The Popess Who Just Won’t Go Away


Let’s have a Catholic urban legend with a twist. This one dates from before the Reformation and its sources are therefore entirely Catholic. And in a final twist, the first widely accepted refutation came from a Calvinist scholar.

It is the legend of Pope Joan, allegedly the first and only woman elected pope. According to the story, she was pope in the ninth century during the so-called "Dark Ages" until her female identity was revealed. As old as the 13th century, and as recent as a 2005 ABC News "special," Pope Joan will be around as long as she serves an anti-Catholic purpose. She began as an anti-papal fable, persisted as nativist anti-Catholic propaganda, and has blossomed into a 21st-century feminist icon.

In many ways, Pope Joan fits the traditional Catholic urban legend. Take any historical period and she can be molded into a solidly anti-Catholic niche. In the 16th century, Protestant dissenters used her to illustrate the nadir of an ever-corrupt papacy. In the 19th century, she was portrayed as a woman violated and ruined by lascivious clericalism, symbolic of the perversity to which Rome had sunk. In the 21st century, she represents the empowered female who fought the intransigent sexism of the Catholic Church and who therefore had to be destroyed.

Not-So-Pious Legend

What is the legend of the female pope? Stories abound, but let’s go with the most recent edition, a "special" ABC News television report in December 2005.

Breathlessly narrated by Diane Sawyer, the ABC News rendition begins in the town of Mainz, Germany, in the ninth century, where a bright young girl manages to sneak into a monastery disguised as a boy. She becomes an adept student and eventually makes her way to Athens, still disguised as a man. But by then she had also taken a lover who shared her secret.

From Athens, the little lady heads to ninth-century Rome, described by Ms. Sawyer as the home of "bawdy monks, scheming cardinals, cross-dressing saints, intrigue, melodrama, corruption and violence." Now known as "English John," the girl becomes a respected curial secretary, then a cardinal, and—drumroll please—"the choice of all for pope in the year 855."

But there was to be no happy ending: "Pope Joan was in the midst of a papal procession... when . . . she felt sharp pains in her stomach . . . The unthinkable happened: The pope was having a baby."

While acknowledging that the story concludes differently depending on the telling, Sawyer reported that Pope Joan was either stoned or dragged from a horse’s tail to her death. And then kicking the legend into high gear, Sawyer asserted that embarrassment over Pope Joan resulted in mandated priestly celibacy ("a requirement that’s still controversial today"), a crackdown on powerful female mystics who claimed that they could communicate directly with God and who did not need the male-dominated Church, and a host of "women martyrs . . . who were tortured for their religious beliefs."

A whole bunch of Catholic urban legends rolled into one there.

The Myth of "English John"

The 21st-century moral of the legend of Pope Joan is clear: The Church fears powerful women, the Church has purposefully redacted out any mention of powerful women from its history, and the persistent tradition of priestly celibacy resulted from the hatred of women.

The fact that priestly celibacy existed in the Western Church centuries before this fable and that powerful women were part of Church history long before secular society would allow such a thing is immaterial to the propaganda. The amazing thing—or maybe not so amazing—is that no one at ABC News considered that this might be contemporary anti-Catholic woolgathering, rather than any kind of objective presentation. It’s all just the "normative thinking and part of the cultural baggage of the progressive mind," to quote myself.

So, what’s the story on Pope Joan? In a nutshell, as described by a recent historian of the papacy, John-Peter Pham in Heirs of the Fisherman (Oxford University Press), Pope Joan is "a legendary female pope who never existed" (253). Yet, "from the mid-13th through the mid-17th centuries, the story that there had been a female pope . . . at some date in the ninth, tenth, or eleventh century was almost universally accepted as historical fact" (Pham, Heirs, 253).

According to Pham, the first time "Pope Joan" was mentioned in any known historical record was in the "Universal History of Metz" around 1250. The work was attributed to Jean de Mailly, a Dominican priest who gave the basic outline of the fable. He wrote that Pope Victor III (1087), who had only a four-month pontificate, was succeeded by a woman disguised as a man, who died after giving birth during a papal procession.

Another Dominican priest and a Franciscan friar repeated the tale in their own works, but moved the female "papacy" back to 1100, then 915. It was then included in the "Chronicle of Popes and Emperors" by Martin of Troppau at the end of the 13th century. Martin gave the story its essential outline, with Joan being elected as "John Anglicus" after the death of Pope Leo IV (847-855). Riding in procession from St. Peter’s to the Lateran Basilica, she allegedly gave birth on a narrow street between the Coliseum and the Basilica of San Clemente. She died in childbirth and was buried on the spot. Later generations attached to the story the gory details of an angry mob killing her and the baby.

A Myth Gains, Loses, Steam

The myth of Joan would have been forgotten as the invention it was had it not been picked up in the 14th century by Italian poet Boccaccio, who used it for his own anti-papal propaganda. Other humanists followed suit, trying to settle an Italian score against the popes for their high-paying sponsors. Siena Cathedral had a bust of Joan, a sign less of its historicity than of its feud with the Vatican. Pham points out that the story of Joan was later used by the Bohemian dissenter John Hus (d. 1415) as part of his list of alleged misdeeds of the papacy.

As early as the 15th century, when the first stirrings of what might be called a more disciplined approach to history had begun, the story of Joan was being called into question. When the fable was used as anti-Catholic fodder during the Reformation, Catholic historians began to question its historicity. And soon, oddly enough, their perspective was confirmed by a French Calvinist historian.

David Blondel (1590-1655) was a Protestant living in the Netherlands who effectively used the early tools of historical study to dismantle the myth of Pope Joan. Tracking the history of the popes during that period and the lack of any contemporary mention of Joan in what would have been, if true, an astounding event to be exploited by papal enemies, he dismissed the legend. His fellow Protestants of the era dismissed Blondel because, as Pierre Bayle said, "the Protestant interest requires the story of Joan to be true."

Which is why the legend of Pope Joan persisted. It made for good Reformation polemics. The story of Pope Joan was not invented in the Reformation, like many Catholic urban legends were. But the Reformation gave it the impetus to leap into modern thought—and eventually show up in an ABC News special in the 21st century.

The Missing Gap

The fundamental flaw in the Pope Joan legend and why any serious historian would reject it is that there is no "gap" in the actual traceable historical record where "Pope Joan" would have served if the legend were true. The legend places Pope Joan in the papacy from 855 to 857, elected as "John Anglicus." But Pope Leo IV, who died in June 855, was immediately succeeded by Pope Benedict III. We know this because Benedict’s election was not without controversy. The Byzantine Emperor tried to have his son installed as pope in his place. Rome was invaded and Benedict imprisoned. When the Romans objected to this, Benedict was freed from prison that September. There was simply no historical time gap when an imaginary pope could have served.

Of equal importance to historians is the absence of any record, mention, or reference to a "Pope Joan" until nearly 400 years after her election. As Blondel realized, it would have been impossible for such an event to have taken place, or for a papacy to have existed for nearly three years without some contemporary record from those years. And even when some versions push the date forward, a gap of centuries before she is first mentioned remains, and the historical record of the existing popes at those times is irrefutable.

So there was clearly no Pope Joan. Two questions remain: Where did the legend first arise and why are we still dealing with it today?

As to where the legend came from, historians can only guess. Pham states that "the kernel of the story is generally taken to be an ancient Roman folktale" (Heirs 254). Others see a possible source coming out of allegations that Pope John VIII (872-882) was effeminate, though even that charge seems lacking in substance. Still others suggest that the story may have come out of the papacy of Pope Sergius (904-911), whom the Romans viewed as weak and dominated by powerful and corrupt women. Certain historians believe that the legend might have come out of the Eastern Byzantine Empire as a means to discredit the "western" papacy.

Whatever the source, history is rife with legends of women disguised as men rising to great ranks. Ancient Greece and Rome had them. But the purpose of such legends was usually satirical: It was meant to show how weak or corrupt the men of the time and place had become. The moral of the tale was that the men were so spineless that a woman could assume leadership. And that means that the legend of Pope Joan is hardly feminist hagiography. If anything, it reflects a degrading and persistent animus toward women that lingered from pagan culture.

Why are we still dealing with Pope Joan today when thousands of similar medieval legends have disappeared? Google Pope Joan and you will find millions of Internet references. The legend persists for the same reason that all Catholic urban legends persist—they fit in with the contemporary anti-Catholic propaganda. Joan has survived—despite the earliest forms of historical criticism showing her to be a myth—because she fits an agenda.

As Bayle might say to Blondel were these men around today, "The secular interest requires the story of Joan to be true."


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 1.