Meet Joan, the Cross-Dressing Female Pope

Of all the scandals with which the Christian faith has been plagued, one of the most peculiar has nearly been forgotten. After all, how many people have ever heard of a female pope who posed as a man? To add to the strangstories most stories claim her secret was revealed when she went into premature labor and gave birth to a child during a public processional from St. Peter’s to the Palace of the Popes in Rome.

Joanna, who came to be known as Joan, was said by more than a few historians to have been the Pope in Rome for just over two years in the ninth century. Because her story seems to be mostly legend, it is impossible to say with certainty if Joanna ever lived or when Joanna might have lived. A few late medieval sources place her religious activity between the papacies of Leo IV (AD 847) and Benedict III (AD 855).

THE STORY

The story of Pope Joanna (Pope Joan) and her ascendency is usually recounted as follows:

Joanna was from from Mayence (aka Mainz, Germany). She has also been referred to as Joan, Agnes, Gilberta, Juhanna, and Jutta. As a young woman she took on a lover who took her to Athens so they could study together. The lover convinced Joan to disguise herself as a young man so that she might receive the same education offered to males. While studying in Athens, she excelled in philosophy, theology, and rhetoric.

The pair eventually moved to Rome and she began teaching theology under the name Johannes Anglicus. Her teaching responsibilities increased along with her reputation, and soon she was highly respected by the Church and its leadership. Joanna, still posing as Johannes, was chosen unanimously to replace Leo IV as the pope. Most sources indicate that she was given the name John VIII as pope, even though the Vatican lists a later pope as John VIII (AD 872-882).

Illustration from De Mulieribus Claris, Bocaccio, c. 1400

Her identity as a woman was discovered when, of all things, she went into premature labor and gave birth to a child in a public processional from St. Peter’s to the Lateran in Rome. After the discovery was made, Joan was put to death.

As with the story of her life, there are various accounts of her death which make any historical accounts even harder to trace.
The most popular description of her death alleges she was tied to the hoof of a horse, dragged outside the city, and stoned to death by the people. Other accounts say she was assaulted unto her death by the angry crowd. At least one account claims she was not put to death but rather withdrew into the seclusion of a convent.

A Latin inscription was put on her grave: Parce pater patrum papissae edere partum. Which means, “Do not forgive, father of fathers (St. Peter), the childbearing of the woman pope.”

This is, perhaps, the most reliable of accounts:

After Leo, John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was pope for 2 years, 7 months, and 4 days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the papacy of 1 month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers. There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and afterwards in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city, and she was the choice of all for pope.

While pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St. Peter’s to the Lateran, in a narrow lane between the Coliseum and St. Clement’s church. After her death, it is said that she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the holy pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter.

(From Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum, by Fr. Martin Polanus, AD 1265.)

THE VALIDITY OF THE POPE JOAN STORY

There has always been a cloud of suspicion over the events which took place between the papacies of Leo IV (AD 847) and Benedict III (AD 855). After the death of Charlemagne (AD 814), the papacy was volatile. Leaders from within the newly proclaimed Holy Roman Empire clashed with leaders from the Church over who actually had divinely-appointed authority over Christendom. As a result, it is very difficult to specify the who, what, when, and where of Christian succession during this period. The stories about Pope Joanna don’t appear until much later, which leaves most historians with significant doubts concerning her story.

Arguments for Joanna’s papacy:

1. There are several different sources from several different centuries that describe Joanna’s papacy as if it were historically accurate. Both Catholic and Protestant historians are numbered among these sources.

Some say this statue that still stands in Rome is Joanna with a papal crown

2. Some argue that a bust of Pope Joanna, called John VIII, stood in the vatican between Leo IV and Benedict III as late as the seventeenth century when it was removed. The bust was either destroyed or reformed to be used as an image of a later pope named Zachary. Bummer for that guy, huh?

3. There is a legend, which is mentioned in the passage from Polanus above, that for the next several centuries the popes would not travel on the street where Joanna gave birth because of its cursed nature. If her story is true, would any one be surprised that it was not told for 400 years and potentially the subject of a widespread coverup? I’m just sayin’.

Arguments Against Joanna’s Papacy

1. The fact that Joanna’s story is found in no sources until more than 400 years after her supposed reign would seem to indicate it is a fabrication. Is it possible that her story was erased for 400 years? Sure. It wouldn’t be the first effort in history to destroy evidence for religious reasons. Nevertheless, the time lapse is without a doubt the strongest argument against its validity.

2. In the official papal records, there is no time gap between the papacies of Leo IV and Benedict III. Contemporary Catholic historians argue that Benedict became pope just three days after Leo’s death.

3. Today, most Christian historians (both Catholic and Protestant) disregard the story of Pope Joan as fiction.

OTHER STORIES AS TO THE STORY’S ORIGIN

1. The myth of the female pope was a satire on the pope who is officially counted as John VIII (AD 872-882). John VIII was a popular pope among the people but many of his critics among the church hierarchy thought him to be a bit “soft” regarding discipline, authority, and confronting his enemies. The Pope Joanna story, therefore, was created as a satirical mockery by John’s dissenters. On the other hand, if Joanna’s story is in fact true John VIII would actually be John IX.

2. The story of Joanna was created to describe the papacy, metaphorically, as something like the whore of Babylon. This would make sense, as the papacy had drawn several enemies throughout the Empire and had been called by similar terms on other occasions.

3. The story of Pope Joanna is a Roman Catholic version of an ancient legend known as Pelagia the Penitent, which is a story about a female saint who was disguised as a man.

POPE JOAN – THE MOVIE!

In 2010, the legend of Pope Joan was made into a movie that was released mostly in Europe. The movie starred John Goodman and the guy who played Faramir in Lord of the Rings! For more on the movie, click here.


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6 responses to “Meet Joan, the Cross-Dressing Female Pope

  1. Another good post, Eric. Pope Joan, Juana Loca, and other strong female characters are noted by Medieval and Renaissance historians as the “the manly woman;” a woman out of her proper place in society, and pursuing the wrong gender role. They have always fascinated because of their ability to carve out an individual space according to their own definition, not blending in to a corporate space in a traditional role that did not stand out.

    She is the quintessential exception to the rule. :)

  2. I love how you say “and the guy who played Faramir”. Why not mention his name, David Wenham, since he is not unknown by his actual name.

    Great post on this story though.

  3. Pingback: Last Week’s Reading: on Female Popes, Anarchists, and Writers. « New Ways Forward·

  4. I just read a book on this subject, and you may borrow it, if you like.

    the possibility of Joan is fascinating, though in the end, unlikely to be the case.
    However IF she was elected, it puts the Roman Church on the horns of an interesting dilemma.

    If the election of Pontiffs is inspired by the Holy Spirit, then Joan could have hidden her gender from the Cardinals, but, not of course from God.

    So that begs the question. If she were real, did God WANT a female Pope, or were the Cardinals not filled with the Spirit?

    Either way, the Church would not like the answer.

    Br. James Patrick

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