Pope Joan, the most mysterious woman in the Vatican: she disguised herself as a man and gave birth on the Papal Chair

Pope Joan was a legendary woman-Pope who is said to have reigned on the papal chair for two years in the 9th century. She disguised herself as a man and called herself Pope John VIII and John Anglicus (John the Englishman). According to other versions, her names were Jutta, Jutte, Gilberta, Agnes and Glancia.

Her story first appeared in 13th-century chronicles and later spread throughout Europe and was considered a historical fact during the Middle Ages.

An engraving of Pope Joan, a Roman legend dating from the 11th century, is illustrated in the 17th-century book, “A Present for a Papist: or, The History of the Life of Pope Joan, From her Birth to her Death,” by Alexander Cooke. (CNS/Google Books photo, public domain)

The first mention of Pope Joan appears in Jean de Mailly’s Chronica Universalis Mettensis, and is subsequently taken up by other historians. However, the most popular and influential version was interpolated in Martin of Opava’s Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum. Most versions of her history describe her as a talented and learned woman who disguised herself as a man, often at the request of a lover.

The story was widely spread during the 13th century, mostly by monks and primarily through interpolations made in many manuscripts of the Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum (“Chronicle of Popes and Emperors”) by the 13th-century Polish Dominican Martin of Troppau.

Pope Joan is said to have died in childbirth

Support for the version that she died during childbirth and was buried on the spot came from the fact that later papal processions used to avoid a particular street where the shameful event is supposed to have taken place. The name Joan was eventually adopted by the 14th century.

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According to later legend, particularly Martin (who gave a date for her election in 855 and specifically named her Johannes Angelicus), Joan was an Englishwoman, but her birthplace was given as the German city of Mainz – an apparent inconsistency that some writers have explained by the fact that her parents had migrated to that city. She supposedly fell in love with an English Benedictine monk and, dressing as a man, accompanied him to Athens. After acquiring great learning, he moved to Rome, where he became a cardinal and pope. From the 13th century the story appears in literature, including the works of the Benedictine chronicler Ranulf Higden and the Italian humanists Giovanni Boccaccio and Petrarch.

This miniature work of art shows the Papess Joan, who has just given birth to a child during the church procession. (Image credit: New York Public Library)

In the 15th century, Joan’s existence was considered a fact, even by the Council of Constance in 1415. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the story was used for Protestant polemics. Scholars such as Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (after Pope Pius II) and Cardinal Caesar Baronius regarded the story as unfounded, but it was the Calvinist David Blondel who made the first determined attempt to destroy the myth, in Éclaircissement familier de la question: si une femme a été assise au siège papal de Rome (1647; “The familiar illumination of the question: whether a woman was seated on the papal throne in Rome”). According to one theory, the fable arose from widespread gossip about the influence wielded by the 10th-century Roman woman senator Marozia and her mother, Theodora, of the powerful Theophylact house.

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Actress Johanna Wokalek, playing Pope Joan, in the film Pope Joan (2009).

For many centuries, the legend of the Popess circulated in Italy and throughout Europe. The Church’s efforts to deny it with arguments, documents and writings were futile. The story of Pope Joan, the woman who rose to the top of the Church hierarchy, is still hotly debated today, although there is no clear evidence to support the existence or, conversely, the non-existence of Joan’s pontificate.

Despite the mystery that remains unsolved to this day, the subject has fascinated writers and film directors (the film Pope Joan – 2009) The best known book on the subject is “Pope Joan”, written by Donna Woolfolk Cross and published in 1996.

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