Skip to main content

Joan, Popess, Fable of


Concerns a woman alleged to have been pope in the 9th, 10th, or 11th centuries. It is based on a 13th-century tale found in the writings of such chroniclers and preachers as the Dominicans John de Mailly and Stephen de Bourbon, and the 13th-century Franciscan author of the Chronica minor (Monumenta Germaniae Scriptores 24:184), but especially the Polish Dominican martin of troppau. Martin's account (Monumenta Germaniae Scriptores 22:428), the one most widely circulated and accepted, declared that leo iv (d. 855) was succeeded by a John Anglicus, pope for two and a half years, who was, in fact, a woman. Joan, educated in Athens, was returning to Mainz dressed as a man when she stopped off at Rome and so impressed all by her learning that she became a curial notary, a cardinal, and finally pope. Her sex was discovered when, during a procession, she gave birth to a child in the road between the Colosseum and St. Clement's, or in the church itself. Her punishment and death are variously described. An ancient statue of a pagan priest with a serving boy, discovered and set up near St. Clement's, and an inscription variously resolved and interpreted, were both considered to refer to Popess Joan.

Pius V ordered both destroyed (according to Jakobclerus who wrote a guidebook to Rome in 1575). That the story was accepted is evident from the fact that her statue was included among the popes in the cathedral of Siena (c. 1400). Hus reproached the Council of constance (1415) with Popess Joan, whose existence no one denied. The domination of the 10th-century popes by the women of the house of Theophylactus is one of several explanations given for the development of the fable. Its falsity was recognized first by J. aventinus (d. 1534) and by O. Panvinio, R. bellarmine, and D. Blondel, all in the 16th century.

Bibliography: Sources. Monumenta Germaniae Scriptores (Berlin 1826) 22:428; 24:184, 243, 514. Liber Pontificalis, ed. l. duchesne (Paris 1958) 2:xxvixxvii. Literature. f. spanheim, Histoire de la papesse Jeanne, 2 v. (3d ed. The Hague 1736). j. j. i. von dÖllinger, Die Papstfabeln des Mittelalters (2d ed. Stuttgart 1890). f. x. seppelt, Geschichte der Päpste von den Anfängen bis zur Mitte des 20. Jh (Leipzig 193141) 2:238240. j. quÉtif and j. Échard, Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum (Paris 171923) 1.1:367. e. vacandard, Études de critique et d'histoire religieuse, 4 v. (Paris 190923) 4:1339. Revue d'historie ecclésiastique 20 (Louvain 1924) 296*, 5401. g. schwaiger, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d ed. Freiburg 195765) 5:984985. h. fuhrmann, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 3:803.

[c. m. aherne]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Joan, Popess, Fable of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 18 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Joan, Popess, Fable of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (April 18, 2019).

"Joan, Popess, Fable of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 18, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.