Pope Joan: Fiction or Hidden Reality?

⚠️TW: murder

Today’s article, our last one for the month February, is a bit different than all the ones before. It concerns the legend of Pope Joan.📝

Even though we don’t know much and till this day we can’t say with certainty that she existed, the story of Pope Joan is an interesting one to share. 🤷

It is rumored that the pope John VIII was a woman who pretended to be a man. Historians and cultural scientists have found different sources that tell the legend of Pope Joan, but are quite sure that somehow her story is connected to the way that Pope John was viewed in his cultural context, his behaviour was often described as womenish to disrespect him. Whether or not this story is built upon that claim, it is a part of modern popular culture that has had a significant impact on the church. ⛪️

Learn more about this old legend and its origins in the article below!

Johanna Anglicus | *ca. 825-830 | † ca. 860 | Germany | Rumoured to be Elected Pope

Pope Joan – or perhaps better known by the name John VIII – was a pope for a little over 25 months around 850. Some sources state the exact date of 855 till 857, others claim that John VIII was Joan (That would mean she would have been pope from 872 till 882). Still it is not sure whether or not this story is real. Even though most historians are quite sure she never existed, there is a multitude of research to be found about the tale of a female pope. It is a debate of two forces against each other: on the one hand there is a strong belief that she never existed and on the other hand there is a very strong belief she did. Both theories are based on multiple historical sources, which researchers used to either prove her existence, or to substantiate that she was merely a legend. 

You see, this is quite a difficult situation researchers face. There are even biographies published about Pope Joan, based on oral accounts and old tales. The legend built up around her and the previously mentioned historical documents. It is easy to get tricked into thinking that this person has really existed, but until research really does prove that Pope Joan has lived in the 9th century, it is a legend that keeps on living. 

But why is there no real proof of an existing female pope? Even though researchers have never proven that Pope Joan was real, there is still a strong belief in the legend. This could be due to the fact that the documents which are needed to prove her existence or refute the legend, are in possession of the Vatican. The Vatican’s archives, however, are not accessible for everyone. Only a handful of people have ever entered the archives and were allowed to use sources from there. As long as the official documents haven’t been accessed, there will still be doubt around the fact whether or not a female pope has ever existed. The strong belief in Pope Joan’s existence is also strongly tied to the fact that the catholic church is known for its great power and influence on written history, but also known to cover up facts that don’t suit the narrative of the Vatican/ catholic belief. And if one adds this to the inaccessibility of important documents, the belief in a cover up of a female pope is strengthened. 

The doubt around the existence of Pope Joan does however not change the fact that the legend has been very important for several movements throughout historical periods, for example for quarrels of papale authority in the thirteenth century, humanis, enlightenment, democratization, secularism and feminism. The relevance of the tale is closely explored in Die Päpstin Johanna: Biographie einer Legende by Max Kerner and Klaus Herbers. So if you want to know more about that, take a look at their work. 

As Pope Joan is still relevant and can be of interest in our times, we want to introduce her to the readers of Women on the Timeline. There are different annotations of her story. 

The core of the legend goes as follows: Joan was an Englishwoman. Her birthplace, however, is believed to be the German city of Mainz; an apparent inconsistency that some writers reconciled by explaining that her parents had migrated to that city. She supposedly fell in love with an English Benedictine monk. Dressing like a man, she was able to accompany him to Athens. Here she was able to obtain a good education.  Having acquired great learning, she moved to Rome where people were so impressed by her knowledge and person that she would become cardinal and later pope. The story goes that no one had suspected her of being female. The moment her sex was discovered was during a procession when she gave birth. 

The one source used most frequently is a source written by the Dominican friar Martin von Troppau (Martin of Opava), also known as Martinus Polonus later on. In his Latin chronicle Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum he mentions a female pope. This chronicle was one of the most used chronicles in his time and thus of great influence. Nowadays historians say that it is not of great use as a historical source but it had a great impact on the debate around Pope Joan. In this source all future debate and future research is grounded. The story of Joan was widely spread during the later 13th century, mostly by friars and primarily by means of interpolations made in many manuscripts of the Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum (“Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors”). The name Joan, nevertheless, was not definitively adopted until the 14th century; other names commonly given to this character were Agnes or Gilberta.

Martin of Oplava’s chronicle already incorporated an earlier source, written by a fellow Dominican. This is one of the earliest sources for the Pope Joan’s legend: De septem donis Spiritu Sancti (“On the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit”) written by Stephen of Bourbon. In this account the nameless pontiff was a clever scribe who became a papal notary and later was elected pope by dressing as a man; pregnant at the time of her election, she gave birth during the procession to the Lateran, whereupon she was dragged out of Rome and stoned to death.

Later accounts on which research is based, can be found everywhere. One work, called De Papa foemina inter Leonem IV et Benedictum III, Disquisitio Historica by Friedrich Spanheim in the 17th century, recalls a letter written to the librarian Anastasiu to remove Joan from the official documents of the Vatican. However this letter is nowhere to be found, it is speculated to be lost or destroyed. 

Another source that is a speculative one, is the Liber Pontificalis written in the 9th century. The original source however is also lost, and there is only a copy of it from the 11th century which might be influenced by other sources already speaking of a female pope and thus can not be used as proof. 

Every source that might seem relevant to this legend, has some aspect to it that makes historians doubt its authenticity and value of proof to the matter. It is interesting to follow all the accounts regarding the legend of Pope Joan, but for this you have to dive deep into the conspiracies, tales and speculations around her story. The legend also had a great impact on the popular culture of our time, there is for example a book and movie made about the fictional character Pope Joan. Keep in mind that you have to think critically even if the legend is so alluring that one wants it to be true. 


Author: Amanda Winnemuller and Charlotte Hermanns
Image: Unknown (Bibliothèque nationale de France)


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