The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan

According to a popular legend, there was a woman who reigned as pope for a few years in the Middle Ages. You can call her Pope Joan.

She was initially known as Ioannes Anglicus or “John the English”.

She reigned supposedly on the year, 855 and it ended on 857 – between the reigns of Pope Leo IV (847 – 855) and Pope Benedict III (855 – 858). Her story first appeared in chronicles in the 13th century and subsequently spread throughout Europe. The story was widely believed for centuries, but most modern scholars regard it as fictional.

Pope John VII.

Most versions of her story describes her as a talented and learned woman who disguised herself as a man, often at the behest of a lover. In the most common accounts, due to her abilities, she rose through the church hierarchy and was eventually elected pope. Her gender was revealed when she gave birth during a procession, and she died shortly after, either through murder or natural causes.

The accounts state that later church processions avoided this spot, and that the Vatican removed the female pope from its official lists and crafted a ritual to ensure that future popes were male.

The Papal Testicle Testing Chair. A newly elected pontiff is requested to be seated on this chair to verify if he has the right “equipment” to do the job.
The Popess tarot card from the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck, c. 1450

In the 16th century, Siena Cathedral featured a bust of Joan among other pontiffs; this was removed after protests in 1600.

The legend was generally accepted as true until the 16th century, when a widespread debate among Catholic and Protestant writers called the story into question; various writers noted the implausibly long gap between Joan’s supposed lifetime and her first appearance in texts.

Pope Joan is now widely accepted to be fictional, though the legend remains influential in art, literature, drama, and film.


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