The Papacy: The Legend of Pope Joan (9th Century)

In the year 1265, a Polish-born Dominican monk named Martin wrote the Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum, an immensely popular book which circulated widely throughout Christendom thanks to the diligent labors of many hand-written scribes. In the book, Martin describes a pope who briefly reigned for two years after Leo IV and before Benedict III. This pope’s name was “John” (Johannes Anglicus, or John VIII). According to legend, he was a remarkably well-educated man from England whose wisdom was widely renowned as was his teaching of the liberal arts in Rome –he was apparently unanimously selected as the next pope. However, as it turns out this pope was secretly a woman! According to legend, this woman kept her gender disguised under men’s clothes and was actually impregnated by a “companion” and she subsequently delivered a baby while en route from St. Peter’s to the Basilica of St. John Lateran (a cathedral constructed by Constantine the Great on the site of an old Roman cavalry barracks located on the opposite side of the city of Rome from St. Peter’s). At any rate, it was near this spot that “Pope Joan” was revealed publicly to be a woman while in the spontaneous act of childbirth caused by her horseback ride across the city. It was said that this site was then met with shame and disgust by future centuries of pontiffs who were sometimes described as dismounting from their horses and turning away to avoid the disgrace of this particular location. It became a rallying cry for those who claimed the church held contempt for women. Joan was said to have died shortly after childbirth, although other accounts suggest she was viciously terrorized by her enemies within the church who dragged her body behind a horse before stoning her to death. As Martin and another chronicler, Jean de Mailly, suggest, future church leaders sought to prevent any other woman from again attaining the papacy. Thus an amusing tradition allegedly began —La Chaise Percée— in which young cardinals were required to prove their sex by sitting atop a hollowed out chair (a “pierced” chair) while a church leader would reach upward into the chair to verify the existence of testicles (this was typically followed by the shouting of various ribald phrases). The practice later died out by the 16th century.

Present-day scholars regard the legend of Pope Joan as merely the work of fiction, little more than a myth to explain the existence of certain customs, however the alluring idea of a secretive female pope continues to persist and even has its champions. Presently, a pair of German scholars are apparently searching for coinage from this period under the hopes that it might point toward Pope Joan. In the past, a statue commemorating Pope Joan once stood along the procession road between St. Peter’s and the Lateran not far from the Colosseum. It displayed a woman draped in papal cloth carrying a baby. The statue was observed by a great many travelers. However, today the statue has long since disappeared. Perhaps it was removed in 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV who is believed to have tossed the statue into the Tiber.

Despite being a tantalizing story, Pope Joan almost assuredly never existed. No contemporaneous historian has ever made mention of her, and in fact, her brief biography had only begun to emerge some four hundred years after her supposed death. The likely story is that a band of disgruntled monks sought to besmirch the church with a fabricated legend. Of the Pope Joan saga, John Julius Norwich characterized it as one of the “hoariest canards in papal history” (64).

For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

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