Pope Joan: Did the Vatican have a medieval female pontiff?

View of St Peter's Basilica in the evening light
An Englishwoman allegedly tricked the Vatican into making her pope in 855 | Image: Shutterstock

Beginnings: The First Three Centuries

The pope: The revered boss of the Catholic Church. There have been 266 before the current chap, Francis I, going back nearly two thousand years to the very first pontiff, St. Peter. One thing all these holy fathers have in common is that they have all been men...or have they?

According to a centuries-old legend, an Englishwoman named Joan disguised herself as a man, went to Rome, and reigned as pope before suffering a dramatic downfall.

Is there any truth to this, or is it just a medieval myth?

The tale’s history kicks off in the 11th century with Germany-based Irish chronicler Marianus Scotus. In his chronicle, he wrote that the pope who succeeded Leo V in 855 AD was “Joanna, a woman” and that she served as the Bishop of Rome for more than two years.

Scotus is well-regarded as a scribe, but historians think some of his writings may have been tampered with later.

What about a contemporary account, I hear you ask? Advocates of an eyewitness record speak of a dusty old document locked away in a secret library at the Vatican. The manuscript they are likely picturing is one by Anastasius Bibliothecarius, who died around 886 AD and was a power player in Rome, as well as an official archivist.

In this manuscript, Anastasius refers to a female pontiff in the 850s, but this section was very likely interpolated four centuries later, making it unreliable. Some believe that Anastasius did write this, and others go even further and suggest that Anastasius was actually Pope Joan!

As the 11th and 12th centuries wore on, Europe’s chroniclers repeated the story and various other details crept in, including that she got pregnant by a servant, which is why she was never recorded as a pope.

The Plot Thickens: The 13th to 15th Centuries

Martinus Polonus, a 13th-century friar from Moravia, included the same details as previous versions but called her “John Anglus” and said that she’d hailed from Mainz in Germany. He added that she went into labour in the middle of the street on her way from St. Peter’s Basilica to the Lateran in Rome. She apparently died giving birth and was buried on the spot.

A French chronicle of the early 13th century even claimed that Joan was stoned to death in the street just after the bairn emerged.

A painting of Pope Joan giving birth in t he street
A woodcut depicting Pope Joan giving birth

CC BY 2.0

Famous scholars of the 14th and 15th centuries such as Adam of Usk, William of Ockham, and Jan Hus kept the legend alive, giving her names like Agnes, Hagnes, and Gilberta.

Throughout the late medieval period, up until the Reformation, many considered Pope Joan real, and the official 1415 Council of Constance famously did not challenge Jan Hus when he spoke of the female Pope Joan.

It would be wrong to say that everyone at that time accepted Joan as fact, however. Italian Renaissance writer Bartolomeo Platina in his Lives of the Popes essentially says that much of what had been written about the legend in previous centuries was based on hearsay and was highly dubious.

The Paper War: The 16th Century to the Modern Era

In the 16th and 17th centuries, French and German Protestant writers embellished the story into something of a sweeping romance.

According to them Joan was born at Engelheim, near Mainz, to English parents. Her youth was spent in the monastic library of Fulda in Germany, where she was either engrossed in books or with her first love, a young monk that she eventually went travelling with around Europe.

Joan went to Athens with her beloved but here he apparently died. She then travelled to Rome and, disguised as a man, began a well-received academic career, which led to her being elected pope. By this account she then became pregnant, not by a servant, but by a cardinal.

The Joan story naturally became just another battleground in the European wars of religion, and a “paper war” ensued.

In 1601 the pope declared the story of the female pope to be a myth. Respected French historian David Blondel questioned the existence of any female popes in 1647. Many other historians described his work as the “demolition” of the legend.

However, even in the 19th century the myth still had its supporters. Those who refuted Joan’s existence were unambiguous, though. In 1867, Sabine Baring-Gould wrote: “It need hardly be stated that the whole story of Pope Joan is fabulous, and rests on not the slightest historical foundation.”

Nothing to See Here: Joan Today

Today, the position of mainstream historians on Pope Joan hasn’t really changed much since Baring-Gould’s time. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church plainly states: “It is without foundation.”

Officially, she never existed. There has never been a female pope.

Contemporary ninth-century enemies of the pope, such as Photios I, who wrote shedloads about his time and would not have hesitated to exploit a juicy scandal, never mentioned a female pope.

There was about six weeks between the death of Leo IV on 17th July 855 and the consecration of Benedict III on 1st September in the same year, so not enough time at all for the alleged two-and-a-half-year rule of Joan.

Emperor Louis had Anastasius elected as antipope during this time, but he didn’t last long either. There was also no record of him facing accusations of being a woman, so it’s unlikely Anastasius was Joan. Many also believed this was the very same Anastasius who authored the mysterious yet dubious manuscript that sits in the Vatican Library.

Another theory was that John VIII was Joan, but this doesn’t stack up either. He reigned from 872 to 882.

Proponents of Pope Joan being a true story like to bring up the fact that for centuries when travelling between St. Peter’s and the Lateran popes deliberately avoided the spot where she was supposed to have given birth, died, and was then buried.

Medieval popes did do this for a time, from the 13th century onwards. But this cannot be taken as evidence of Pope Joan, only of a possible superstition owing to the legend.

Several chairs used by former popes – two of which are now in the Vatican Museum and another at the Louvre - have holes in the bottom. Many supporters claim that this is evidence of the fabled test, in which a young cardinal would have the job of examining a would-be pope to avoid the oversight of electing another female pope.

However, there is no evidence of this procedure ever happening. These seats could have originally been Roman imperial commodes or birthing stools and so served the popes merely as a sort of symbolic throne.

Although experts pretty much all dismiss Pope Joan as just a story, researchers continue to put forward claims arguing otherwise. As recently as 2018, an archaeologist studying papal monograms on medieval coins said they found evidence in these of a real Pope Joan reigning around 856 AD.

Written by:

James Brigden