The Female Pope

Although this story should not technically be classified as obscure history I have come across enough people who are not aware of it, which in my mind, makes it worth writing about. The story of the female Pope is an interesting and amusing one; and it seems fitting for the time given the Papal conclave which is currently underway. The story has become a symbol for feminism in the Catholic church and was used by the Protestants during the reformation as an anecdote for the corruption of the church. There are two main versions of the story, both of them place the events at different periods of history. The original story places the events in 1099 which would be impossible as this places it in the reign of Pope Urban II (who launched the first Crusade) and whose life is well documented. The second version has the more plausible date of the 9th century between the pontificates of Leo IV and Benedict III.

The legend relates to a woman from Mainz who, for unknown reasons, is smuggled into Athens by one of her lovers dressed as a boy and under the name John Angelicus. In Athens one thing leads to another and she becomes enrolled in the Academy of Athens where she becomes proficient at a variety of branches of knowledge. She is reported to have soon had no equal in Athens when it came to academia and was hired to come to Rome to teach the liberal arts. In Rome she is reputed to have had many future great masters under her tutelage and her reputation for knowledge and wisdom won her great respect and admiration throughout the city. This grew to the extent that she was elected as Pope by the conclave of Cardinals. She reigned for two years seven months and four days as Pope John VIII but would be known simply as Pope Joan (the latter being the female equivalent of John).

Pope Joan’s downfall would occur on a procession from St Peter’s basilica to the Lateran cathedral. During  her time as Pope she had become pregnant with one of her “companions” and unfortunately gave birth in this procession. This is said to have happened on the road between the Colosseum and  St Clement’s church on what became called “the shunned street” (it was originally called the Via Sacra, sacred street). According to the writer of this chronicle the Pope has since always avoided this street whilst on this procession. Some versions of the story claim that Pope Joan died on the spot where she gave birth. Other versions claim that she was simply deposed and forced to live in penance for the rest of her life. Another version claims that after giving birth she was submitted to Roman justice and was tied to a horse by her feet before being dragged and stoned by the people for one league before she died. According to the third version a plaque was erected where she died with a bit of Latin alliteration engraved: “Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum” (Oh Peter, Father of Fathers, Betray the Child-Bearing Woman Pope). The child apparently was a boy and was said to have later become the Bishop of Ostia. Pope Joan’s name was subsequently struck from the list of Pontiffs.

This story has been discarded by modern historians who say that it is nothing but a piece of medieval literature. This is based on the fact that there is no contemporary sources claiming a woman Pope and that none of the dates fit. As mentioned before the 1099 date is not possible as we know that Pope Urban II was ruling at the time. The 9th century date is also not possible as the period between Pope Leo IV and Benedict III as the period of sede vacante  between the two was only a couple of months and so the two years of Pope Joan’s rule does not fit in here either. This period in the mid-9th century also corresponds to Patriarch Photios I of Constantinople who was extremely hostile to the Roman Pontiffs and would have lept at the chance to ridicule them for electing a woman as Pope. However, this accusation never entered his long list of criticisms.

It has subsequently been claimed that the legend of Pope Joan was merely wishful thinking on the part of feminists and anti-Catholic people. This story has been traced back to the 13th century but there is no known mention of any such scandal earlier than this. Although this legend has generally been discredited it is still a colourful tale and deserves to be told. It has proven convincing enough for centuries and it is only relatively recently that it has been disproved.

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2 comments

  1. That’s very interesting and very mysterious too. I can imagine it being an urban legend of its time, spread by anyone who would find it amusing for a pope to be female and give birth during a procession. It could also be true though, because traditionally popes must dangle their testicles through a hole in a ritual chair to be examined, to prove they are male. Pope Joan could have triggered that tradition. Then again, if they were just as unsure if it had ever happened or not, the legend itself may have triggered the introduction of this ritual chair.

  2. Joan is indeed seen as the origin of that ritual chair. However, it turns out that the chair is also nothing but rumour. Apparently no such ritual has ever existed but it lives on in the public imagination.

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