Pope Joan

I counted myself among the nay-sayers until I read Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross. While it is historical fiction, in her author’s notes at the end, she claims numerous historical documents verify that Pope Joan did indeed exist. Here are various quotes from the paperback edition:

Cross then goes on to call for a scientific examination of one ancient copy of the Liber pontificalis that contains a record of Joan’s papacy which is obviously a later interpolation. She also points to the recent examples of Nicaragua and El Salvador that a determined state effort can make embarrassing evidence disappear.

Cross then mentions that there were innumerable jests and songs referring to the chair, and they were widespread among the Roman populace for centuries. In 1404, the Welshman Adam of Usk detailed Pope Innocent VII’s coronation, including the chair exam.

Cross then says that the Via Sacra (now the Via S. Giovanni) is the shortest and most direct route between the Pope’s residence and St. Peter’s Basilica, and was used for centuries. This is the street Joan reportedly gave birth to her stillborn child. “Soon afterward, papal processions deliberately began to turn aside from the Via Sacra, ‘in abhorrence of that event.’” pg 417. She claims the width of the street (an excuse commonly cited) was not a factor.

Is there any evidence to refute what Cross claims as evidence? She lists no bibliography, footnotes, etc.

And what evidence is there that Pope Joan did not exist, other than the claim that she was invented by Protestants? If she is mentioned before the Protestant movement, doesn’t that make it impossible for her to have been invented by them?

(wow, my fingers hurt now)

Here is Cecil’s Column on the subject.

What evidence is there that the Easter Bunny does not exist, other than naysayers?

In other words, you have asked the absolutely wrong question. If the assertion is that Pope Joan exists, then whoever asserts it has to provide positive proof of the assertion.

Not a single one of the assertions made here proves anything, BTW.


Yet for hundreds of years, people believed the Earth was the center of the universe and the sun revolved around it! The belief proves nothing.

Speculation, not proof. It may have made it easy – if they had done it. But it’s not proof they did it.

So? It only means that there may be gaps; it does not mean that Joan was pope in one of those gaps.

And there are how many manuscripts talking about the Greek and Roman Gods? Some accounts are quite detailed. This also means nothing.

Proves nothing. They may have not bothered adding this to the charges because they had enough, or they may have erroneously believed the legend. If Hus had mentioned the Easter bunny, and they believed in the Easter Bunny, does this prove there was and Easter bunny?

Only asserts there could be something in the gaps. Does not prove that the life of Joan was actually in one of them.

]i]Post hoc ergo propter hoc*. The statement assumes that Joan existed and thus uses the – hypothetical – gap to prove what is being assumed.

How does that prove the existance of Joan? It only proves (if it can actually be attested) that they checked to see if the pope was male. That does not mean there ever was a female pope.

So the reasoning is sloppy in the extreme. There’s not a single shred of actual evidence to back up the claim.

I did look at the column, and it did not really address any of the facts either way. Cecil claims Joan “supposedly served from 855 to 858.” Cross states she served from 853-855.

RealityChuck, thank you for your reply. Do you happen to know of books or decent websites that cite some evidence for either way?

This is relatively balanced. I’d say the key bit of evidence is the fact that there is no mention of the legend until 350 years after is supposedly happened. If the story were true, then how was the knowledge passed on? To prove the existance, someone would have to produce a document written around the time she reigned.

In addition, this site indicates that the female pope had had names other than Joan. It also mentions that Ignatius von Dollinger showed the story was based on a Roman folktale.

As RealityChuck points out the true test is to assume the story’s true; that there was a female pope whose gender was revealed when she gave birth on a public street in 855. Let’s face facts, if this had happened, there would be written records of it starting in 855 and running for several years. It’s not like it was something people wouldn’t have been talking about right away. So the fact that there was no anecdotes about Pope Joan for several decades after her supposed death indicates she is just a legend. The fact that there was so much subsequent stories about her just indicates she was a popular legend.

This is a shameless use of a strawman argument as the Roman Catholic Church has never denied that the story first appeared in Catholic sources. See, for example, the entry on the subject in the good old Catholic Encyclopedia. What it is that Catholics have often been quick to argue is that Catholic writers became more sceptical about the story at an earlier date than their Protestant counterparts. Which is, for the most part, a fair comment.

Try Alain Boureau’s The Myth of Pope Joan (University of Chicago Press, 2001) for the case that it was all just the product of medieval clerical misogyny. And we wouldn’t want to perpetuate that, would we?

Note also that even the “chair exam” shows at most only that the Church establishment of the time believed in the Pope Joan story, not that it was historical fact.

Thanks everyone for your responses. This is why I love coming to this place - you can get an answer to anything!

In one of the museums in Rome…I can’t remember which off hand…there is an artifact on display that is called (with some irony) the Throne of Pope Joan. It is a large, upright chair, the seat of which is hollowed out like a toilet. Beneath is an open area large enough to accomodate a person – yet the craftsmanship and general condition make it unlikely that this is meant to serve as a latrine. According to legend, this was the chair upon which papal aspirants were required to sit, while some medical authority lurking in the cavity underneath examined each candidate’s genitals to verify them as masculine.

It is entirely possible that the myth of Pope Joan was invented to explain the existance of this and other similar artifacts, which the impressionable people of the Middle Ages did not recognize as nothing more than Roman birthing chairs.

Just to add, I have a book titled “A Present for a Papist: or the Life and Death of Pope Joan, Plainly Proving out of the Printed Copies, and Manuscripts of Popish Writers and others , that a Woman called Joan, was really Pope of Rome; and was there Deliver’d of a Bastard Son in the open Street, as She went in Solumn Procession.” printed 1675, and also point out that in Paul Rycaut’s 1685 translation of Platina’s classic edition of the “Lives of the Popes” he describes one Pope John VIII: “John of English extraction…by evil arts for disguising herself like a man, whereas she was a woman…”.

Think about this for a second.


"John Anglicus was a ninth century Englishman. He travelled to Athens where he gained a reputation for his knowledge of the sciences. Eventually he came to lecture at the Trivium in Rome where his fame grew even larger. He became a Cardinal, and when Pope Leo IV died in 853 A.D., he was unanimously elected pope.

“As Pope John VIII he ruled for two years, until 855 A.D. However, while riding one day from St. Peter’s to the Lateran, he had to stop by the side of the road and, to the astonishment of everyone, gave birth to a child. It turned out that Pope John VIII was really a woman. In other words, Pope John was really Pope Joan.”

Thus we have to assume Joan:

#1) Was so ambitious that she dressed consistently as a man, and spent presumably decades to become educated in the sciences, and then became a cleric in the RCC, eventually making it to the papacy.

#2) Was sufficiently clever to make sure during this period of many years that nobody ever suspects that she was really a he.

#3) After all this clever ambitiousnesses, she manages to get herself knocked up. Why if she wanted any sexual encounters with a man find one who could give good head, or a good butt fuck?

ADDED (My browser prematurely submitted my last post.)

#4) Joan made no effort to get an abortion.

“1140 - The monk John Gratian completed the Concordia discordantium canonum (Harmony of Contradictory Laws) which became the first authoritative collection of canon law accepted by the church. In accordance with ancient scholars, it concluded early abortion was not homicide.”

Abortion clearly existed way back then. And must have been common enough that monk John Gratian saw a need to write about whether or not it was homicide.

#5) According to this account, nobody caught on Pope Joan was a she until she “had to stop by the side of the road and, to the astonishment of everyone, gave birth to a child.” Assuming Pope Joan was philosophically opposed to abortion, why the hell when she was great with child was going down a public road accompanied by a lot of other people? Why not instead wouldn’t Pope Joan say to a Cardinal “Hey dude, I’m really feeling burned out. I gotta go away to a remote rural retreat to recover. In my absence, I appoint you acting pope.” And just give birth to her kid somewhere in the boondocks surrounded by people she could absolutely trust to keep silent about it.

Based on the above, I have to conclude it is far more likely that Pope Joan never existed.

…and the putative lover kept his mouth shut forever too. How convenient.

Whether she existed or not, her story is important to people denied of certain station in life because of their sex. The message to the Catholic Church might be…just because a person is male doesnt make them more holy or worthy of a leadership position, and anyone who thinks that “thing between your legs” makes you a better person somehow, is probably the most ignorant and unworthy of all.

…well, sure…but…you do know that priests have this little thing called a vow of celibacy?

This presumes there is any truth to this tale. “Her story” is irrelevanrt if it never happened. If I claim to be the Anti-Christ, the RCC can just ignore this unless there is evidence of such.

Self education was not impossible, all it would take is a doting father or brother to teach the little girly her letters…look, she can read, isnt she cute? and in general all she would have to know to pass as clergy is the bible and a smattering of vulgate latin, she could then get access to monastic libraries and education at a monastary later.

We have only started breeding for good looks fairly recently, previously marriages were arranged for political, monetary or other reasons [good hips so will bear children easily, comes from fertile family so lots of kids, basic reproductive reasons] or even leveraging land ownership. Looks were totally incedental, heck - love wasn’t even considered an option. Look at protraiture sometime, many women were butt ugly, and this could be seen in early photographs from the 1800…

And she could have gotten knocked up NOT from her own lusts, but because a man that she came in contact with either forced her to have sex or was bribed with sex to keep her secret. Not to mention a certain kinky frisson to knowing that you are screwing the papess and you are the only one that knows she is a woman…and if you are keeping it a secret, abortion would be pretty tricky to arrange…

There is a very good site which discusses the legend of Pope Joan, and examines the little evidence for her existence here, coming to the conclusion that there is no evidence to support such a person. The entire text of the book discusses the spread of the legend and its use in both medieval and contemporary times.

The chapter I’ve cited above discusses the Papal thrones.

I would think that the fact there are no extant, contemporary documents which mention Pope Joan is probably evidence enough that she didn’t exist. By and large, those documents which we have from the Dark Ages tend to be religious or official in nature.

If there were any such documents about a Pope Joan originating from official sources, it’s unlikely that none at all survived. The Medieval Church was no less effective in generating paper work than any contemporary bureaucracy and tended to be good at holding onto it.

I think those who are questioning why the “need” for such a legend are asking the more interesting question!

It’s a bit like the legends of Robin Hood … what iI find most intriguing is not whether or not there is any historical evidence for such a person, but rather, what cultural, social or political need did such a legend fulfil.

I’m not sure if liirogue has come across Lawrence Durrell’s “Pope Joan”, but just in case, I recommend it as an entertaining read.