Researchers Find Physical Evidence for the Existence of a Female Pope
Researchers from an Australian University have announced in a press release a major discovery in relation to the existence of a female Pope in the early Middle Ages. For a long while, experts, believed that the existence of a ‘Popess’ was a myth. However, experts now claim that there are coins that demonstrate that there was an actual female Pope. The figure of ‘Popess Joan’ has become an icon for feminism and a hope for gender equality. Whether this figure was ever real or is pure legend is thus relevant and important in today’s world. This finding could have immense importance as not only will it confirm a twist in the history of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages but also has implications for the future development of the largest Christian denomination in the world.
“A woman was Pope” Image of Pope Johanna (Joan) depicted in Weltchronik by Jans Enenkel, 1420. ( Public Domain )
The Life of Pope Joan
There have long been claims that a talented and capable woman disguised herself as a man in 9 th century Rome. According to ABC News she ‘is thought to have grown up in the town of Mainz, Germany, and with the support of her lover, she became a deacon and rapidly rose through the Church hierarchy. It is reported that she eventually became Pope . One day while she was leading a religious procession she suddenly stopped and began to give birth, to the shock of Rome. The female Pope was arrested, and she was thrown in jail. In some accounts, she was later executed with her name being removed from the Papal rolls . That is how the story has been written and numerous images exist from after the event but hard evidence to corroborate this event has been missing. Or has been until now.
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Woodcut illustration of Pope Joan, dated 1473. ( CC BY 2.0 )
The examination of coins
Researchers at Flinders University Australia have been studying coins from the 850s AD. They are mostly Frankish coins, and they typically have the portraits of the Emperor and the Popes. The researchers argue that only real historical figures were represented on the coins, which were known as denarii and made from silver. For example, there are coins that represent Popes such as Leo IV (846/7-853 AD) and Nicholas I (858-867 AD), who are real figures and regarded as legitimate Pontiffs by the Catholic Church to this day.
Two coins were found to bear the monogram of Pope Johannes. (Image: Michael Habicht, 2018)
The Australians’ study has found coins that represent Pope Johannes in the mid-850s. They were dated based on a stylistic and graphological examination of the coins. The coins had been inscribed with the name of Pope Johannes Anglicus. This was the name that the female Pope used according to the medieval narratives. Moreover, there is a distinctive monogram on the coins and these could be based on the signature of the female Pope .
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The evidence presented in the paper analyzes monograms from coins and dates them using stylistic criteria. (Image: Michael Habicht, 2018)
The dating of the coin from the 850s would seem to prove that there was a Popess when there is a gap in the official papal lists. This lends credence to the stories that Pope Joan’s name was removed from official documents. It is argued by researchers that the female Pope reigned between 856 and 858 AD. This would place her reign between the Pontificates of Benedict III and Nicholas I.
The team of experts justifies their claims that there existed a female Pope by also referencing historical documents. A chronicler claims that a woman was crowned Pope in 856, and in another chronicle it is reported that an Anglo-Saxon king visited Pope Johannes Anglicus. A modern historian has also discovered a letter addressed to a Pope Johannes from 856 that was wrongly filed under the name of a later Pope with the same name.
Pope Joan in the Nuremberg Chronicles. ( Public Domain )
The importance of Pope Joan
If the researchers’ conclusions are accepted this could be potentially revolutionary. At present, the Catholic Church does not ordain a woman as priests. There are many who claims that this is morally wrong and that females have every right to become priests. If there existed a female Pope then this could strengthen the argument of those who demand that women be allowed to become priests. However, this is likely to face great opposition from the usually conservative hierarchy in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Encyclopaedia states that Joan was a myth and that her existence was noted by ‘none of the numerous historians from the tenth to the thirteenth century.’
These findings would allow us to have a different understanding of the Dark Age Papacy. The evidence from the coins would seem to back up some documentary evidence and show that Pope Joan was not a legend but had some basis in historical fact. The findings of the study are currently presented in German in a book by Michael E. Habicht , with an English version currently being prepared.
Top image: La Papesse Jeanne’ (Pope Joan), the purported female Pope (Bibliotheque Nationale de France). Source: Public Domain
By Ed Whelan