The Myth of Pope Joan
by Patrick Madrid
In the middle ages, there was a "Pope Joan," a woman who hid her gender and rose through the ranks of the Church, became a cardinal and was elected pope. No one knew she was a woman until, during a papal procession through the streets of Rome, she went into labor and gave birth to a child. She and the baby were killed on the spot by the mob, enraged at her imposture.
A lot of things are said about the alleged "Pope Joan." Depending on who is telling the story, she was a courageous feminist, a clever opportunist, a brilliant scholar who couldn't make it as a woman in a man's world. She is said to have been a wise ruler and an astute theologian, though, oddly, no decree or theological teaching purporting to have come from her has made its way down to our day.
In any case, the fact is, there was no Pope Joan. She exists only as pure legend, but one that makes for a sexy story. And when it comes to sexy stories, you know Hollywood will try its hand at making a blockbuster out of this piece of pope fiction.
New Line Cinema (that's right, the same good folks who produced The Last Temptation of Christ) has reportedly bought the movie rights to Pope Joan, the best-selling 1996 novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross. Her book is couched as an historical "novel" - embellishing on a grand scale the rather sparse details that have clung to the legend of a brilliant, plain girl who rises to the highest levels in Church service, culminating in her being elected pope by an unsuspecting college of cardinals.
The way the book is written and the way it's being promoted support my concern that it will be seen by most of its historically ignorant readers, not as a novel, a fiction, but as a real biography of the one woman who "made it to the top." When the movie comes out, this problem will certainly grow in proportions.
It's important to remember that even if there had been a female impostor pope, this would just mean that an invalid election had taken place, nothing more. Other invalidly elected claimants to the papal office have come and gone over the centuries, and the fact that a woman made that list would simply mean that a woman made that list, She would not have been pope - no one invalidly elected would be. And nothing in the Church's teachings about the papacy would be injured or disproved.
But in reality, the Pope Joan story is all sizzle and no steak. The basic outline of the main legend (actually, there have been several competing legends over the centuries) has it that in the ninth or tenth century, a plain but extraordinarily brilliant young woman contrived to enter the university disguised as a man. Her intellect outstripped her male classmates and she shot to the top rank of students. Talk of her prowess in law, science, rhetoric, philosophy and languages was widespread.
In another legend, popularized by several 13th century works such as the Chronicle of Martin Polonus, the Universal Chronicle of Metz and Wonders of the City of Rome, she traveled first to Greece with her boyfriend (why he wanted a girlfriend who disguised herself as a man is unknown), made a name for herself in the university there, then traveled to Rome.
Here all the legends converge into the main one that has come down to our day. Once in Rome, Joan managed to enter religious life (although no legend is able to say which order she entered), was ordained a priest and earned a high reputation as a notary in the papal court.
Eventually, she was noticed by the pope and made a cardinal. You can guess what happens next. She is eventually elected pope, takes the name John, and sets about skillfully ruling the Church, It's at this point that the most dramatic scenes of the story unfold.
The legends vary as to how Joan's gender and identity were discovered. One holds that she was granted a vision by God in which she was shown two options for her fate, being discovered and disgraced by the world or roasting in hell for her crime. She chose the former. Another version says she got pregnant by one of her curial advisors and somehow was able to maintain the charade until she gave birth to the baby.
At that point her secret was discovered and she was deposed as pope and sent to a convent to do penance for the rest of her life. According to this legend, the child she bore went on to became the bishop of Ostia, about 30 miles southwest of Rome, and when she died, he had her body buried there. Of course, no evidence exists to support this.
The main detail these legends have in common is that Joan was discovered because her hanky panky with a cardinal or secretary resulted in pregnancy, and the childbirth exposed her fraud. The main legend is the most gory on this point. In it, Pope Joan goes into labor while riding in her sede gestiatoria - the portable throne in which popes were carried - as her procession passed the Coliseum on its way from St, Peter's Basilica to St. John Lateran Cathedral.
The procession halted, the baby was born, and the confused and angry onlookers killed Pope Joan and her baby on the spot. Most accounts say she was killed by stoning, another says she died in childbirth as the mob watching the spectacle shouted and insulted her. Still another says she was dragged to death behind a horse as punishment. Either way, the legends agree that the Romans didn't appreciate the unpleasant discovery.
Several odd historical details gave weight to the legend, including the fact that among the carved busts of the popes in the cathedral of Sienna was one of an unnamed woman, No one knows who created it or how it was put there, but when Pope Clement VIII (reigned 1592 - 1605) discovered it, he ordered it reworked enough to represent Pope Zacharias, whose image had not previously been included in the collection.
This is not surprising, though, given the widespread belief in Europe in the Pope Joan legend during the 13th through 18th centuries. Versions abounded, and many credulous folk, Catholics included, were sincerely convinced that there had indeed been a female pope.
But the facts of history show otherwise. The primary proofs that this is all just a fable are these: First, the earliest point that we can trace the legend to is the mid-13th century, but the legend didn't really gain wide currency until the late 14th century.
No evidence of any kind exists from the ninth century (when Pope Joan was alleged to have reigned), nor do we see any in the 10th through 12th centuries. None of the annals or acts of the popes that were written between the ninth and 13th centuries (and none after that, either) mention her.
Church historian J. P. Kirsch wrote that "Not one contemporaneous historical source among the papal histories knows anything about her, also, no mention is made of her until the middle of the 13th century. Now it is incredible that the appearance of a 'popess,' if it was a historical fact, would be noticed by none of the numerous historians from the 10th to the 13th century.
In the history of the popes, there is no place where this legendary figure will fit in. Between Leo IV and Benedict III, where Martinus Polonus places her, she cannot be inserted . . ."(Article on Pope Joan, Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913).
So where did the legend come from? There are two likely possibilities, The first is that the Roman population became disgusted with the corrupt influence wielded over Pope Sergius (reigned 904-911) by the powerful and wealthy Theodora Theophylact, and more specifically by her young daughter Morozia, a cunning and exceptionally attractive woman. It appears that Morozia was Sergius' mistress and bore him at least one son (the future Pope John XI).
The fabulously wealthy and prestigious Theophylact family wielded immense power in Rome during the 10th century, even, sadly, over several popes. This is a sorry episode in the history of the Church, one which displayed a decadence and immorality that even popes, at times, could fall prey to - a reminder to us all that men, even the holiest of men, are not invulnerable to temptation and personal weakness. Despite their sins, Christ's promise that the Church would be protected from error was not, nor has it ever been, broken.
From the details of Sergius III's pontificate, it seems clear that he was a vain, violent and sensuous man. It's quite possible that the disgusted faithful took to mocking him or one of his immediate successors because he was perceived to have been under the influence of the Theophylact women.
Some historians trace the legend of a female pope to Morozia, saying the people called her "Pope Joan" to mock the weak popes she controlled, in the same way some American first ladies have been called "president" to mock their perceived weak husbands.
Another possible explanation for the Pope Joan legend lies in the conduct of the much maligned Pope John VIII (reigned 872-882). He appears to have had a very weak personality, even perhaps somewhat effeminate.
Cardinal Baronius, in his Church history Annals, suggests that John VIII's reputation as effeminate gave rise to the legend. Indeed, it would seem that over time, the common folk added ever more lurid embellishments until the vulgar jokes about the hapless (and certainly male) pope ballooned and metamorphosed into a female "popessa."
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Patrick Madrid is the editor of Envoy magazine, a Catholic journal of apologetics and evangelization. This article originally appeared in Envoy magazine and was later reprinted in Pope Fiction by Patrick Madrid. Copyright © Patrick Madrid. All rights reserved.