Pope Joan: The Woman Who Became Pope?

The story of Pope Joan is a complex web of myth, folklore, and rumour. But is there truth to the claims? Is there evidence that she was the first woman to be pope? Let’s find out.

6 February 2024

In the annals of Catholic Church lore, few tales are as captivating and controversial as that of Pope Joan, the supposed mediaeval female pope. The subject of debate for centuries, scholars and historians have grappled with the veracity of this extraordinary claim.

This story, blending myth and reality, tells of a woman who, against all odds and societal norms of the time, ascended to the role of Supreme Pontiff. But how much truth lies behind this legend? In this article, we delve into the debate around Pope Joan history, dissecting facts from fiction, and exploring the cultural and historical context that gave birth to such a tale.

A Medieval Female Pope?

Pope Leo IV (Credit: Culture Club / Contributor via Getty Images)

There are many versions of the tale of Pope Joan, some varying in minor details, others differing by centuries. One of the earliest and most oft-cited accounts is that of Polish monk Martinus Polonus in the “Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors.” Published in the 13th century, it describes her as of English origin, but born in the German city of Mainz sometime in the ninth century.

Having fallen in love with a monk, she was said to have joined his monastery disguised as a man and travelled to Athens with him. Eventually moving to Rome, she ascended the ranks of the clergy, becoming first a cardinal and then pope.

According to Polonus, she was elected head of the Catholic Church in 855 AD, succeeding Pope Leo IV under the name Johannes Angelicus.

The story goes that Joan became pregnant and that this was her undoing. That, in 858 AD, she went into labour in the midst of a procession to the Lateran. Her secret dramatically revealed, she died that day, either during childbirth or by being dragged through the streets and stoned.

An Enduring Tale

Sixtus IV appoints Platina as prefect of The Vatican Library (Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

Martinus Polonus was not the only one to write of a first female pope. Among those who contributed to the canon of Pope Joan history were two monks of the Dominican Order.

First was Jean of Mailly in his “Universal Chronicles of Metz” circa 1250, often credited as the first to write about Pope Joan. Then Stephen of Bourbon wrote about a mediaeval female pope, although without attaching a name and dating her papacy to the 11th century rather than the tenth.

Since then, her story has been the subject of numerous books, plays, and even films. In fact, proponents of the existence of Pope Joan point to the enduring nature of her tale. So powerful was the narrative that in the 15th century, the keeper of the Vatican library, Platina, wrote that belief in Pope Joan extended to “almost all men.” What’s more, supporters of her existence are not restricted to the middle ages.

Modern Evidence

Pope Joan, from the Schedel's Chronicle of the World, 1493 (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In 2018, researchers Habicht and Spycher of Flinders University in Australia argued that coins from the ninth century provided evidence for Pope Joan. They theorised that monograms on some coins attributed to Pope John VIII were actually from her papacy. Based on this, they determined her reign as being even shorter than previous theories, lasting for a period in 858 AD between popes Benedict III and Nicholas I.

Missing Pieces

Pope Joan, from De mulieribus claris by Boccaccio (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

While there are those who still believe in the reign of the first female pope, the general consensus remains that it is a mediaeval myth. For their part, the Vatican’s official records show no sign of her.

Then there is the fact that there are no known contemporaneous accounts of a female pope. The earliest ones emerge in the 13th century, several hundred years after the time she was said to have lived. The accounts that do exist conflict with one another, sometimes quite significantly. For instance, the dates of her reign have varied from the ninth to the 11th centuries. Even her name has changed over time.

One commentator summed up the sceptical view, with the line, “I present the story of a woman who never lived but who nevertheless refuses to die.”

Was Joan the First Woman to be Pope?

The Vatican featuring St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, Italy. (Credit: Laurie Chamberlain via Getty Images)

The legend of Pope Joan, the suggested mediaeval female pope, remains one of history’s most intriguing mysteries. Whether she was the first woman to be pope or a mythical figure, her story continues to captivate and provoke thought. It serves as a reminder of the power of legends to reflect and challenge societal norms and to keep alive the possibility of what could have been.


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