Pope Joan

From Academic Kids

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

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


The Legend

The story of Pope Joan is primarily based upon a history of the papacy written by Platina (Bartolommeo de'Sacchi) in the 15th century. Platina was the secretary to a reigning pope, Pope Nicholas V, and at Nicholas's direction created the first papal library worthy of the name in 1448.

Although she was declared mythical in 1601 by Pope Clement VIII, and although Roman Catholic scholars now vehemently deny there was ever a female pope, even the Church accepted her pontificate as historical fact for almost 800 years. Her portrait appeared in a row of papal busts in Siena Cathedral, labeled "Johannes VIII, femina ex Anglia" (John VIII, a woman from England).

Pope Joan was first mentioned by her contemporary, Anastasius the Librarian (d. 886). Marianus Scotus's Chronicle of the Popes says, "A.D. 854, Lotharii 14, Joanna, a woman, succeeded Leo [IV], and reigned two years, five months, and four days."

Pope John VIII is the only pope ever to have been stricken out from the papal records, even though her pontificate was better documented than many others, especially the popes who reigned before the 5th century, many of whom were nothing but names inserted into later chronicles to create the illusion of an unbroken papal succession. She is also the first pope to have died by assassination.

Although the Roman Catholic Church still vehemently denies the legend of Pope Joan, it has been alleged that the Church used to compel a candidate for the papacy to seat himself naked on a bottomless stool, to be viewed by cardinals in the room below. Before he could be declared pope, this inspection committee had to cry out: "Testiculos habet et bene pendentes" — "He has testicles, and they dangle nicely."

Here is what Platina, the official Vatican historian, wrote: "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.'"

Or, in short: Pope Joan became pope because she was so amazingly learned in both scripture and theology that she was elected by general acclamation of Pope Leo IV and several other cardinals. After she had reigned as pope for almost 30 months, she allegedly went into labor on her way to the Lateran Church. Upon realizing that their pope was a woman, the cardinals who were present stoned her to death, and she was buried on the spot of her death.


The earliest extant "legend" of a female pope is contained in a chronicle by her contemporary Anastasius Bibliothecarius ("the Librarian"), an excellent Greek scholar and translator who was made the cardinal priest of St. Marcella's (or St. Marco's) in 847 or 848. It is alleged that between the death of Leo IV in July 855 and the election of Benedict III in September 858 — the reign of Pope John VIII — Anastasius was the anti-pope. He was excommunicated some time between 850 and 860 (and anathematized three years later), and later was readmitted to lay communion and made papal librarian in 867. It is tempting to speculate that he was excommunicated and anathematized for disseminating the fact of Joan's papacy. The second allegation of a female pope was contained in De septem donis Spiritu Sancti ("The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit") by a French Dominican, Stephen of Bourbon (died 1261). The "Universal Chronicle of Metz", almost contemporary with it, which is attributed to the Dominican chronicler John of Metz between 1240 and 1250, repeated the tale, which was taken up by the Dominican Martin of Opava (Martin of Troppau or Martinus Polonus, who died in 1278) from whom it was copied into the chronicle Flores Temporum. The earliest German version is in the chronicle of Jans der Enikel.The name Joanna was first applied to the tale in the 14th century. The originators of the legend may have been mid-13th century Dominicans and Minorites.

"Pope Joan" was referred to by such notables as William of Ockham. The story gained credence even in papal circles. After searching the papal records in 1276, Pope John XX changed his title to Pope John XXI, giving the legend some further support; because John is the most widely used papal name, and some Johns were antipopes, there was confusion over what number belonged to which valid Pope John. Official Vatican lists still do not include a Pope John XX.

For three hundred years, the story of Pope Joan was included in the popular pilgrim's guidebook to Rome, Mirabilia Urbis Romae. In 1413, when Jan Hus was being tried on a long series of charges of heresy including the errors of popes, Hus cited many examples. His accusations were gone over in minute detail by his judges, who labeled them blasphemy. However, Hus' statement that "many times have the Popes fallen into sin and error; for instance, when Joan was elected Pope, who was a woman" was not disputed by any of the 28 cardinals, four patriarchs, 30 metropolitans, 206 bishops and 440 theologians who were present, nor was he charged with blasphemy or falsehood on this one charge.

The Tarot, which surfaced in the mid-1400s, includes a Papesse with its Pape (called the High Priestess and the Hierophant in English). It is alleged that it was the popularity of the Tarot that in 1400 caused a bust of the popess to be placed in the cathedral of Siena along with the other popes, having the inscription "John VIII, a woman from England." The statue occupied this position until Clement VIII in 1601 had it transformed into "Pope Zacharias."


As with legends generally, an amount of truth exists, embellished with layers of fiction. Such a seat did exist; when a pope took possession of his cathedral, St. John Lateran in Rome, he traditionally sat on two ancient chairs of porphyry, the sedia stercoraria. Both had holes. The reason for the holes 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).

The myth of Pope Joan was discredited by David Blondel, a mid-17th century Protestant historian, who suggested that Pope Joan's legend 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. Among the evidence discrediting the Pope Joan story, is:

  • No archival documentation exists of such an event beyond the histories listed above.
  • The 'testicle seat' which popes supposedly sat on to have their masculinity ascertained is said to long predate the era of 'Pope Joan' and to have nothing to do with a requirement that a pope have his testicles checked.
  • Pope St. Leo IV reigned from 847 until his death in 855, whereupon Pope Benedict III is now alleged to have succeeded him within a matter of weeks. This would make it impossible for Pope Joan to have reigned from 855-858.

Whether or not Pope Joan existed in historical fact, her legend is based upon respectable sources, two of whom were official papal historians.

Art and film

Some (including science fiction/fantasy author Piers Anthony) suggest that the High Priestess card in the Tarot pack (called La Papesse in French) is a depiction of Pope Joan.

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.

A popular British stageplay called "Top Girls" has Pope Joan among the charactors in the first act. In the 1980's, the play was made into an independent film.

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 (http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pardos/PopeJoanHome.html)
  • Peter Stanford, The She-Pope. A Quest for the truth behind the Mystery of Pope Joan, Heineman, London 1998 ISBN 0434 024589

External links

es:Papisa Juana fr:Papesse Jeanne it:Papessa Giovanna nl:Pausin Johanna pl:Papieżyca pt:Papisa Joana sv:Johanna (påvinna)


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