The papacy is one of the oldest and “…most influential, of all human institutions” which has impacted all aspects of human society and culture. It has survived wars, schisms and scandals which continue to today. Those that occupy the office of the pope are viewed as God’s representatives on earth and decide which doctrine the church follows. Around the world today an estimated 900 million people, from kings to the common man turn to the papacy for spiritual guidance. Since its beginning with Saint Peter the papal throne has been occupied by 266 popes, they have been different nationalities, and held differing beliefs on church matters, but despite any differences they may have had, they were all men…right? Well, not according to medieval manscusprits, which tell the story of a popess, who disguised as a man ruled for two years under the name Pope John VII. This article looks at the legend, the various sources, the evidence and asks was Pope Joan real?
Disclaimer: Sagas of she is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This means that if you make a purchase through one of our links we may earn a small commission. To find out more click here
Who was Pope Joan?
That is not an easy question to answer as few stories of Joan and her life agree on the details, even her name was disagreed upon, some sources gave her name as Gilberta, or Giovanni another named her Agnes. It was not until the thirteenth century account by Martin Polonus of Opava that the name Joan was introduced and stuck, his is also the most ‘fleshed out’ version of her story, though he did not reveal where he got his information.
Here is an outline of her life as told in varying legends.
Joan was the daughter of two English missionaries, whose names if ever known, have long since been forgotten. The family lived in Mainz, Germany within a few miles of the Benedictine, Fulda Monastery. As a young child Joan is said to have shown a gift for languages, mastering German, Latin, and Greek and would often read late into the night after a day helping her mother with the household chores. Despite her love of learning, there were few educational opportunities available to Joan, as a woman she could have become a nun or a hermitess, but as Charles Rivers Editors writes, “Joan valued her education over her religion” so these options did not appeal. Monasteries on the other hand were at the forefront of science such as astronomy and medicine and therefore, more appealing to Joan. Yet, no matter how clever she might have been or how much she wanted to join the monastery, she knew as a woman she would never be admitted.
One day whilst Joan was in town she met a young monk from the Fulda monastery and the two quickly became friends. The two would spend their time studying the manuscripts he would sneak out of the monastery. A version of the story gives Joans age as fifteen in 830, and suggests that this is when their friendship turned romantic. It was after the change in their relationship that the two came up with the idea for Joan to disguise herself as a boy and join the monastery as John Anglicus, an old friend of her nameless lover. The abbot welcomed Joan, or John as she was now known, excited about her skill with languages. A week later Joan took her vows, but as a new monk, she would have to go through a 30 day postulancy (probationary period) to make sure she passed, she made sure not to draw attention to herself by always being on time for prayers and only interacting with her lover.
Joan’s true identity was never questioned, her slim figure was hidden beneath her habit and as monks were expected to be cleanly shaven her smooth face did not look out of place. Furthermore, Joan never removed her habit in front of any of her brothers, as bathing at the time was seen as being linked to sexual debauchery in certain parts of Europe and the religious community felt it was a way for the devil to enter the ‘exposed soul’. They must have felt their plan was foolproof until a bout of illness threatened to expose them. Illness was rife, open sewers, ditches filled with rubbish and rivers contaminated with excrement and dead animals. When Joan and her lover fell ill they tried everything to cure themselves including crushing up herbs, eating raw roots and even bloodletting, but nothing seemed to work. Becoming worried about John’s health, the monastery physician was sent to examine him, knowing any examination would expose her, Joan asked them to return the following day. With time running out the two lovers fled in the middle of the night. This is where the two parted company, as with all of the details in this story there are different accounts of why the lovers went their separate ways. Some suggest Joan’s lover succumbed to his illness and died, whilst others suggest that they both recovered and simply took different paths. Whatever the truth, many sources agree that Joan who was now aged 20, settled in Athens and continued her life as the English priest, Father John Anglicus where she gave lectures and quickly became a respected figure.
Leaving Athens, Joan arrived in Rome around 847 by which time she was thought to be in her early thirties. In Rome she taught science in an all boys school and worked as a notary for the public council whilst continuing to speak out on church matters. In just a matter of months her name was known by the leading figures in the church, who approached Joan/John and offered him a teaching position in the Vatican. Gradually, Joan gained the respect of her peers, who often praised the priest for his “…language abilities, exemplary conduct, and excellent conversational and orating skills.” In less than two years, Father John Anglicus had become so well liked he was promoted to cardinal.
It was at this time Joan was said to have taken a new lover, whose identity is debated, some say it was her chamberlain, others suggest it was a servant, others a fellow unnamed cardinal, and Onofrio Panvinio a sixteenth century historian suggested that Joan was a lover of Pope John XII, although this is unlikely as their lives do not line up. Another account suggests it was a rekindled relationship between Joan and her first love from the Frulda Monastery.
On the 17th of July 855, Rome was mourning the death of Pope Leo IV. Backed by support from her fellow cardinals, Joan temporality took over papal duties. She was then elected pope by conclave, taking the name Pope John VII. Joan’s reign was “…was cursed with trouble from the beginning.” It was in the middle of what historians have called ‘a period of confusion’ southern Italy was being rocked by earthquakes and flooding, plagues of locusts swarmed through the streets decimating crops, and the resurgence of Saracen victories. Details of any of Joan’s achievements during her time as pope are missing from the accounts however, biographies of Pope John VII, suggest it was a successful reign in which he issued a ban against forming alliances with Saracens, visited five Italian cities and provinces to try to settle disputes with Muslim raiders and is credited with crowning Louis II, the King of France, as well as anointin two Holy Roman emperors and generally being liked by the people.
Throughout her reign, Joan continued her secret affair and by 857, two years into her reign, Joan had become pregnant. Whilst leading a procession to ‘perform an excommunication on the lethal locusts’ she began to feel the first twinges of labour and then as the procession turned down a narrow lane between St. Clement’s Basilica and the Clement Colosseum, where Joan suddenly doubled over and fell to the ground. Those around the pope rushed to his aid only to recoil in horror as their pope was revealed not only to be a woman, but a woman in labour. Joan delivered her baby right there on the ground of the alleyway with no help or oils to help with the pain. What happened after the delivery of the child is debated, there are five theories about what happened next:
That both mother and child died immediately after the birth and was buried in the alleyway. This idea appears to be derived from the fact that in later years papal processions avoided a particular street, which was allegedly “…where the disgraceful event had occurred.” Some however, suggest the avoidance is because the alleyway is too narrow to navigate.
The crowd tore both mother and child apart and a statue was later constructed on the site of her death. However, this story may have come from confusion over one of the statues of the Virgin and Child in Rome.
They were taken outside the city gates and stoned to death.
With the baby in her arms Joan was tied to a horse and dragged through the street until dead.
The child was removed from Joan, its fate unknown. Joan was hanged int her city.
Either way it was a gory and brutal end for history’s only popess.
Variations of the story
Mentions of a female pope first began to circulate in the thirteenth century, in chronicles such as ‘The Universal History of Metz a history of the whole world from the beginning of time’ and the ‘De septem donis Spiritu Sancti’ (“On the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit”) by French Dominican Stephen of Bourbon, however, he dated Joan’s election to 1100 much later than other accounts. The story continued to spread and with each retelling was changed and new details added, with the best known version being the thirteenth century ‘Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum’ (“Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors”) written by Martin of Troppau also known as Martin of Opava or Martinus Polonus. His account claims that Joan lived in the ninth century and succeeded Pope Leo IV, however, some sources suggest he confused Joan with one of the Pope Johns who reigned in the second half of the 9th century. The story of Pope Joan persisted and was regularly found in later medieval chronicles, including the ‘official’ account of the lives of the popes written by the Vatican librarian Bartolomeo Platina in 1479.
The legend of Pope Joan also found its way into literature, in his 1361 book ‘Concerning Famous Women’ Giovanni Boccaccio presented Joan “…as a clever woman who had the audacity to infiltrate male institutions and brought dire consequences in her wake.” The poet Christine de Pizan would have certainly known the story of Pope Joan, chose to leave the story out of her work ‘City of Ladies’ which was written primarily to praise women and counteract what she claimed “…was a misogynistic literary culture.” Not all accounts painted Joan in a negative light. The humanist writer Mario Equicola wrote, “What shall I say of John/Joan VII? It is clear that a woman can ascend to the papacy, the highest rank in Christendom.” His positive slant may be a result of his position as a courtier of Isabella d’Este, an Italian noblewoman and influential patron during the Renaissance. Today there are shelves of books both fictional and non-fictional dedicated to Joan and her story, their opinion on her existence divided.
But, did she really exist?
That is a question which is still debated, until the sixteenth century the existence of Joan was regarded as fact even by the Council of Constance in 1415. From the sixteenth century onwards scholars such as Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, (the future Pope Pius II), and Cardinal Caesar Baronius began to denounce the story as fable and in 1647, the Calvinist David Blondel wrote the “Familiar Enlightenment of the Question: Whether a Woman Has Been Seated on the Papal Throne in Rome” which made a real effort to destroy the myth. Other theories suggest the story of a female pope was down to widespread gossip about the influence wielded by the Roman senator Marozia and her mother Theodora Theophylact in the tenth century. What is interesting is that despite the many enemies the papacy has faced none of them have used the story to attack the church, perhaps showing they view it as a myth and not a real event.
However, there are some who believe that if you look hard enough “…there are ‘hints’ of this female pope’s existence in art and architecture.” Their theory is based on the pillars of Bernini’s Baldalchin in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, which has seven sculptures depicting a woman’s facial expression whilst going into labour with an eighth sculpture which depicts a child. These have been interpreted as representing Pope Joan giving birth. Others however, suggest that the scene is actually depicting the niece of Pope Urban VIII, who went into labour whilst Bernini was working on the Baldalchin.
Despite many believing that the story is more folklore than fact, it has not stopped researchers and scholars from attempting to find the historical Joan. Michael E. Habicht, an archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide and his co-researcher grapho-analyst Marguerite Spycher are the latest. For their study they examined papal monograms on medieval coins known as deniers to determine if they revealed any physical evidence for Joan’s reign. They found that the coins attributed to the early years of Pope John VIII reign had different monograms to those minted toward the end of his reign. Habicht suggests this is not because of human error, rather that the earlier monogram, dating from 856 to 858, belonged to Johannes Anglicus, or Joan, while the latter belongs to John VIII. He therefore believes that Joan’s brief reign was “…squeezed in between Benedict III and Nicholas I.” Suggesting there is some truth to the legend.
Some versions of the legend suggest that because of Joan’s deception, subsequent popes were subjected to an examination before being elected. They would be made to sit on the sedia stercoraria or “dung chair” which contained a hole, and a cardinal would reach up and establish that the new pope had testicles, before announcing “Duos habet et bene pendentes” (“He has two, and they dangle nicely”),or “habet” (“he has them”) for short. However, most believe this to be folklore and the chair is a nothing more leftover commode.
Thomas Noble, describes Pope Joan as “…a woman who never lived but who nevertheless refuses to die.” This is perhaps the best way to view the story, there are no primary sources that prove she lived and had the story been true, anyone of the churches critics would have used it against them, or as a challenge to the churches outdated views on women.
Personally, as much as I would like it to be true, I do not believe Pope Joan existed and whilst the study by Michael E. Habicht and Marguerite Spycher is interesting, I do not see it as conclusive proof of her existence. However, the story continues to fascinate audiences, myself included, and I look forward to the next chapter in the story.
But, what do you think, did Pope Joan exist? Let us know in the comments or on social media.
Author- Gemma Apps.
The Enigmas of History. Myths, Mysteries, and Madness from Around the World. By Alan Baker.
Secrets of the Vatican. By Cyrus Shahrad.
Saints and Sinners A History of the Popes. (Third edition) By Eamon Duffy.