Pope Joan: The Female Pope whose Real Gender was Revealed after she Gave Birth in a Procession
The origins of the Papacy can be 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. Yet, during the middle ages, there existed a story about a pope who was actually a female in disguise. The name of this supposed female pope was Joan. Who was this mysterious Pope Joan, and did she really exist?
The statue that still stands in Rome is Joanna with a papal crown. (ericcostanzo.com)
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”. It may be pointed out, however, that 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.
Painting of Pope Joan in Papal Tiara, on display at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, circa 1560.The artist is unknown. (en.wikipedia.org)
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. Whilst 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 other 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 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 A.D. 855), 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 this tale.
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. (en.wikipedia.org)
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 held the office of bishop.
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 whilst going into labour 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 labour 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 whilst going into labour. The eighth sculpture is that of a child. (en.wikipedia.org)
The legend of Pope Joan has survived over the centuries. The alleged female pope has been depicted in art, literature and plays. This tale has also been made into films, the most recent one being in 2009. Although the available evidence seems to cast some doubts regarding the existence of Pope Joan, it is likely that some would continue to believe that this figure was real. Whether as a piece of fiction or history, the tale of Pope Joan will most likely live on for a long time to come.
Featured image: Pope Joan gives birth during a Church procession, artist Giovanni Boccaccio Circa 1450. (Wikimedia Commons)
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