Pope Joan was a legendary female pope who allegedly reigned for a few years some time during the Middle Ages. The story first appeared in 13th-century chronicles, and was subsequently spread and embellished throughout Europe. It was widely believed for centuries, though modern religious scholars consider it fictitious.
The earliest mention of the female pope appears in the Dominican Jean de Mailly’s chronicle of Metz, Chronica Universalis Mettensis, written in the early 13th century. In his telling, the female pope is not named, and the events are set in 1099. According to Jean:
Query: Concerning a certain Pope or rather female Pope, who is not set down in the list of popes or Bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man and became, by her character and talents, a curial secretary, then a Cardinal and finally Pope. One day, while mounting a horse, she gave birth to a child. Immediately, by Roman justice, she was bound by the feet to a horse’s tail and dragged and stoned by the people for half a league, and, where she died, there she was buried, and at the place is written: ‘Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum’ [Oh Peter, Father of Fathers, Betray the childbearing of the woman Pope]. At the same time, the four-day fast called the “fast of the female Pope” was first established”
—Jean de Mailly, Chronica Universalis Mettensis
Jean de Mailly’s story was picked up by his fellow Dominican Stephen of Bourbon, who adapted it for his work on the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost. However, the legend gained its greatest prominence when it appeared in the third recension of Martin of Opava’s Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum later in the 13th century. This version is the first to attach a name to the figure, indicating that she was known as “John Anglicus” or “John of Mainz.” It also changes the date from the 11th to the 9th century, indicating that Joan reigned between Leo IV and Benedict III in the 850s. According to the Chronicon:
John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was Pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the Papacy of one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers. There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and, afterward in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city; and she was chosen for Pope. While Pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St. Peter’s to the Lateran, in a lane once named Via Sacra (the sacred way) but now known as the “shunned street” between the Colosseum and St Clement’s church. After her death, it is said she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street, and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the Holy Pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter.
—Martin of Opava, Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum
One version of the Chronicon gives an alternative fate for the female pope. According to this, she did not die immediately after her exposure, but was confined and deposed, after which she did many years of penance. Her son from the affair eventually became Bishop of Ostia, and ordered her entombment in his cathedral when she died.
Other references to the female pope are attributed to earlier writers, though none appears in manuscripts that predate the Chronicon. The one most commonly cited is Anastasius Bibliothecarius (d. 886), a compiler of Liber Pontificalis, who was a contemporary of the female Pope by the Chronicon’s dating. However, the story is found in only one unreliable manuscript of Anastasius. This manuscript, in the Vatican Library, bears the relevant passage inserted as a footnote at the bottom of a page. It is out of sequence, and in a different hand, one that dates from after the time of Martin of Opava. This “witness” to the female pope is likely to be based upon Martin’s account, and not a possible source for it. The same is true of Marianus Scotus’s Chronicle of the Popes, a text written in the 11th century. Some of its manuscripts contain a brief mention of a female pope named Johanna, but all these manuscripts are later than Martin’s work. Earlier manuscripts do not contain the legend.
Some versions of the legend suggest that subsequent popes were subjected to an examination whereby, having sat on a dung chair containing a hole called sedia stercoraria, a cardinal had to reach up and establish that the new pope had testicles, before announcing “Duos habet et bene pendentes” (“He has two, and they dangle nicely”), or “habet” (“he has ’em”) for short.
References to the female Pope abound in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about her in De Mulieribus Claris (1353). The Chronicon of Adam of Usk (1404) gives her a name, Agnes, and furthermore mentions a statue in Rome that is said to be of her. This statue had never been mentioned by any earlier writer; presumably it was an actual statue that came to be taken to be of the female pope. A late-14th-century edition of the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, a guidebook for pilgrims to Rome, tells readers that the female Pope’s remains are buried at St. Peter’s. It was around this time when a long series of busts of past Popes was made for the Duomo of Siena, which included one of the female pope, named as “Johannes VIII, Foemina de Anglia” and included between Leo IV and Benedict III.
At his trial in 1415, Jan Hus argued that the Church does not necessarily need a pope, because, during the pontificate of “Pope Agnes” (as he also called her), it got on quite well. Hus’s opponents at this trial insisted that his argument proved no such thing about the independence of the Church, but they did not dispute that there had been a female pope at all.
In 1601, Pope Clement VIII declared the legend of the female pope to be untrue. The famous bust of her, inscribed Johannes VIII, Femina ex Anglia, which had been carved for the series of papal figures in the Duomo di Siena about 1400 and was noted by travelers, was either destroyed or recarved and relabeled, replaced by a male figure, that of Pope Zachary.
The Catholic Encyclopedia elaborates on the historical timeline problem:
Between Leo IV and Benedict III, where Martinus Polonus places her, she cannot be inserted, because Leo IV died 17 July 855, and immediately after his death Benedict III was elected by the clergy and people of Rome; but, owing to the setting up of an Antipope, in the person of the deposed Cardinal Anastasius, he was not consecrated until 29 September. Coins exist which bear both the image of Benedict III and of Emperor Lothair, who died 28 September, 855; therefore Benedict must have been recognized as pope before the last-mentioned date. On 7 October 855, Benedict III issued a charter for the Abbey of Corvey. Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, informed Nicholas I that a messenger whom he had sent to Leo IV learned on his way of the death of this Pope, and therefore handed his petition to Benedict III, who decided it (Hincmar, ep. xl in P.L., CXXXVI, 85). All these witnesses prove the correctness of the dates given in the lives of Leo IV and Benedict III, and there was no interregnum between these two Popes, so that at this place there is no room for the alleged Popess.
Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe, authors of The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan, theorize that if a female pope did exist, a more plausible time frame is 1086 and 1108, when there were several antipopes; during this time the reign of the legitimate popes Victor III, Urban II, and Paschal II was not always established in Rome, since the city was occupied by Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, and later sacked by the Normans. This also agrees with the earliest known version of the legend, by Jean de Mailly, as he places the story in the year 1099. De Mailly’s “account” was acknowledged by his companion Stephen of Bourbon.
Against the weight of historical evidence to the contrary, the question remains as to why the Pope Joan story has been popular and widely believed.
The sede stercoraria, the throne with a hole in the seat, now at St. John Lateran (the formal residence of the popes and center of Catholicism), is to be considered. This and other toilet-like chairs were used in the consecration of Pope Pascal II in 1099 (Boureau 1988). In fact, one is still in the Vatican Museums, another at the Musée du Louvre [Paris, France]. The reason for the configuration of the chair is disputed.
Although some medieval writers referred to the female pope as “John VIII”, a genuine Pope John VIII reigned between 872 and 882. Due to the Dark Ages lack of records, confusion often reigns in the evaluation of events.
A problem sometimes connected to the Pope Joan legend is the fact that there is no Pope John XX in any list. It is said this reflects a renumbering of the popes to exclude Joan from history. Historians have known since Louis Duchesne’s critical edition of the Liber Pontificalis that the “renumbering” was actually due to a misunderstanding in the textual transmission of the official papal lists. In the course of the 11th century, in the time after John XIX, the entry for John XIV had been misread as referring to two different popes of this name. These two popes then came to be distinguished as Iohannes XIV and Iohannes XIV bis (“John XIV the second”).
The existence of a second Pope John XIV was widely accepted in the 13th century, hence the numbering of Popes John XV through XIX was regarded as being erroneous. When Petrus Hispanus was elected pope in 1276 and chose the papal name John, he decided to correct this error by skipping the number XX. He numbered himself John XXI, thus acknowledging the presumed existence of John XIV “bis” in the 10th century.