Pope Joan


“Despite all attempts to kill her off, Pope Joan keeps cropping up in our own times. People believe in her and go on believing in her because they want her to have happened…” (Peter Standford, The She Pope)

Pope Joan, the legendary female pope…true story or myth? Her tale takes place during a time within the church when all unholy things were permissible for those in charge.  It is said that the englishwoman Joan studied alongside men (disguised as a man) at the monastary of Boniface in Fulda during the 800’s when Europe was in chaos from wars with Muslims and invasions from Vikings. These dire times affected the integrity of the church creating pandemonium and confusion within the ecclesiastical authority. It was a “period of pornocracy” which makes Joan’s story even more believable for a woman becoming pope would be the least of the church’s worries.

Pope Joan’s papacy is dated from 856 to 858 and even though it was a short reign, it has left a lasting impact. She was extremely intelligent with an intense drive for education and since women were restricted in their learning, it is no surprise that Joan decided to dress as a man and head to Athens for further studies. She supposedly had a male companion with her who was both lover and tutor. After her time in Athens where she proved to be one of the brightest intellectuals, she returned to Rome, quickly becoming a sought out teacher for her keen intellect and persuasive rhetoric. After several disappointing popes, Joan was unanimously elected pope under the title of John Anglicus and still under the assumption that she was male. With a surprising turn of events, Joan became pregnant by her lover and delivered the child “between the Colosseum and Saint Clement’s Church.” What happens next to Joan is some what of a mystery with varying accounts of either dying from giving birth, attached and killed by an angry crowd or that she was sent off to a convent to repent of her sins.

There are several historical documents proving to the validity of Pope Joan’s story (or that she existed as a real person) despite efforts from others to wipe out her existence completely or turning her into a myth. Mary Malone pointedly states that “Joan’s two-year papacy serves to keep alive the question of women’s full inclusion in the Christian tradition at all levels. The efforts to quell the story serve only to illustrate the importance of her brief witness” (Malone, Women & Christianity, Vol. 1: The First Thousand Years, p.235, 2000). I am intrigued by Joan’s story and want to know more about this courageously bold woman.

If you are curious (like me), for further reading:

The She-pope: Quest for the Truth Behind the Mystery of Pope Joan by Peter Standford

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross (Historical fiction)

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