Pope Joan: The Female Pope Whose Gender was Revealed When She Gave Birth in a Procession
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)
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.
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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)
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)
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)
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
Updated on October 21, 2020.
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