The Woman POPE
Dr. Kluane Spake
While in Rome, we rushed off to find the Woman Pope! My study group and I heard rumors about her – and we wanted to find out more…
For over a thousand years her existence has been denied. But, her story will not die–Pope Joan,
It is widely said that she is a legend, apocryphal – a hoax… But, was she?
It didn’t take long for us to find this beautiful statue of her that still stands in Rome… Joanna with papal crown. Why is her statue there?
I think of this possibility every day — as “Woman Pope” has been my computer access code for the last 10 years!!
Of course, all 266 other popes are male… but this is a story of a woman in disguise.
It is said that Pope Joan reigned as John VIII from 855-859, in the strange gap between Pope Leo IV (847-855) and Benedict III (855-858). Apparently, she ruled the highest office possible in the Catholic Church – with greater spiritual and governmental authority or power than any other woman.
Joan was an English girl who was born in Mainz, Germany. She studied Greek and Latin at a monastery founded by missionaries from England. Because they did not allow girls to be educated, she disguised herself and dressed as a boy (as many other females at that time had to do).
The story goes that as time went on, she fell in love with a Benedictine monk. Together they decided to continue to dress her as a man and go together to Athens as fellow monks. There, as John Anglicus, she studied and excelled and later moved to Rome where she eventually became a cardinal.
She ruled as Pope for over two years. It is said that nobody knew she was a woman until she was in a Papal procession on the way to the Lateran in Rome. She was pregnant at the time and began having contractions. Those in the procession were horrified as she gave birth to a baby right there in the middle of the road!
One report said that she was dragged behind a horse and murdered that day. Others say she almost died, but survived and was hidden.
Whatever happened, the FACT is that the street was named Vicus Papissa, or “the street of the female pope.” And, for over a hundred years, all the later popes all detoured to avoid the street where Pope Joan gave birth to a child.
Pope Joan gives birth during a Church procession, artist Giovanni Boccaccio Circa 1450. (Wikimedia Commons)
And where she was buried is written: “Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum” [O Peter, Father of Fathers, Betray the childbearing of the woman pope]. At the same time, the four-day fast called the “fast of the female pope” was first established.
Our study group all went to the Sienna Cathedral Domo where all the early statures of the popes are (see photo) and where she should be is a missing space! Really. I saw it! That (missing) statue was there until the 16th century, hers was removed after protests in 1600.
1054: Pope Leo IX wrote to Michael Cerularius (the Patriarch of Constantinople) wrote, “God forbid that we wish to believe what public opinion does not hesitate to claim has happened to the Church of Constantinople; namely that in promoting eunuchs indiscriminately against the First Law of the Council of Nicaea, IT ONCE RAISED A WOMAN ON TO THE SEAT OF ITS PONTIFF. We regard this crime as so abominable and horrible that although outrage and horror of it and brotherly goodwill do not allow us to believe it…”
1276: When Petrus Hispanic was elected pope, he chose the papal name John; he decided to skip the number XIV. He numbered himself John XVI, thus acknowledging the existence of John XIV (Pope Joan).
1300: The existence of a second Pope John XIV (Joan) was widely accepted in the 13th century.
Her story appears in 13th century literature. Her story was widely speared and believed. There are a lot of historical evidences: statues, artwork, and historical documents. Her story is in the Vatican Library written by Bartolomeo Palatino.
In the best seller of the 1300’s, Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum (“The Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors”) by the Polish Dominican Maratin of Troppau, called her “Johannes Angelicus.” This work was circulated widely and overshadowed earlier records.
Martinus claims that the pope did not die immediately after giving birth. Instead, she was deposed after her confinement, and did penance for many years. After her death, she was buried in Ostia, where her son held the office of the Bishop of Hostia.
Statues of Pope Joan stood in the Vatican for many years, before they were later removed, and her legend suppressed.
Another famous statue, names Johannes VIII, femina ex Anglia, was replaced by a figure of Pope Zachary.
At some point Pope (Popess?) Joan’s picture was made it into the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck as a high priestess, a symbol of secret knowledge…(so you see that people did believe in her).
For hundreds of years, Joan’s existence was regarded as fact, even by the Council of Constance held in 1415. Mentions of Pope Joan are also found written by poet Giovanni Boccaccio and many other sources. In the 1400’s the Church did not dispute this female Pope. Of course, many medieval folktales arose.
Due to this scandal of having a “woman pope,” it is said that successive popes had to sit on a seat naked, while a committee of cardinals peered through the hole, before declaring, “Duos habet et bene pendentes” —- “He has two testicles, and they dangle nicely.” This and other toilet-like chairs were used in the consecration of Pope Pascal II in 1099 (Boureau 1988). In fact, one such toilet-chair is still in the Vatican Museums, another at the Musée du Louvre [Paris, France]. The newly emerging Protestants in the 1500s had a field day making fun of the chair, and so two were hidden from view.
There was an illustrated manuscript with this picture of Pope Joan wearing the papal tiara at the Bibliotheque nationale de France, circa 1560.
1601: Pope Clement VIII declared the legend of the female Pope to be untrue. Of course, her existence had to be “officially” dismissed. It is not strange that the Catholic Church has veiled her history with a campaign to delete every reference to Pope Joan from all the documents written in the centuries following her death.
1647: By now, even the Protestant scholars began to say that her existence was untrue. Calvinist David Blondel wrote a well-known document confirming this.
But why should a tale about a female patriarch, which had been told since the ninth century, suddenly be vilified? The sin of “Pope Joan” does not seem to be that she dressed in male attire, but by her final repulsive act of having sex and becoming pregnant. The ultimate attack upon the papacy was to have ever had a woman pope; instead, they invented a failed man.
Yet, one may wonder — statues, poems, Vatican records — maybe she was real?
It is not impossible. And… I kinda’ tend to believe.