One of the greatest scandals to ever befall the Roman Catholic church was the story that a woman was elected to the papacy as Pope Joan. Her deception was only uncovered when she collapsed in the street heavily pregnant and gave birth. The surrounding crowd was so profoundly shocked that she was lynched on the spot. But is this story – once widely believed – actually true?
The story originates in the Middle Ages about a woman who followed her lover into the clergy to stay close to him. It’s normally claimed this happened in the 9th century. Talented and intelligent, this woman – disguised as a male cleric – just couldn’t help rising up the ranks. Until, unintentionally, she ended up as Pope. And once in the top job, she had to keep up the subterfuge or face certain death.
It’s normally assumed that had she existed, Pope Joan would have reigned between Pope Leo IV and Pope Benedict III in the 850s. This was a very turbulent time in Rome with Arab armies sacking the city and destroying churches. It needed a bright and courageous person to lead the church and a cardinal called John Anglicus from the German city of Mainz was elected. Problem was – John was actually Joan.
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Pope Joan gets pregnant
This might have remained a secret had Joan not got pregnant. Not from her original lover – a monk who had now died – but a cardinal with whom she’d had a secret affair. As her belly grew, Pope Joan needed to use her rich vestments to hide the truth. But eventually while processing from St Peter’s basilica to St John the Lateran – the papal residence at the time – she had contractions and went into labour.
A Dominican friar called Jean de Mailly writing in the 13th century claimed Pope Joan gave birth while mounting a horse to ride in that procession. The sudden exertion brought on labour. The crowd was so appalled that they tied her to a horse and stoned the poor woman until she passed away and was buried.
The exact location of her giving birth and dying shortly after is normally pinpointed at the church of Saint Clement near the Colosseum on a road known as the Sacred Way – Via Sacra – but subsequently dubbed the ‘shunned path’ because of its association with this abominable sacrilege.
In the year 1415, a heretic called Jan Hus was on trial for his life – facing the prospect of being burned to death for defying the teachings of the Catholic church. At one point, in his defence, he made a reference to Pope Joan and her time as pontiff. Despite his trial being attended by 20 cardinals and a large number of bishops and theologians, nobody appears to have disputed that Joan existed. Although Hus did go on to be found guilty and executed.
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Proving a Pope was a man
So concerned was the Vatican about the prospect of another woman being elected pope that they reportedly used a special seat with a hole in the middle to test whether a newly elected pope had fully descended testicles. This seat was called the sede stercoraria and a cardinal would reach underneath to feel for the correct genitalia then announce joyfully that they were there and the papal coronation could proceed.
Pope Joan as the Antichrist
As the story developed, it became increasingly unacceptable to suggest Joan had become pope by accident. She must have been in league with Satan. After all, papal elections are guided by the Holy Spirit so that election must have been subverted by some enormously evil intervention. And so we get the idea that Pope Joan was none other than Antichrist, the being that will rule before the end of times.
During the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, the story of Pope Joan was taken up with relish by Protestants. It was a great way to goad Catholics and jeer at the power of the papacy. So corrupt was this institution that a woman had even once held the position! And as for the father, it wasn’t just some or other man but a cardinal or even….the devil.
Given that today her existence is flatly denied by the Catholic church, it’s unusual how prevalent belief in the story was for centuries. Although her name changed in some tellings to Agnes, Gilberta, Joanna, Margaret, Isabel and the rather curious “Jutt”.
She also becomes English in one account. But if it was made up – who concocted the story and why? One theory I find quite plausible is that the story started in the Byzantine Empire. The Patriarch and the Emperor in Constantinople disputed the claim by the Pope to be the undisputed ruler of the church. How better to undermine the papacy than to claim a woman had once sat in St Peter’s chair?
There have been two movie versions of her life – one in 2009 and a classic in 1972 with a horrific depiction of her murder by the mob.