Pope Joan

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According to medieval legend, Pope Joan was a female pope who reigned from 855 to 858.

Pope Joan is regarded by historians as an invention, possibly originating as an anti-papal satire which gained a degree of plausibility due to certain genuine elements related in the story.

The Papess, a tarot card, is often thought to depict Pope Joan.
The Papess, a tarot card, is often thought to depict Pope Joan.


The Legend

The story of Pope Joan is known mainly from a 13th century Polish chronicler named Martin of Opava (Martin von Trappau to Germans and also known as Martin Polonus, "Martin the Pole"). In his Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum, he writes:

After... Leo, 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 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 the choice of all 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 Colisseum and St 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.

Thus, this event would have occurred in between the reigns of Pope Leo IV and Pope Benedict III, in the 850s. Versions of the story do appear in earlier sources. The one most commonly cited is Anastasius Bibliothecarius (d. 886), who would have been a contemporary of the female Pope. However, the story is not found in reliable manuscripts. In fact, only one manuscript of Anastasius' Liber Pontificalis contains a reference to the female Pope. This manuscript, found at the Vatican City, has the relevant passage inserted as a footnote at the bottom of the page, out of sequence, and in different handwriting which 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 written in the 11th century. Some manuscripts contain a brief mention of a female Pope named Joanna (the earliest source to give her a woman's name at all), 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 which certainly antedates Martin of Opava, and this is Jean de Mailly, who wrote slightly earlier in the 13th century. In his 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-13th century onwards, then, the legend was widely disseminated and believed. Bartolomeo Platina, a 15th century scholar, 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 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. The 14th century writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about her in De Claris Mulieribus. 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 - although given that this statue was never mentioned by any earlier writer anywhere, it presumably was a real statue that was only later taken to be of the female Pope. A late 14th century edition of the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, a guidebook for pilgrims to Rome, tells readers that the female Pope's remains are buried at St Peter's. 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. It was around this time when a long series of busts of past Popes was made for Siena Cathedral, which included one of the female Pope, named as "Johannes VIII, Foemina de Anglia" and included between Leo IV and Benedict III.

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.

There were associated legends as well. In the 1290s the Dominican Robert d'Usez recounted a vision in which he saw the seat "where, it is said, the Pope is proved to be a man". By the 14th century, it was believed that two ancient marble seats, called the sedia stercoraria, which were used for enthroning new Popes in St John Lateran's had holes in, which 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 15th century, however, was it said that this peculiar practice was instituted in response to the scandal of the 9th century female Pope.

In 1601, Pope Clement VIII declared the legend of the female Pope to be untrue. The famous bust of her in Siena Cathedral was destroyed.


The legend of Pope Joan was discredited by David Blondel, a mid-17th century Protestant historian, who suggested that Pope Joan's tale may have originated in a satire against Pope John XI, who upon his death was in his early 20s. Blondel, through detailed analysis of the claims and suggested timings, argued that no such events could have happened.

Modern historians agree. No source describing her exists from earlier than the mid-thirteenth century, almost exactly four hundred years after the time when she 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 anyone at the time.

Though the documentation for the Papacy in the 850s is imperfect, it makes the claim that there was a "John Anglicus" in between Leo IV and Benedict III quite untenable - irrespective of this individual's gender. For example, we possess letters by Hincmar of Reims which confirm that Benedict III became Pope shortly after Leo IV died. Pope Nicholas I speaks of his predecessors in his letters, and the chronicle of Ado, Bishop of Vienna, which was written some time between 867 and 872, describes the succession in a straightforward fashion like this:

The Roman Pontiff Gregory died, and in his place Sergius was appointed. When he died, Leo succeeded: on whose death Benedict was put in his place in the Apostolic See.

The sources agree that Leo IV died on 17 July 855, with two main candidates for his replacement: the future Benedict III, and one Anastasius. Anastasius was the favourite of the Holy Roman Emperor Lothair I, who was not in Rome. Anastasius therefore declared himself Pope. However, he lost favour and was overthrown after only a couple of weeks, being replaced by Benedict III, who was duly installed on 29 September 855. There was thus no time for Martin von Trappau's "John Anglicus" to be Pope, let alone Pope for over two years.

It has been argued that the sources were tampered with in the 17th century, when Pope Clement VIII decreed that there had never been a Pope Joan. But this claim cannot be true. It would have required an immense effort to remove her name from all documents, in every library and monastery in Europe. Such a vast conspiracy could not conceivably have been carried out. Moreover, it would have been 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. On the contrary, as we have seen, all the evidence of tampering in relation to the Pope Joan story indicates that books from before the thirteenth century were altered to put her in, not leave her out.

It is also notable that enemies of the Papacy in the 9th century make no mention of the female Pope. For example, Photius I of Constantinople, who became patriarch in 858 and was deposed by Pope Nicholas I in 863, 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".

Even without the documentary evidence, it is certain that Benedict III became Pope in late 855. Coins exist from this date showing him as Pope on one side and Lothair as emperor on the other. Lothair died on March 2, 855 and predeceased Leo IV. But it took some months for the news to reach Rome, and it was during this time that the coins were minted.

It might be argued that Anastasius, who was antipope at the right time, might have been the origin of the Pope Joan legend. This Anastasius is often identified with the Anastasius Bibliothecarius whom we have already met. If this identification is correct, his subsequent career in the church makes that impossible. After being deposed as antipope, Anastasius became abbot of the monastery of St Mary in Trastavere, later rising once again to become a cardinal and Papal librarian. If he had been exposed as a woman, he would not have become a cardinal secretary later on. Even if this Anastasius is not the antipope, there is still no reason to suppose that the antipope is to be identified with Pope Joan, given that he reigned for only a few weeks and there is no evidence that he turned out to be female.

Jean de Mailly's claim that the female Pope actually reigned in 1099 is also inconsistent with known history. There was, in fact, considerable confusion over the Papacy at this time. The death of Pope Gregory VII in 1085 left a situation where a number of candidates bickered over the Papacy, with ascendancy going to whoever could maintain the support of the emperor and of the people of Rome. Pope Urban II became Pope in 1088, but the presence of the Antipope Clement III meant that he was unable to take up residency in Rome until 1097. Urban died on July 29, 1099 and was succeeded by Pope Paschal II, who had to contend not only with Clement III but with a succession of other pretenders to the throne of St Peter. So in this time of uncertainty and strife it is quite plausible to suppose that a woman could somehow have become Pope, or at least one of the competing antipopes. However, there is no evidence beyond Jean de Mailly that one actually did. There is no reference whatsoever in contemporary writings to a Pope giving birth, and this silence regarding what would have been the most interesting scandal of the age makes it extremely unlikely ever to have happened.

Related Issues

The thrones with holes in at St John Lateran's did indeed exist. In fact, one is still in the Vatican Museums today, and it does indeed have a hole in the seat. The reason for the hole is disputed, but as both the seats and their holes predated the Pope Joan story, and indeed Catholicism by centuries, they clearly have nothing to do with a need to check the sex of a pope. 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).

Medieval Popes, from the thirteenth century onwards, did indeed avoid the direct route between the Lateran and St Peter's, 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. In fact, shortly after Pope John XXI became Pope in 1276, there arose a legend that there had been an "extra" Pope John between Pope John XIV and Pope John XV in the 10th century. Martin of Opava mentions this Pope in his chronicle. In reality, the Antipope Boniface VII occupied the Papal throne at this time. However, John XXI accordingly renumbered himself (when he should really have been John XX) and all Pope Johns since XIV to take account of this legendary "extra" Pope John. This discrepancy in Papal numbering thus has nothing to do with the Pope Joan story.

Art and film

A film Pope Joan was released in 1972 with Liv Ullmann as Joan, and also starring Olivia de Havilland and Trevor Howard as Pope Leo. [1]

A new version from Germany is scheduled for a 2006 release. [2]

A popular British stageplay called Top Girls has Pope Joan among the characters in the first act. The play was made into an independent film in the 1980s.

The myth about Pope Joan was the basis for the story Giovanna of the Phantom comic strip. It was written by Ingebjørg Berg Holm, drawn by Dick Giordano and first published in 2003.


A songwriter by the name of Randall Goodgame includes a song titled 'The Legend of Pope Joan' on his cd 'War and Peace'

See also


  • Donna Woolfolk Cross, Pope Joan Ballantine Books, ISBN 0-345-41626-0
  • Rosemary and Darrell Pardoe, The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan. The First Complete Documentation of the Facts behind the Legend Crucible, 1988. Complete text available here
  • Peter Stanford, The She-Pope. A Quest for the truth behind the Mystery of Pope Joan, Heineman, London 1998 ISBN 0434 024589
  • Peter Stanford, The Legend of Pope Joan : In Search of the Truth, Henry Holt & Company, 1999
  • Alain Bourea, The Myth of Pope Joan, University Of Chicago Press, 2000

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