Pope Joan

Pope / Mythical Figure

Born: ?
Died: ?
Birthplace: Mainz, Germany (?)
Best known as: Female pope who may or may not have existed
Considered by most scholars -- and the Catholic Church -- to be merely a legend, the story of a 9th century woman pope named Joan continues to have a hold on the public's imagination. The story, popularized by 12th and 13th century chroniclers (especially a Dominican friar named Martin of Troppau) places her between Leo IV and Benedict III, holding the papal throne as John VIII from 853-55. She was supposedly a female of English descent, born in Germany and educated in the sciences. She worked her way up to the papacy while masquerading as a man known as John Anglicus (sometimes called John of Mainz), but her ruse was uncovered when she gave birth to a son during a procession through Rome. The strange story didn't appear until a few hundred years afterwards, but until the late 17th century it was part of accepted lore, pounced on by Protestants after the Reformation as proof that the Catholic Church was hypocritical. Modern scholars point to the fact that there are no contemporary sources mentioning Joan, but admit there is plenty of confusion about early Church history (bad records and so many popes named John!). Believers say that the Vatican has erased any record of Joan's papacy to avoid embarrassment, and that the longevity of the legend is proof of her existence.
Extra credit: At some point Pope (Popess?) Joan made it into the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck as a high priestess, a symbol of secret knowledge... The name Joan, a feminine version of John, was attributed to her much later; other chronicles say her name was Agnes, Gilberta or Jutta.

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More on Pope Joan from Fact Monster:

  • Pope Joan - Biography of Pope Joan, Female pope who may or may not have existed

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