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.
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
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
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
Was Pope Joan a Real Person?
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.
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