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The female pope Joan

Pope Joan: The Female Pope Whose Gender was Revealed When She Gave Birth in a Procession

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The origins of the Papacy are traditionally traced to St. Peter, one of the original disciples of Jesus. The current pope, Francis I, is the 265th successor of St. Peter. Needless to say, all 266 popes are male. But during the Middle Ages there was a story about a female pope who gained her role in disguise. The name of this supposed female pope was Joan. Who was this mysterious Pope Joan, and did she really exist?

The Mysterious Unnamed Pope

The first written account of Pope Joan can be traced to a 13th century work known as the Chronica universalis Mettensis (Chronicle of Metz). According to its author, the Dominican chronicler, Jean de Mailly, there was an unnamed pope who was not recorded in the list of Bishops of Rome because she was a woman disguised as a man.

The chronicler goes on to say that it was this woman’s character and talents that enabled her to occupy the seat of St. Peter. In addition, de Mailly records that the grave of this unnamed pope was marked with a Latin phrase, “Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum”, meaning “O Peter, Father of Fathers, betray the childbearing of the woman pope.” However, de Mailly begins this narrative with the Latin infinitive “Require”, meaning “to be verified / inquired into”, indicating that even the author himself is unsure as to the truth of the story.

Pope Joan gives birth during a Church procession, artist Giovanni Boccaccio Circa 1450. (Public Domain)

Pope Joan gives birth during a Church procession, artist Giovanni Boccaccio Circa 1450. (Public Domain)

The Story of the Female Pope in Disguise Spreads

The story of the female pope in disguise is then picked up by an anonymous Franciscan friar of Erfurt in his Chronica minor, and by the Dominican inquisitor and preacher, Etienne de Bourbon. While the story of the female pope in the Chronica minor is similar to that of de Mailly’s, Etienne de Bourbon’s version includes details regarding her death.

The author records that the pope gave birth in public, thus revealing her true gender, and she was subsequently dragged behind a horse for half a league and then stoned to death for her deceit.

The most well-known and influential version of the female pope story, however, comes from the Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum (Chronicle of Popes and Emperors), written by another Dominican, Martinus Polonus. Due to the prestige and credibility derived from his ties with the Roman hierarchy, Martinus’ work circulated widely, and overshadowed the accounts of earlier writers on the same subject. Unlike earlier accounts, Martinus provides a vivid account of the female pope’s life. As a matter of fact, it is here that the name Joan first appears in writing in relation to this person.

In addition to naming this pope, Martinus also provides details such as her nationality (English), place of birth (Mainz), as well as her pontificate (after Leo IV’s death in 855 AD), and the length of her reign (two years, seven months and four days).

Although Martinus reveals little about his sources, there is a tone of uncertainty in his writing, revealing that like his predecessors, he is also unclear about the verity of this tale. On top of that, some have claimed that this story was added to the chronicle after Martinus’ death, indicating that the chronicler had nothing to do with it.

Martinus Polonus, the Dominican Friar who wrote a vivid account of Pope Joan’s life, yet he revealed little about his sources. Here he is depicted as the Archbishop of Gniezno, illustrated manuscript prior to 1535. (Public Domain)

Martinus Polonus, the Dominican Friar who wrote a vivid account of Pope Joan’s life, yet he revealed little about his sources. Here he is depicted as the Archbishop of Gniezno, illustrated manuscript prior to 1535. (Public Domain)

From Martinus onwards, the story of Pope Joan became more and more elaborate. One version of the story, for instance, claims that the pope did not die immediately after giving birth. Instead, she was deposed after her confinement, and did penance for many years. After her death, she was buried in Ostia, where her son supposedly held the office of bishop.

‘Hints’ of Pope Joan’s Existence

As the primary written sources themselves indicate a certain amount of doubt regarding the story of Pope Joan, it is possible that the story is but an urban legend. Yet, others believe that there are ‘hints’ of this female pope’s existence in art and architecture.

For instance, on the pillars of Bernini’s Baldalchin in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, seven sculptures showing a woman’s facial expression while going into labor can be found. The eighth sculpture is that of a child. Some have interpreted this as that Pope Joan giving birth.

Yet, there are numerous other possible interpretations of this scene that are conveniently ignored. The most popular one, for instance, is that the woman is the niece of Pope Urban VIII, who went into labor whilst Bernini was working on the Baldalchin.

Situated in the basilica of St Peter is the Baldachin, a sculpture in bronze by Bernini, created 1623-34, depicts seven sculptures showing a woman’s facial expression while going into labor. The eighth sculpture is that of a child. (Jorge Royan/CC BY SA 3.0)

Situated in the basilica of St Peter is the Baldachin, a sculpture in bronze by Bernini, created 1623-34, depicts seven sculptures showing a woman’s facial expression while going into labor. The eighth sculpture is that of a child. (Jorge Royan/CC BY SA 3.0)

Hard Proof of the Female Pope?

A 2018 study by researchers at Flinders University Australia claims that there are coins from the 850s AD that demonstrate that there was an actual female Pope. The Frankish coins they were examining from that period show portraits of the Emperor and Popes and the researchers assert that only real historical figures were represented on the coins. The coins which are said to relate to the Pope Joan story are from the mid-850s and bear the name Pope Johannes Anglicus – the name of the female Pope according to the medieval narratives.

There is also a distinctive monogram on the coins which the researchers believe could be based on the signature of the female Pope. Furthermore, Ed Whelan writes that “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.”

Two coins were found to bear the monogram of Pope Johannes. (Image: Michael Habicht, 2018)

Two coins were found to bear the monogram of Pope Johannes. (Image: Michael Habicht, 2018)

The Legacy of the Female Pope

The legend of Pope Joan has survived over the centuries. The alleged female pope has been depicted in many examples of art, literature, and plays. Her tale has also been made into films, the most recent one being in 2009.

If the recent study of the coins proves true, fiction may become entwined with fact in the tale of the female Pope Joan. It could also be revolutionary and hold major implications for the future development of the largest Christian denomination in the world. Currently, the Catholic Church does not ordain women as priests. But if it is proven that a female Pope really existed, it could strengthen the argument of those who demand that women be allowed to become priests.

Whether she is only a piece of fiction or was a real historical figure, the tale of Pope Joan has fascinated people through the ages and the debate of her existence will most likely continue for some time.

Top Image: The female Pope Joan. Source: Public Domain

By Ḏḥwty

Updated on October 21, 2020.

References, 2005. Looking for Pope Joan. [Online]
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Boese, A., 2015. Pope Joan. [Online]
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Bonetto, C., 2010. Rome Encounter. London: Lonely Planet Publications.
Kirsch, J., 1910. Popess Joan. [Online]
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Rustici, C. M., 2006. The Afterlife of Pope Joan: Deploying the Popess Legend in Early Modern England. Ann Arbor: University of Michiga Press.

Squires, N., 2010. Pope Joan film sparks Roman Catholic Church row. [Online]
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Given the paintings and the sculptures and the quite plausible stories, also tied in with the FACT that after Joan, a special “chair” was designed in which the newly elected pope would ‘sit’ to be viewed from beneath, to assure it was a male, then I think we can safely say that 500 years from now, some archaeological periodical will be presenting an article about legends and stories concerning rampant sexual abuse of young males on the part of the clergy, back in the 20th century. Of course, there will be little evidence by then, and no one will be able to name their sources. It’ll all be chalked up to folklore or ‘protestant concoctions’ to defame the ‘holy see’.


That statue in the Vatican is NOT of "Pope Joan".

"In the Old Testament, when God established His Covenant with the nation of Israel, He provided for a living, continuing authority in the Mosaic priesthood (see 2 Chr 19:11; Mal 2:7.) This authority did not end when the OT Scripture was written; rather, it continued as the safeguard and authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture.

When Christ established His Church, the New Israel, He set up a living, continuing authority to teach, govern, and sanctify in His name. This living authority is called “Apostolic” because it began with the twelve Apostles and continued with their successors. It was this Apostolic authority that would preserve and authentically interpret the Revelation of Jesus Christ. This same Apostolic authority determined the canon of the Bible, and will preserve the teachings of Jesus Christ in all their fullness, and uncorrupted from error, until the end of time.
Among the twelve Apostles St. Peter is clearly the head. Know Matthew 16:13-19 well: ” And so I say to you, you are Peter [Rock], and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter, which mean “rock.” Our Lord says this rock will be God’s way of preserving the Church from corruption until the end of time.

Our Lord knew St. Peter would be dead by 70 AD Therefore Christ must have intended the office of Peter to last until the end of time. St. Peter is given the “keys to the kingdom of heaven.” This is an awesome gift. To nobody else does Christ give this ruling power. Reflect on this unique privilege. Why would Jesus would give this tremendous authority to St. Peter and not intend for it to be passed on? If he early Christians needed an authoritative leader, later Christians would need one even more. After all, many of the early Christians heard the Gospel from Christ Himself and knew the Apostles personally. After all the Apostles died, the Church would have even greater need of the power of the keys when enemies would try to corrupt the teachings of Christ.

Although all the Apostles as a group were given the power to “bind and to loose” in Mt 18:18, St. Peter received this power individually at the time he was given the “keys.” Jesus would not have guaranteed to back up the doctrinal teachings of St. Peter and his successors unless He was also going to protect them from teaching false doctrine in their official capacities as Shepherds of the Church. Read Lk 22:31-32 and John 21:15-17. In the passage from St. Luke, Jesus prays that Peter’s faith would not fail; Peter in turn would strengthen the other disciples. In the passage from St. John, Jesus clearly makes Peter the shepherd of His Church. So St. Peter is the rock on which Christ builds His Church. He is given the “keys of the Kingdom” and he is made shepherd of Christ’s flock: solid biblical evidence that Jesus made St. Peter the first Pope.

Now you might be saying, “where does the pope play into all of this?” Well, the popes are Christ’s vicars, the visible and earthly heads of Christ’s Church while Christ is the invisible and supreme head. Read Acts 15. This gives an account of the first Church council, the Council of Jerusalem. Called at the request of St. Paul, this council met to decide whether Gentiles had to follow the Law of Moses as well as the Law of Christ. Notice that there was much discussion among the Apostles and presbyters. However, after Peter spoke, the assembly fell silent. His statement ended the discussion. This council obviously considered St. Peter’s authority final. Some may claim that Acts 15 shows that James, not Peter, was the head of the Church. Since James the Lesser (not James, the brother of John) gives the concluding remarks at the council of Jerusalem and also recommends some marriage and dietary regulations for the Gentiles, they conclude that James must be the head of the Church. All I can do is tell those people to read the Gospels, where St. Peter is unmistakably presented as a leader among the Apostles, whereas James the Lesser is not.

Read the first twelve chapters of Acts, which describe the early Church in Jerusalem. Every chapter (except 6 and 7, which describe Stephen’s martyrdom) shows St. Peter in a leadership position while St. James appears only briefly, and never in a leadership role. In Galatians 1:18-19, we are told that Paul went to Jerusalem after his conversion specifically to confer with Peter. He stayed with Peter 15 days. In contrast, Paul visited James only briefly during this time. At the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, it was St. Peter’s statements that settled the serious doctrinal dispute that was the reason for the council. As we saw earlier, St. Peter’s statements silenced the assembly of presbyters and the Apostles (including St. James). We know from Church history that St. James was the Bishop of Jerusalem and, as Acts 21:15-25 describes, he was concerned for Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who felt their ancient customs threatened by the great number of Gentile converts. This background explains why St. James made the concluding remarks at the council and asked Gentiles to respect certain Jewish practices. People are grasping at straws when they claim that Acts 15 proves that James, instead of Peter, was the head of the Church.

Some have also cited 1 Peter 5:1 numerous times to claim that Peter was not the head of the Church. They note that Peter, in addressing some elders (Church leaders), calls himself a fellow elder. They therefore conclude that Peter had no more authority than any other elder. But this is just like the President of the United States saying, “My fellow Americans.” This would certainly not indicate that the President has no more authority than an ordinary citizen. As an Apostle, St. Peter certainly considers his authority to be greater than that of an ordinary elder. After all, St. Peter goes on to admonish these “fellow elders” (1 Pet 5:2-4) as one having authority over them. In calling them fellow elders, St. Peter is simply acknowledging the obvious: like himself, they are also Church leaders. To insist that Peter, as an Apostle, had no greater authority than an ordinary elder, shows how little is appreciated about what Scripture says about the great office of Apostle.

Many people quote Gal 2:11-14 as well, attempting to show that Peter was not infallible and that Paul did not consider him the head of the Church. This position is not supportable. First of all, if they think Peter was not infallible, why do they accept his two letters as inspired and, therefore, infallible? We must accept that all the Apostles were infallible. After the Apostles, the popes individually and the bishops as a group in union with the pope, are infallible. St. Paul correcting St. Peter for weak behavior is no different from St. Catherine of Siena correcting weak popes in the Middle Ages. There was no doctrine involved. St. Peter himself had settled the doctrinal point at the Council of Jerusalem. St. Paul corrected St. Peter for being unwilling to confront the Judaizers from Jerusalem. Remember, St. Paul was among those who fell silent at the Council of Jerusalem once St. Peter spoke.

Oh by all means then, please show me (oh great understanding one), where in the Bible did you find support for claims of apostolic succession?

There is none.

That's right, sometimes things are black or white. Like in this case.

Now if the author would have stated that "according to tradition Peter was the first pope", that would be true.

Those of us who are high church protestants and who can read an understand the bible see the origins of the papacy as having biblical origins and continuing through the church fathers to the present day, but we do not recognize the authority the pope claims. The Eastern Orthodox churches accept the pope as: first among equals. Also, we recognize the Pope Joan story as a myth created by protestants of that day.

What's truly disturbing is people like you Mike, who make infallible statements like the catholic pope and are blind to the double standard you employ.


dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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