Joan (d. 858)

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Joan (d. 858)

Possibly real, possibly fictitious, female pope. Name variations: The She-Pope; Pope Jeanne; John VIII. Reputedly born in Mainz or Ingelheim; sat in the Chair of Peter as pope, 855–58 (some sources cite 853–55); supposedly stoned to death around 858 in Rome; daughter of an Irish father and peasant mother who died soon after her birth.

Pope Joan is one of the most mysterious of all medieval women. To the present day, most historians deny her existence, although a few theorize on why the myth of a female pope proved so lasting and was treated as fact for centuries. However, it remains true that until the early 17th century, the Catholic Church and the people of Europe believed that Pope John VIII was a woman of English birth (or German birth of English parents) who reigned as pope for two years. "Well before the Reformation, Joan was accepted as fact," writes Peter Stanford in his definitive study on the subject, The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth.

The best discernible facts about her tell us that she traveled to Athens in a monk's habit, pretending to be a man in order to gain a university education. (Another account maintains that after an education at Cologne, she fell in love with a Benedictine monk and fled with him to Athens disguised as a man.) She gained renown for her intelligence and earned a degree in philosophy and theology. Joan then journeyed to Rome, possibly under the name Joannes Anglicus (John of England), and entered the priesthood; her fame and learning led Pope Leo IV (r. 847–855) to make her a cardinal. After his death on July 17, 855, Joan was elected pope as John VIII. (This was not the John VIII, however, who reigned from 872 to 882 before dying of poison.)

Joan ruled for two years, disbanding Leo's concubines, appointing bishops, building churches, and crowning Louis II ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Giovanni Boccaccio writes that she dallied with Lambert of Saxony, ambassador to Rome, who, "his passion appeased, disappeared courageously and at the right moment." She gained weight, dressed in clerical robes, and confined herself in her apartments, until she had to appear in a Rogation Day procession from St. Peter's to the Lateran Palace. "When the faithful pressed around her to acclaim her," write Mervin and Prunhuber, "she collapsed suddenly, doubled up with pain on the ground—and gave birth." Thus, it was discovered that she was a woman, and she was summarily stoned to death by an angry crowd. The legend that she gave birth to a baby during a papal procession, however, originated centuries after her death.

Pope Joan was listed as a historical pope until around 1601, when Clement VIII officially declared her a myth and ordered all mention of her destroyed. Given the timing of this order, it is feasible that the emerging Reformation and the subsequent weakening of church power led the pope to attempt to improve the church's image by rewriting its history and denying that such an enormous blunder had ever been made. "The Catholic Church's objection to female ordination is based not on scripture but on tradition," writes Stanford, a British journalist and former editor of The Catholic Herald. "There have never been women priests so there never can be. That argument might be difficult to sustain if once a woman had sat on Saint Peter's throne." The fact that she impersonated a man would put the lie to the notion that the church ordained a woman, if the church itself did not maintain that the pope is divinely ordained, a vicar of Christ on earth. "For even if Joan fooled the men around her," notes Stanford, "she could not have tricked God. He would have known her real identity and gender. Did God want a female pope? And if he did, where does that leave the current Catholic ban on women at the altar." For whatever reason, the order to obliterate all mention of Joan was put forth, and in some reference works the popes were even renumbered to eradicate John VIII altogether.

Stanford concludes, with qualifiers, that there is truth to the myth: "Weighing all this evidence, I am convinced that Pope Joan was an historical figure, though perhaps not all the details about her that have been passed down through the centuries are true.… [S]he achieved the pa pacy at a time when the office was hopelessly debased and corrupt, [and] was moderately successful, but … her triumph was short-lived."

There is a shrine on Rome's Vicus Papissa (which literally means the "street of the woman pope"), writes Stanford, the street where Joan supposedly gave birth. It is believed that the memorial once contained a statue of Joan. On papal orders, it was taken down, and pontiffs avoided that road for future processions. There is a bust of Pope Zachary in the Cathedral of Siena. Writers of the 16th century claim that it was put there in 1601 to replace the bust of Pope Joan by order of Clement. Stanford also uncovered a series of Bernini carvings above the central altar in St. Peter's Basilica that appear to depict a pope giving birth. As well, Stanford found a singular marble throne with a hole in the seat, the sedia stercoraria, stored in the Vatican Museum. It was reputedly installed by the College of Cardinals immediately after Joan's death. The Cardinals would file by a newly elected pope, one by one, and each in turn would run a probing hand under the chair, before satisfactorily declaring, "Testiculos habet et bene pendentes!"

The Catholic Church maintains that Joan is an invention of Protestant reformers intent on exposing papist corruption, but she was written of long before the advent of Martin Luther. Whether Joan is fact or fiction, Stanford urges the church to be more forthcoming about its past. The Catholic Church, he writes, should "show a little more humility when dictating from on high which episodes of history—usually those that reflect well on it—are worthy of respect and which can be swept under an already lumpy carpet."

Images of Pope Joan can be found in artistic works throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. More than 500 manuscripts between the 13th and 17th centuries address the story, many written by Catholics. Passages about Joan are contained in the pre-Reformation chronicles of the 13-century Dominican priest Martin Polonus. A French Dominican, Steven of Bourbon (d. around 1261), narrates the legend in his Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The idea was first seriously addressed by David Blondel, a French Calvinist, in his Éclaircissement de la question si une femme a été assise au siège papal de Rome (1647) and De Joanna Papissa (1657). The books were refuted by Johann Dollinger in his Papstfabeln des Mittelalters (1863, with English translation in 1872). Johannes Duns Scotus writes of her, as well as Boccaccio, Platina, and Petrarch. She also figured prominently in Stendhal's Voyages en Italie. As well, Voltaire wrote:

On credulity, error, and ignorance,
Priests have skillfully built their power;
I want to declare and prove today
That a woman likewise had her hour.


Gould-Davis. The First Sex. NY: Penguin, 1971.

Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane, ed. A History of Women in the West, vol. II: Silences of the Middle Ages. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard, 1992.

Mervin, Sabrina, and Carol Prunhuber. Women: Around the World and Through the Ages. DE: Atomium Books, 1990.

Stanford, Peter. The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth. NY: Holt, 1998.

suggested reading:

Cross, Donna Woolfolk. Pope Joan (a novel). NY: Ballantine Books.

related media:

Pope Joan (140 min. film), starring Liv Ullmann , Olivia de Havilland , Lesley-Anne Down , Keir Dullea, Trevor Howard, and Jeremy Kemp, written and directed by Michael Anderson (an evangelist believes herself to be the reincarnation of Joan), 1972.

Pope Joan, musical by Christopher Moore, produced by Michael Butler, presented by Orlok Productions.

Laura York , Riverside, California