first gives her the name of Joan and gives more information regarding her biography.

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The reason why Polonus’ text became so popular and became the main source of information about this alleged Joan, is because he had an incredible prestige in his days for his connection to the institution becoming himself a bishop. Still, despite the details that appear in his chronicle, there are doubts within and outside the text about the veracity of the story. The text itself seems a bit skeptical about the existence of Joan, and some historians have claimed that this part was written after Polonus’ death.

In the 14th century, Giovanni Boccaccio, the acclaimed author of The Decameron, mentioned Pope Joan in his De mulieribus claris (Concerning Famous Women). Later on, Pope Joan started appearing in paintings, sculptures, engravings, and even tarot cards. Also, she was once included in the collection of papal busts in the Siena Cathedral in Italy, but this was brief since she’s not on the official list of pontiffs.

Who Was Joan?

So, what’s her overall story? According to Polonus, Joan was born in England in Mainz. Wanting to serve God, but not as a nun, she decided to disguise herself as a man to be ordained and to start her religious training. She stood out as a scholar and little by little, started to ascend in the pyramid of power of the Catholic Church. Eventually, she was elected in 855 as Pope John VIII.

Polonus’ text is the only one that gives detail on how long was her pontificate. He claims that she was elected right after Pope Leo IV, and served as the successor of Saint Peter for two years, seven months, and four days to be precise. She had managed to trick the entire institution and conceal her real identity under the long papal robes; however, it all would fall apart in 858 during a public procession.

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Legend has it she was leading the procession when she went into labor. According to some versions, she was taken inside, but sadly she passed during childbirth. Other versions claim that when people realized what was happening, the enraged priests and bishops, along with the crowd following the procession, tied her to a horse and dragged her throughout the streets. She was stoned during the process and soon passed. Either way, both stories mark Joan’s demise to that procession.

There’s a third version of Pope Joan’s death, that claims that after giving birth, she was deposed and confined for years to do her penance. She eventually died (it’s not clear when) and was then buried in Ostia. According to this version, her son got ordained and managed to be named bishop of Ostia.

Real story or myth?

Now, was Pope Joan real, or just a great character of a medieval legend? Although there are still mixed opinions on the matter, the great majority of historians and theologists take the story of Joan as a mere myth. This is either because her story challenges the norms and principles of the Catholic Church, or simply because there’s really no hard evidence that proves her existence.

If Polonus’ chronicle is right, her ruling would simply overlap with the very well-documented accounts of Leo IV and Benedict III’s papacies. Those who take Joan’s story as a myth, claim that her popularity during the late Middle Ages and following centuries grew bigger due to the anti-papal sentiments that were slowly spread throughout Europe, mainly by Protestants and fervent critics of the Catholic Church.

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However, there’s another side to the coin, and it’s actually a coin that would give evidence of Joan’s existence. According to a recent study by archaeologist Michael E. Habicht from Flinders University in Adelaide (Australia), there are a set of coins attributed to the papacy of a certain Pope John VIII who led the Church from 872 to 882. So, although the dates don’t match Polonus’ chronicles, there’s something about the monogram that could refer to Joan. According to Habicht, the first monogram dates from 856 to 858, matching Polonus’ dates; the second monogram indeed dates to John VIII’s registers. He believes that there was, indeed, a female Pope whose reign was short (less than a year) and that could be placed between the papacies of Benedict III and Nicholas I, who reigned in 855 to 858 and 858 to 867 respectively.

This is still not conclusive, and much more evidence would need to be discovered to prove the existence of a female Pope; however, her legend is evidence enough of the defiant sentiments of the people towards one of the most powerful, and (let’s say it) vicious institution in history. Real or not, Pope Joan is still remembered as a defiant character that not only managed to trick the Catholic Church but also proved that the idea of women not being strong, smart, or worthy enough to lead an entire flock was outdated even as back as the 9th century.

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