A Female Pope: History or Myth?

Ty D.

According to numerous chroniclers, Ioannes Anglicus, a woman, pretended to be Pope John VIII.

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Illustration of Pope Joan giving birth, used as the frontispiece of A Present for a Papist: Or, The History of the Life of Pope Joan(Unknown author, public domain/wikimedia commons)

A woman as pope

It's a mystery that has been pondered over for generations. One author declared, “Ninety percent of me believes there was a Pope Joan.” Another person commented, “I would argue it’s the weight of evidence — over 500 chronicles of her presence.

Is there really any evidence in history of a female pope? There are plenty of references to a female pope. But is there definitive evidence that there was a female pope? You decide.

The first reference to a female pope comes from a monk named Martinus Scotus writing in the 11th Century from the Abbey of St. Martin of Cologne. He writes that, “In AD 854, Lotharii 14, Joanna, a woman, succeeded Leo, and reigned two years, five months, and four days.”

A century later we find another writer mentioning a female pope. Sigebert de Gemlours, who was a scribe who wrote in the 12th century that,

“It is reported that this John was a female, and that she conceived a child by one of her servants. The Pope, becoming pregnant, gave birth to a child, whereof some do not number her among the Pontiffs.”

Since it originally appeared in the 13th century, her tale has been widely circulated throughout Europe. Based on chroniclers, historians, and theologians’ accounts of the historical papal reigns, most people thought the material to be accurate. Even though she only held the throne for two years and five months (855–857), her pontificate was exceptional and extraordinary compared to her forebears, even when modern behavioral standards are used.

Although contemporary historians view the Popess as a fictional character, Joan’s biography is so convincing that, regardless of whether the Popess is a real person or the product of a creative writer’s imagination, her tenure as Pope John VIII left so many profound traces in the history of the church that it is impossible to ignore her.

Whether he was a man or a woman, according to chroniclers and historians, John VIII was a successful pope during the Middle Ages.

How did She Become a Popess?

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Illustrated manuscript depicting Pope Joan with the papal tiara.(Unknown author, public domain/wikimedia commons)

According to sources, the young woman pretended to be a male in order to enter the Fulda Monastery in Fulda, Germany because women were not permitted to pursue advanced education, and monks were the only ones who could study certain things such as medicine.

At the time, men and women dressed similarly, right down to their hairstyles, making it simple to pass for a guy. All that was needed to enter the monastery was a monk’s garment.

The pope/popess drew attention due to her talents. She traveled and studied for several years. She traveled to Rome and Athens to pursue her education there. Later, while living in Rome, she worked as a teacher for three of the Seven Liberal Arts topics in the renowned Santa Maria in Schola Graeca.

During Ioannes’ time in the monastery, a Pope fell ill. The Pope was suggested to visit Ioanens, whom she treated, due to her expertise in herbal therapy. She eventually joined the Pope’s team and gained his trust. Additionally, according to the Liber Pontificalis, she oversaw practical tasks for the papal administration of Sergius II, who appointed her Sub Deacon.

Ioannes later received the title of Cardinal Deacon from Pope Leo IV. These milestones match with Joan’s actions throughout her time in Rome. Near 853, Pope Leo IV passed away, and Pope Benedict III was chosen as his successor. Benedict III still employed Cardinal-Deacon John as a valuable member of his administration.

To her surprise, the populace praised her and elevated her to the papal throne as Benedict III’s successor, even though she had no desire to be the next pope. Numerous notable figures from northern Europe, including the local rulers of England and the Carolingian Emperor Louis II of Italy, were present as witnesses at the coronation of Pope Johannes Anglicus, John VIII.

It is significant to remember that the new pope needed the Emperor’s approval, and the incumbent Emperor of the Franconian Empire demanded a sanctified papal coronation. Johannes Anglicus and Louis II relied on one another to establish their formal status.

How was Pope John/Joan’s Gender Revealed?

According to mythology, the papacy was taken over by a new pope named “John” in the ninth century. The cardinals rode through Rome’s streets after two years of presiding over a tranquil Church. There, while still atop the horse, John unexpectedly gave birth to a child. The other riders stripped the Pope down, revealing that “John” was a woman named “Joan” who had been masking her gender while working for the Church. Disgusted, the other riders pulled her body across the same street where she had just given birth till she passed away.

Popess Legacy

There is a figure of a woman wearing a papal robe, a papal crown, and other papal emblems on the frontispiece of St. Peter’s Basilica, which attests to the existence of a pope with feminine features. Religious leaders claim that the statue, which is invariably shown as feminine, represents the church.

It is said that two chairs in the Vatican Museum have holes in the seats, which are used to examine the male organs of incoming popes to prevent a repeat of the Popess Joan incident. The youngest cardinal is instructed to do the palpation test before announcing loudly that the newly appointed pastor has testicles.

Along with coins honoring the Papal State, there are monograms of Pope John VIII from the era in which he was in charge of the papacy.

Final Thoughts!

Modern scientists have gathered numerous pieces of evidence to support the presence of a female pope. They provide evidence for their claims from historians and chroniclers such as Conrad Botho, Martinus Polonius, Jan Hus, Friedrich Spanheim, the Magdeburg Centuries, Anastasius’ letter to Pope John VIII, and the official Liber Pontificalis from the ninth century.

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I write about the things that matter. I'm a born and bred Californian, and I love exploring and writing about the Golden State! I also cover various topics - from social interest issues to history, politics, people, and culture.

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