The Papacy has been a male-dominated office since the time of St. Peter, who is generally considered the first pope. However, during the Middle Ages, a story made the rounds about a pope who was actually a female in disguise. Called John Anglicus, her real name was said to be Joan.
Chronicle of Metz
The first we hear of ‘Pope Joan’ is from the 13th Century writings of Dominican chronicler Jean de Mailley. He describes an unnamed pope not recorded among the Bishops of Rome because it was a woman disguised as a man. Mailley records that because of her character and talents, she attained an education and joined the Church of Rome, where she grew to the rank of cardinal before becoming pope. Mailley goes on to say that the grave of this pope was inscribed with a Latin phrase, Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum”. It translates to “O Peter, Father of Fathers, betray the childbearing of the woman pope”. But Mailley begins the narrative with the infinitive ‘Require’, meaning the story needs verification.
Later Versions of the Tale
The next we hear of the female pope is in the Chronica minor by an unknown Franciscan friar and in the writings of the Dominican preacher, Etienne de Bourbon. While both accounts are similar, de Bourbon gives details about her death. He relates that the ‘pope’ was pregnant during her papacy and began to have contractions during a papal procession to the Church of the Lateran. When the people realized the ‘pope’ was giving birth, they tied her to a horse and dragged her till she was killed. Subsequent popes avoided the street, which was named Vicus Papissa, or the street of the female pope.
Martinus Polonus's Account
The most influential narrative of the female pope comes from the 16th Century Chronicle of Popes and Emperors by another Dominican. Polonus was well-connected to the Roman monarchy and his work was widely circulated. Polonus provides a more vivid picture of the life of Pope Joan. His story for the first time tells of such a legendary woman that is identified, and has her papacy placed in a historical context. According to Polonus, Joan was an Englishwoman who was born in Mainz (Germany). She reigned for more than two years as John VIII between the pontificates of Leo IV (847-855) and Benedict III (855-858). However, the chronicler’s sources are sketchy and his narrative has an uncertain tone. Some even claim that Joan’s story was added to the chronicle after the author’s death.
Pope Joan in Art
Later versions of the story became more elaborate. One stated that the ‘pope’ was not killed but was deposed and did penance for many years under confinement. She was buried in Ostia where her son was a bishop. Since all accounts of Pope Joan do not have any historical authenticity, modern scholars dismiss her as a myth. There are still others who find traces of her existence in numerous pieces of art. Bernini’s Baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica contains seven female sculptures whose facial features are interpreted as those of a woman in labor, and there are eight coinciding sculptures of a newborn or young child. But the same statues can have totally different meanings. Most people think the sculptures represent the niece of Pope Urban VIII who was in labor when Bernini was working on the canopy. Pope Joan has also been depicted in plays and films.
Just An Urban Myth?
While Pope Joan has no historical authenticity, existing records deny her very existence. It is impossible that the phenomenon of a ‘popess’ would have gone unrecorded from the Ninth through Thirteenth Centuries. Further, Joan cannot be inserted between Leo IV and Benedict III because the latter was elected pope immediately after the death of the former. Many people think that the legend of the"Popess" may have historical origins, such as in the effeminate weakness of Pope John VIII (872-882) in dealing with Constantinople. Some historians believe the degradation of the papacy in the 10th Century, when many popes were called John, may have given rise to the fable. However, fiction or history, the idea of a female pope disguised as a man will continue to titillate popular imagination.