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Pope Joan: Real Historical Figure or Unproven Myth?

He likes to find unique stories about people, places, and things happening in the world.

This image is a still from the movie "Pope Joan."

This image is a still from the movie "Pope Joan."

Who Is Pope Joan?

There is a popular story that has been circulating since the late Middle Ages that involves a woman named Joan who successfully disguised herself as a man by wearing men's clothing. She did this to keep hidden an affair she was having with a man who was associated with the church.

Purportedly, Joan was a rather brilliant individual. When in Rome, she learned a variety of branches of knowledge and it is said she had no intellectual equal. She later taught liberal arts in Rome, and some of her students went on to become great masters. Many had a high opinion of her life and knowledge. Joan became popular with the powerful people within Rome and was eventually chosen to be pope.

It is believed that Pope Johannes Anglicus regularly led religious processions around Rome during this time. The story involves a very dramatic ending to her reign. Pope Johannes Anglicus became pregnant and went into labor. Her child was born during one of the religious processions, and it was revealed that Johannes was actually a woman named Joan.

Shortly after this, she died. Some claim her death was the result of childbirth, while others claim she was murdered by the crowd after they witnessed her give birth.

The Controversy

It has been said that the discovery of a female pope caused quite a lot of upheaval in the Catholic Church. There are claims that the spot where she gave birth was always avoided during religious processions after her death. It is also claimed that the Vatican removed any trace of the female pope from its official lists. Many believe after the death of Pope Joan, the Catholic Church created a system to make certain that all future popes in the future were male.

There was a bust of Pope Johannes Anglicus featured in Sienna Cathedral during the 16th century. It stood among all the other busts of pontiffs but was removed after serious protests against it took place.

An artist's portrayal of Pope Joan.

An artist's portrayal of Pope Joan.

The First Mention of Pope Joan

Around 1250, the Jean de Mailly Chronicle was written. This was the first known publication to refer to an unnamed female pope. This led to many more accounts of a female pope during the next several years. During the later part of the 13th century, Martin of Opava's Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum began to provide details of the female pope.

It was claimed the birth name of the female pope had been John Anglicus of Mainz. It was further claimed she was pope during the ninth century. The reason she went into the church was in pursuit of her lover. The legend of a female pope was believed to have been an actual story until the 16th century.

Attempts to Disprove the Story

A magistrate with the parliament de Bordeaux named Florimond de Raemond made the first attempt to disprove the legend of Pope Joan in 1587. His writing applied humanist techniques to criticize the Pope Joan legend. Raemond tried to supply historical principles to church history. When this was done, many believe the story's details came apart.

Pope Clement VIII officially declared the legend of Pope Joan untrue in 1601. Some say the well-known bust of her was then destroyed. Others believed it was recarved and replaced by a male pope known as Pope Zachary.

Modern Believers

Peter Stanford is a former editor of the Catholic Herald. He is a British author who wrote a book called The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth. It was published in 1999. In an interview, Stanford said that after reviewing all the available evidence on the subject, he is convinced that there was a real historical figure known as Pope Joan. He does not, however, believe that all of the details of her life that have been passed down are necessarily true.

Modern Disbelievers

Many modern scholars dismiss the story of Pope Joan. They claim it is simply a legend. John Julius Norwich is a British historian who completely dismisses Pope Joan as a myth based on his assessment of the evidence.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Popes, no contemporary evidence exists that there was ever a female pope. It does, however, state that Pope Joan's story was believed for centuries by most Catholics.

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Papal Monograms on Medieval Coins

Papal monograms that were placed on medieval coins were known as deniers. They were analyzed to disprove the story of Pope Joan. The coins of Pope John VII, who was officially the pope from 872 to 882, were studied. Coins at the beginning of his reign were compared to those at the end of his time as pope. It was discovered the coins minted during the early period were significantly different from those at the end. Researchers determined this was not due to human error. The researchers believe the earlier coins had the monogram of Johannes Anglicus, or Pope Joan.

Pictured here is the cover of a novel that was written about Pope Joan.

Pictured here is the cover of a novel that was written about Pope Joan.

Books About Pope Joan

During the 1500s, a book titled A Dialogue between a Protestant and a Papist was written by the English author Alexander Cooke. It is believed that the book was able to prove the existence of Pope Joan. It was republished in 1675 with the title A Present for a Papist: Or the Life and Death of Pope Joan. The book covers the details of Pope Joan giving birth to a son in plain view of those around her.

Other writers of the 19th century, such as Karl Hase and Ewaldus Kist, have written about the story of Pope Joan as an actual occurrence. A novel titled Pope Joan was released in 1996 by American author Donna Woolfolk Cross. It was later adapted into a movie that was released in 2009.

Pictured here is a poster for the movie "Pope Joan."

Pictured here is a poster for the movie "Pope Joan."


Two movies have been made based on the story of Pope Joan. In 1972, Pope Joan was the subject of a movie titled The Devil's Impostor. It was directed by Michael Anderson. The movie was recut and rereleased in 2009. It was called She . . . who would be Pope. Another movie was released in 2009. It was a Spanish, British, and Italian production called Pope Joan.

Pictured here is a statue of Pope Joan in England.

Pictured here is a statue of Pope Joan in England.

So, What Do You Think?

Many people are not surprised that the debate surrounding the existence of Pope Joan remains a hot topic in the modern world. Some suggest this is because it conjures a very exciting story about a brilliant woman battling a system of rigid oppression and turning it on its head—the story of a woman who lived during the Middle Ages and was able to prove she was equal in every way to her male counterparts. Others say it is about an inspirational woman defying all odds. With all of its amazing elements, the story of Pope Joan will probably remain alive for many future generations.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Readmikenow


Readmikenow (author) on September 01, 2020:

Flourish, thanks. It was certainly a different world back then.

Readmikenow (author) on September 01, 2020:

MG, thanks. It is a big topic for debate among Catholics.

Readmikenow (author) on September 01, 2020:

Eric, thanks. It is one of those situations where some people believe it to be true and others refuse to accept it.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 01, 2020:

Very interesting! I hadn’t heard of this story before. She had to have been very brave. How sad if they killed her when she went into labor.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on August 31, 2020:

Very interesting article but I had very little knowledge about it. Having said that I do feel that a female Pope would be an anomaly and maybe it's just a legend. All the same, it makes for a very interesting tale

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 31, 2020:

Extremely interesting. I asked myself "why couldn't it be true?".

Readmikenow (author) on August 31, 2020:

Liz, thanks.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 31, 2020:

I had not heard of this story before. It is an interesting proposition.

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