During the years, Pope Joan has become one of the most fascinating, intriguing and extraordinary characters in the whole Western history—and, as a matter of fact, one of the least well known. Most people have never heard of Joan the Pope, but those who have the privilege regard her story as pure legend. Even though, Pope Joan is the name that belongs to a legendary woman who became as the first female pope in the history of the papacy.
The legend states that, supposedly, this woman as pope reigned less than three years in the middle of the 850s; between the papacies of Leo IV (reigned 847 – 855) and Benedict III (reigned 855 – 858). Thereby, her astonishing story was well known primarily from this legend which happened to circulate in the last centuries of the Middle Ages. With this in mind, I may to say that Pope Joan is regarded in today standards by the Catholic Church, religious scholars and modern historians as pure fictional creation. Even some give the explanation that her story originates as some sort of anti-papal satire (what an excuse!).
Yet, as anyone can realize giving the facts, for several centuries—up to the middle of the seventeenth century—Joan’s papacy was universally known and accepted as truth (at least, in the Christian countries). During the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church, under increasing attack from rising Protestantism, began a concerted effort to destroy the embarrassing historical records on Joan. Hundreds of manuscripts and books were seized by the Vatican. Joan’s virtual disappearance from modern consciousness attests to the effectiveness of these measures.
Nevertheless, the first who appears to have had knowledge of her story was the Dominican chronicler Jean de Mailly, from whom another Dominican, Etienne de Bourbon, adopted the tale into his work on the “Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.” Thouth, the legend is mainly known from the 13th century chronicler Martin of Opava (Martin von Troppau to Germans, also known as Martinus Polonus, “Martin the Pole”). In the Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum, it is written:
- John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the papacy of one 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 chosen 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 lane once named Via Sacra (the sacred way) but now known as the “shunned street” between the Colisseum and St Clement’s church. After her death, it is said 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. (Martin of Opava, Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum)
In the year 855, Europe was dominated by three great powers: the Roman Catholic Church, the remnants of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, and the marauding pagan tribes of Northern and Eastern Europe. The Church had grown to its position of power and influence by filling the vacuum left by the collapse of the old Roman Empire. Originally an underground institution forced to worship in secret in the old city, the Church was legalized with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, who re-located the center of the declining empire to Constantinople.
Today the Catholic Church offers two principal arguments against Joan’s papacy: the absence of any reference to her in contemporary documents, and the lack of a sufficient period of time for her papacy to have taken place between the end of the reign of her predecessor, Leo IV, and the beginning of the reign of her successor, Benedict III.
Joan’s absence from contemporary church records is only to be expected. The Roman clergymen of the day, appalled by the great deception visited upon them, would have gone to great lengths to bury all written reports of the embarrassing episode. Indeed, they would have felt it their duty to do so. Even the great theologian Alcuin was not above tampering with the truth; in one of his letters he admits destroying a report on Pope Leo III’s adultery and simony.
Today, the church position on Joan is that she was an invention of Protestant reformers eager to expose papist corruption. Yet Joan’s story first appeared hundreds of years before Martin Luther was born. Most of her chroniclers were Catholics, often highly placed in the church hierarchy. Joan’s story was accepted even in official histories dedicated to Popes. Her statue stood undisputed alongside those of the other Popes in the Cathedral of Siena until 1601, when, by command of Pope Clement VIII, it suddenly “metamorphosed” into a bust of Pope Zacharias. In 1276, after ordering a thorough search of the papal records, Pope John XX changed his title to John XXI in official recognition of Joan’s reign as Pope John VIII. Joan’s story was included in the official church guidebook to Rome used by pilgrims for over three hundred years.
Another striking piece of historical evidence is found in the well-documented 1413 trial of Jan Hus for heresy. Hus was condemned for preaching the heretical doctrine that the Pope is fallible. In his defense Hus cited, during the trial, many examples of Popes who had sinned and committed crimes against the Church. To each of these charges his judges, all churchmen, replied in minute detail, denying Hus’s accusations and labeling them blasphemy. Only one of Hus’s statements went unchallenged: “Many times have the Popes fallen into sin and error, for instance when Joan was elected Pope, who was a woman.” No one of the 28 cardinals, four patriarchs, 30 metropolitans, 206 bishops, and 440 theologians present charged Hus with lying or blaspheming in this statement.
There is also circumstantial evidence difficult to explain if there was never a female Pope. One example is the so-called chair exam, part of the medieval papal consecration ceremony for almost six hundred years. Each newly elected Pope after Joan sat on the sella stercoraria (literally, “dung seat”), pierced in the middle like a toilet, where his genitals were examined to give proof of his manhood. Afterward the examiner solemnly informed the gathered people, “Mas nobis nominus est” — “Our nominee is a man.” Only then was the Pope handed the keys of St. Peter. This ceremony continued until the sixteenth century.
Another interesting piece of circumstantial evidence is the “shunned street.” The Patriarchium, the Pope’s residence and episcopal cathedral (now St. John Lateran) is located on the opposite side of Rome from St. Peter’s Basilica; papal processions therefore frequently traveled between them. A quick perusal of any map of Rome will show that the Via Sacra (now the Via S. Giovanni) is by far the shortest and most direct route between these two locations — and so in fact it was used for centuries (hence the name Via Sacra, or “sacred road”). This is the street on which Joan reportedly gave birth to her stillborn child. Soon afterward, papal processions deliberately began to turn aside from the Via Sacra.
As for the Church’s second argument, that there was not sufficient time between the papacies of Leo IV and Benedict III for Joan to have reigned — this too is questionable. The Liber pontificalis is notoriously inaccurate with regard to the times of papal accessions and deaths; many of the dates cited are known to be wholly invented. Given the strong motivation of a contemporary chronicler to conceal Joan’s papacy, it would be no great surprise if the date of Leo’s death was moved forward from 853 to 855 — through the time of Joan’s reported two-year reign — in order to make it appear that Pope Leo was immediately succeeded by Pope Benedict III.