Pope Joan

According to legend, Pope Joan was a woman who concealed her gender and ruled as pope for two years, from 853-855 ce. Her identity was exposed when, riding one day from St. Peter's to the Lateran, she stopped by the side of the road and, to the astonishment of everyone, gave birth to a child.

The legend is unconfirmed. Skeptics note that the first references to Pope Joan only appear hundreds of years after her supposed reign. However, supporters argue that the Church may have attempted to erase all evidence of her existence from the historical record.

Who Was Pope Joan?
Pope Joan was said to have been born an Englishwoman. She concealed her gender to pursue her scholarly ambitions -- the life of a scholar not being allowed to a woman at that time. Calling herself John Anglicus, she travelled to Athens where she gained a reputation for her knowledge of the sciences. Eventually she came to lecture at the Trivium in Rome where her fame grew even larger. Still disguised as a man, she became a Cardinal, and when Pope Leo IV died in 853 ad was unanimously elected pope.

As Pope John VIII she ruled for two years. However, while riding one day from St. Peter's to the Lateran, she had to stop by the side of the road and supposedly gave birth to a child. According to one legend, upon discovering the Pope's true gender, the people of Rome tied her feet together and dragged her behind a horse while stoning her, until she died. Another legend has it that she was sent to a faraway convent to repent her sins and that the child she bore grew up to become the Bishop of Ostia.

True or False?
It is not known whether the story of Pope Joan is true. The first known reference to her occurs in the thirteenth century, 350 years after her supposed reign. Around this time her image also began to appear as the High Priestess card in the Tarot deck.

The Catholic Church at first seemed to accept the reality of Pope Joan. Marginal notes in a fifteenth century document refer to a statue called "The Woman Pope with Her Child" that was supposedly erected near the Lateran. There was also a rumor that, as a result of Pope Joan, for many years the chairs used during papal consecrations had holes in their seats, so that an official check of the pope's gender could be performed.

During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church began to deny the existence of Pope Joan. However, at the same time, Protestant writers insisted on her reality, primarily because the existence of a female pope was a convenient piece of anti-Catholic propaganda.

Modern scholars disagree about the historicity of Pope Joan.
Pope Joan Haiku (submitted by Hoax Museum visitors)
My girlfriend thinks she's
always right — infallible —
just because she's Pope.
(by AB)
Oh what a surprise!
Pope is different to most
John is really Joan
(by sharruma)
Powerful priestess,
who ruled in guise of a man,
birth was your downfall
(by psyche_ky)
Is Pope Joan laughing?
Rebirth to all is sacred;
Birth to one is sin.
(by rhia)
Accepted as man
Proving more than mere Pope
A lady unknown
(by Cameo Shavell)
One question remains,
Enquiring minds must know:
Who is the father?
(by Brad)
Mother of one child -

Leading millions of faithful
Which is the harder?
(by Lynsioux)
Courageous woman!
Procreates as Cath'lics must.
Impugned. . . . Pope no more!
(by Hope De Cleene)
That's how it was then
Woman was door to hell
unless nun Or Mum
(by sara)
Joan the Antipope
Could not have made true bishops
or binding statements.
(by Dano)
Pope Joan is a myth,
perpetuated by fools,
and anti-Cath'lics.
(by Joseph Earnest)
What a story
so full of interesting lore
idiots bicker forevermore.
(by Jeff Hoaxworthy)
John was no angel
Quickly nursery plans were made
Plan B needed here!
(by #1F)
Pope Joan, beauty queen
as vibrant as a rainbow
always in our hearts
(by Imogen bowers)
Pope Joan, what a gal
was she real or was she not?
don't fight about it
(by Imogen 'the ripper' Bowers)

Links and References
  • Stanford, Peter. (1998). The Legend of Pope Joan. Henry Holt and Company. New York.


If the Catholic list of Popes lists Pope John VIII as having reigned from 872-882, how could he/she also have reigned from 855-855? There is one interesting piece of fact, the numbering of the Pope Johns if off by 1. Pope John XXI was called Pope John XX. That adds to the theory of a Pope "Joan", but the time frame is slightly off, isn't it?
Posted by Anonymous  on  Tue Apr 23, 2002  at  12:25 PM
this is a great story. what about pope benny, (benedict II- 975 a.d.) the alien pope who was widely assumed to be simply sick, and slightly green, by the attending roman curia? when he died (he seemed to be male) they discovered the tentacles and gills under his robe.
Posted by Joseph  on  Sun Apr 04, 2004  at  06:20 AM
Pope Joan is an obvious hoax. The timing is not only off...but the medieval "Papissa" did not appear in any historical archive until 350 years after her alleged existence. Such a furor would've been heavily documented. I think the legend has something to do with the actual Pope John VIII (who reigned much later than the proscribed time) being very effeminate. The legend was also a mockery of the influence of female royalty over the weak Popes. Sure, many medievals believed she was real, due to the fact that the hoaxer was a man of considerable repute. But as evidence surfaced with the coming of critical historical research, the Catholic Church began to deny her existence. Even Protestant historians attest to Joan being a mere legend, so it was no mere one-sided "cover-up".

Posted by Jonathan  on  Tue Aug 24, 2004  at  04:20 PM
Hoax or not, a woman in the line of popes breaks what the Catholic Church urges is a continuous succession of popes from Peter, the Apostile, the first pope down to the present. This break in the papal succession would obviously benefit Protestants by discrediting the supposed authority of the popes. It also seemed to benefit some need of pre-Reformation Catholic clergy. It must be remembered that the Catholic Church was the only Christian religious game in town, and many people with diverse beliefs were obliged to live quietly under its umbrella. Creating or revealing a break in the papal successsion would also benefit these dissenters, if only internally, by undermining the authority of the monolithic institution under which they were obliged to live during the Middle Ages.
Posted by John  on  Fri Nov 19, 2004  at  04:10 PM
An official Catholic reubttal of this hoax can be found at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08407a.htm
Posted by Pat  on  Tue Apr 05, 2005  at  04:38 AM
It seems to me that those who take this "Pope Joan" seriously are of the same crowd that thinks the Da Vinci Code is real.

Actually, the first scholarly debunking of the Pope Joan myth came from Protestant scholars in the 17th century, who already realized then that this bit of propaganda was a dead end. Of course, judging from some of the responses here, they weren't heeded. So much for blaming it on Protestants, when Protestants themselves were one of those who helped the Church debunk the myth.

"However, Popess Joan was already mentioned in a chronical written a long time before the reformation."

Yes, a chronicle written by the Middle-Age equivalent of a New York gossip sensationalist columnist. He was spinning a yarn, and even then, his chronicle makes some obvious historical lapses. If this is the standard by which we will believe history, then there is a tale of alien landings in Roswell I'd like you to do a dissertation on.

Sometimes, the historical smoke comes from a historical arsonist.

"It has piqued my curiosity ro find out more. Church history seems to skip over many things and perhaps Joan was among the missing."

Not enough of a gap to effectively justify a conspiracy theory, much less an actual verifiable theory, on a Papissa.
Posted by Jonathan  on  Thu Aug 18, 2005  at  11:22 AM
There are actually three different legendary stories concerning the woman pope. Modern feminism clings to these stories for obvious reasons. I am sorry that so many people are being lead astray by so little facts concerning the supposed Pope Joan. I only hope as a prison minister that those to whom I visit in prison are not found guilty on such weak and obvious lacking evidence. Too many things point out the obvious fact that Pope Joan is fiction but with so many people, who are uneducated on the subject, just want it to be true or who have an ax to grind with the Church are always going to believe the fantasy. If you want to know the truth, you will need an unprejudiced mind and a desire to seek the truth in scholarly research.

Now for some points to consider:
Not one contemporaneous historical source among the papal histories mentions anything about her; also, no mention is made of her until the middle of the thirteenth century even though there is a mountain of historical documents of the time period, some of which openly speak out against the Church. Now it is incredible that the appearance of a "popess", if it was an historical fact, would not be noticed by any of the numerous historians from the tenth to the thirteenth century. In the history of the popes, there is no place where this legendary figure fits in. In his writing, Martinus Polonus, places her between Leo IV and Benedict III, but she cannot be inserted there, because Leo IV died 17 July, 855, and immediately after his death Benedict III was elected by the clergy and people of Rome; but owing to the setting up of an antipope, in the person of the deposed Cardinal Anastasius, he was not consecrated until 29 September. Coins exist which bear both the image of Benedict III and of Emperor Lothair, who died 28 September, 855; therefore Benedict must have been recognized as pope before the last-mentioned date. On 7 October, 855, Benedict III issued a written charter, which still exists, for the Abbey of Corvey. Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, informed Nicholas I that a messenger whom he had sent to Leo IV learned on his way of the death of this pope, and therefore handed his petition to Benedict III, who decided it (Hincmar, ep. xl in P.L., CXXXVI, 85). All these witnesses prove the correctness of the dates given in the lives of Leo IV and Benedict III, and there was no interregnum between these two popes, so that at this place there is no room for the alleged popess.
Posted by Deacon Dave  on  Fri Dec 30, 2005  at  05:07 AM
What an interesting colloquium. While Deacon Dave's dates look good, I might point out that none of the chronicles of Christ's life were exactly contemporary, either. As for record, the "media" back in the day was not quite what it is today: no Film At Eleven, no real-time chases, no Geraldo drawing maps in the sand... in point of fact, they could have run Francis The Talking Mule for pope, and no one today would be able to confirm or refute absolutely. Face it, the Roman Catholic Church WAS the media, and therefor Got to Say, and then Got to Take Back if it was inconvenient. No one but a select handful of priests and scribes would have known the difference. It's not like Joe Average Peasant could read.
Which is not to disclude the possility that any number of factions (not necessarily Protestant -- this was a time when the Holy Roman Empire named and burned heretics over not mcuh more than a misspelling) might have gotten a huge boot out of promulgating the most scandalous story they could think of -- that the HRE had actually been led for a (brief) time by a stinking, lustful WOMAN!!!
Me, I'm a newbie to the research, but in thanks for an interesting discussion, here's my haiku:
Is Pope Joan laughing?
Rebirh to all is sacred;
Birth to one is sin.
Posted by rhia  on  Wed Jan 04, 2006  at  01:00 AM
Ashamed to say I just learned of "Pope Joan" after watching a PrimeTime special I recorded earlier. I am as curios as the next person and I am also a Roman Catholic. From what I have read and what I have seen I believe she was the Pope. That time period scorned any woman who set foot out of her home. There were quite a few women who dressed as males to study, to travel. I am saddened by the way my church treats women, ( no I am not a liberated witch) spelled with a capital B. May she cotinue to rest in peace. For we will never, ever know the whole truth. God Bless
Posted by Carmela  on  Sat Jan 14, 2006  at  07:23 PM
The Pope Joan segment on Prime Time was excellent. For those of us that saw it, there is no doubt there was a Pope Joan that had a baby and that the church has tried to dismiss the reality of it ever since it happened. My question: Does anybody know what happened to the child? Any information anyone has would be greatly appreciated. Truth has a way of coming out. The DaVinci Code is a curiosity, but this is history and will rock the church.
Posted by Joan  on  Sun Feb 05, 2006  at  11:56 PM
What about the carvings in the celing of St. Peter's Church in Rome that are claimed to be of Joan and her child?
Posted by Leslie  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  11:09 AM
Posted by Lindsay Lange  on  Mon Mar 20, 2006  at  12:43 PM
There are too many problems with the "Pope Joan" story to believe it. For one thing, the dates never add up. Historians have never been able to pin down exactly when she would have lived, and the earliest sources referencing the legend all seem to disagree on the date.

More importantly, the very idea of "Pope" Joan is impossible- "Antipope", perhaps, but not "Pope". For a woman to be a Pope is a metaphysical impossibility- the prohibition on a woman holding the position isn't just a matter of administration, it's considered a fixed reality, akin to the law of gravity. Even if the entire college of cardinals voted today to establish a woman as "Pope", she could never hold the position, by the mere fact of being a woman. If a woman claimed to be Pope, or was claimed to be a Pope by others, the best she could do is "Antipope"- a false Pope.

Yes, it's possible that people could have mistaken a woman for a man, but upon discovery of said "Pope"'s true gender, the Church would have immediately declared the entire Papal reign invalid! No such action was ever documented to have occured because a "Pope" was revealed to have been a woman. There HAVE been Papal reigns declared invalid, for various reasons, but all of those are well-documented and highly public cases.

There's also no explanation for why this story didn't seem to cause any sort of stir until hundreds of years after it allegedly took place. The revelation of a female "Pope" would have caused an unprecedented theolical mess. If she had "ordained" any bishops, their ordinations would have become invalid, and any pronouncements she had made would have been rescinded. The simple fact is that such changes could not have avoided major documentation. Far from attempting to "hide" or "cover up" Antipope Joan, the Church would have been forced to bring it into the open and deal with the major problems created by it.

Even if you accept the (preposterous) legend as true, the idea that there ever was a "Pope" Joan is manifestly false. The best we could possibly do is Antipope Joan, and there's no evidence of that.
Posted by Dano  on  Fri Nov 10, 2006  at  01:49 PM
I meant "theological" not "theolical".

Anyway, just to restate my main point, the Church has always acknowledged the existence of Antipopes, because their "reigns" cause severe problems if they go unaddressed. I don't see why Antipope Joan would be any different. If someone like Joan existed, the problems of not addressing her existence would be far, far greater than the problems that might be caused by addressing it. An invalid Papal reign is not a matter that can be swept under the table, even if some parties might want to do so.
Posted by Dano  on  Fri Nov 10, 2006  at  01:59 PM
if this was a reality,why did it come out after almost 600 years?this is just a fabrication of of those who oppose catholism.
Posted by lubwama steven  on  Sat Dec 09, 2006  at  07:10 AM
The Catholic Church would naturally go to great lengths -- including 'rewriting' history -- to obliterate the fact that women were, indeed, capable, competent, and effective leaders. These are the same people, mind you, who burned midwives and healers at the stake because their knowledge of the healing arts [and even the Old Ways] was a dcirect threat to the near-total rule of the Church. I, for one, wouldn't trust a thing that comes out of the Vatican, or any other religious stronghold.
Posted by wmdkitty  on  Mon Apr 02, 2007  at  09:06 PM
Dude, what's with all this crap being posted by the likes of Jonathan? "Reading too many CHICK publications." CHICK is a bunch of bull, anyone who THINKS FOR THEMSELVES knows that. The Catholic pawns need to stop posting their revisionist propaganda here, and the rabid anti-catholic crap needs to stop.

The evidence is shaky, sure, but that's why Joan is so interesting. The evidence I've seen is as follows.

The discrepancies in timelines given may well be unavoidable, as we do not have a full historical record.

The Catholic Church is known for cover-ups and denials of both historic people and events, as well as revising the facts to suit their purposes. [This is how the Burning Times happened. Midwives and healers were no longer respectable people, but deemed witches who consort with the Devil, all on the say-so of the Church.]

These facts bring me to one conclusion: if indeed there was a Pope Joan, the Church is likely to have spread all kinds of disinformation, and eradicated her from all records. At that point, they could take the official "She never existed" position, and point to their revised records and say that she's just a myth. The evidence is inconclusive either way.

Until history proves me wrong, I believe she was real.

I think, fictional or not, she still provides a fine example of a strong woman; she went against society in a time when women were little more than property.
Posted by wmdkitty  on  Mon Apr 02, 2007  at  09:25 PM
I would say that it is possible, not necessarily probable, but it's hard to totally discount the idea. Women of the time weren't as downtrodden and scorned as people seem to think. During college I took several courses on Women in Medieval Europe and there were more than just a few instances of women in high positions (such as Abessess, initially there were women Bishops, but after a while one of the conferences revoked that) in the church who were respected by the male members of the religion. I think that it is an interesting theory, but I wouldn't say yea or nay to it at this point. I'm no stranger to research, and I would need to see primary documents on this one to buy into it, and since those would be very hard to come by, I'll just say that it is interesting.
Posted by Naomi  on  Thu Apr 19, 2007  at  06:43 PM
"The Catholic Church would naturally go to great lengths -- including 'rewriting' history -- to obliterate the fact that women were, indeed, capable, competent, and effective leaders. These are the same people, mind you, who burned midwives and healers at the stake because their knowledge of the healing arts [and even the Old Ways] was a dcirect threat to the near-total rule of the Church. I, for one, wouldn't trust a thing that comes out of the Vatican, or any other religious stronghold."

This statement betrays a knowledge of history based on reading sources about as credible as "Chariots of the Gods". Try finding reliably researched historical evidence for your claims, and try finding rational defenses for your bizarre suspicion of Vatican documents.
Posted by Dano  on  Sun May 06, 2007  at  10:39 PM
"[This is how the Burning Times happened. Midwives and healers were no longer respectable people, but deemed witches who consort with the Devil, all on the say-so of the Church.] These facts bring me to one conclusion: if indeed there was a Pope Joan, the Church is likely to have spread all kinds of disinformation, and eradicated her from all records. At that point, they could take the official "She never existed" position..."

First, a reputable source on the so-called "Burning Times":

"The figure Starhawk cited
Posted by Dano  on  Sun May 06, 2007  at  10:54 PM
"initially there were women Bishops, but after a while one of the conferences revoked that"

This is modernist theological claptrap from progressive Catholic groups who want to get ordination for women. There were never any women Bishops (such a thing is metaphysically impossible, for one thing, but whatever you may think of the practice, that is neither here nor there). The title "Bishopess"- of which I have only personally seen ONE example, though a precious few others may have existed- was purely an honorific title that mirrored a secular practice of giving mothers of men in high status the same titles as their sons- for example, an Emperor's mother might be called "Empress", just as a bishops mother was called "Bishopess".


The other example I can think of is the tale of St. Brigid being "ordained" a bishop. Aside from the fact that in the tale presented, there are many reasons (aside from her being a woman) that would have rendered such an ordination invalid (no proper intent, for one thing), there is also no evidence that she ever performed any Episcopal duties. Finally, anyone familiar with the tales of the Irish saints knows quite well that they are often wildly absurd and utterly without basis in fact- great tales, but many of them aren't true.
Posted by Dano  on  Sun May 06, 2007  at  11:04 PM
Yes, this is about the level of scholarship we have in support of the Pope Joan myth. Because scholars cannot pin down every single year of every single Papal reign or prove beyond a doubt that every Pope was who he said he was, you are therefore entitled to believe in a preposterous and totally undocumented story with no basis in any know facts or a logical interpretation of history. Bravo.
Posted by Dano  on  Sun May 06, 2007  at  11:30 PM
I have a question: How old Pope Joan is supposed to have? Because if it worked like it works now, he/she should be an old guy/lady...

And an old lady who gives birth (without modern treatments), you think it's possible?

Me i think no, it's a Hoax.
Posted by Chemical  on  Sun Nov 04, 2007  at  02:24 AM
And also was she enough smart to hide her gender to the world during all her life, and not enough to simulate a fake illness to give birth in a secret place...? Enough stupid to ride a horse while being pregnant, and to give birth in the road in front of a lot of witness...? Hoax Hoax Hoax lol
Posted by Chemical part2  on  Sun Nov 04, 2007  at  02:59 AM
Hahaha, take that sexist catholics.
Posted by George  on  Sun Mar 09, 2008  at  05:36 AM
i heard that the pope after her needed to be name as pope john also so that the name of the catholic chhurch will no have dirt...
Posted by meetzie...  on  Sat Mar 15, 2008  at  04:50 AM
I just read a book recently called the Bedside Book of Bastards that, in tracing (I think) the history of the Borgias, mentioned one of their ancestors that, because of her machinations, ended up being the wife of the pope twice. When they were still allowed to be married, of course. I'll have to look it up again. But it was the Bedside Book of Bastards, I'm sure of that.
Posted by Darkneuro  on  Tue Mar 25, 2008  at  06:15 PM
I don't think there was ever any female pope. Swedish historian Dick Walther Harrison have said that she is a myth. He gives the same reasons for it as listed in the English-language version of Wikipedia:


Dick also pointed out the different versions vary too much be credible. Did she live in the 9th, 11th or 12th century? Was she revealed shortly after being elected or did she rule for a couple of years? Was she lynched or not? Variations of such important parts indicate there being no foundation on fact whatsoever.
Posted by Lena Synnerholm  on  Thu Jun 06, 2013  at  10:52 AM
It's been largely discredited, first off by Protestant historians.

However, even if there had been a Pope Joan, it would not undermine the idea of apostolic succession, properly understood. There is no claim of "an unbroken line" from Peter to the present... how could there be? Every time a pope resigns or dies, there is an interregnum. The longest was 3 1/2 years, longer than the purported papacy of Joan, so at worst, the church would consider her an invalid bishop, and that the See of Rome had been vacant those two years. No problem.
Posted by AJ Boyd  on  Tue Dec 02, 2014  at  12:44 PM
Pope Joan... What if it were all true?

The so-called “legend” of Pope Joan might not be a medieval tale. Since more than a millennium the story of a woman ascended to the papal throne during the ninth century, disguising herself as a man, is passed off as a fabrication whose purpose was to throw discredit upon the Catholic Church. According to this “tale”, after two years of pontificate Joan would have been unmasked because of the premature birth of her baby, occurred while she was leading a procession through the roads of Rome and then stoned to death by the faithful that were attending the ceremony. Roughly one thousand two hundred years later, Pietro Ratto - teacher of history and philosophy, journalist and writer - publishes his striking Le Pagine strappate - Ripped pages (editor Elmi’s World). This original book narrates about Ratto’s fascinating research on a copy in vernacular of Delle vite dei Pontefici (About Popes lives) dated 1552 by Bartolomeo Sacchi known as “Platina”, and his comparative analysis of this ancient text and two later versions of the same book: one dated 1562, written in latin and the other one dated 1650, written in vernacular, both subject to the revision of the Vatican’s Library director, Onofrio Panvinio. Thanks to the comparison of the three editions Ratto discovers the evidence of the deceit - such as the revision of dates and Popes’ names of the two following centuries - used by the Catholic Church to make thinner and thinner the differences between the 1552 version and the 1650 one starting from the death of Lion IV (885) till the final realignment of the chronologies, obtained with the consecration of Benedict IX, in December 1032. All measures taken in order to reabsorb Joan’s two-years pontificate in an attempt to erase from history the unbearable outrage of a woman on the papal throne.

Pietro Ratto, Le pagine strappate, Elmi's World.
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/PagineStrappate?ref=hl
Posted by IN-CONTRO/STORIA  on  Sat Dec 20, 2014  at  10:12 AM
Your comment here oops! i'm short of words. My first question is "if really pope Joan or pope john ever existed, during the time of her pregnancy their must surly be sign that the so called male pope is actually a she pope." my second question "if all this tale is a lie or true, why did the catholic church accept her existence later denied the allegations. Their is an evidence of truth or lie in the whole story, come to think if it, who was the man that impregnated her? The names of the man was not mentioned in any of the manuscript i read. I'm a curious person in need fat and concrete evidence
Posted by Stanley ueleifo  on  Wed May 27, 2015  at  03:19 PM
Well Catholics can be led to believe anything the Church tells them.
Including the Shroud of Turin which is actually the burial shroud of a 12th century crusader knight who died in the Levant and was an ancestor of the House of Savoy the royal family who bought it from a lesser descendant of his brother!

Look at his hands in the image! He was holding his sword when they buried him! Every knight is buried with his sword and his is actually kept in the royal armory in Turin, Italy next to the Chapel of Saint John where the shroud is kept which is the same exact name as the Chapel he was originally buried in in the Levant!

Now, the real mystery is...how was the image produced? I know.
Posted by Justan American  on  Thu May 28, 2015  at  07:44 PM
Even if a woman was a pope under deception, who do you blame? The deceiver or the deceived

Posted by James  on  Sat Aug 20, 2016  at  08:58 AM
There has always been literature of women posing as men so they could study. As we know writers take their inspiration from reality. For instance Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, or What You Will portrays Viola dressing as a man. Why would William Shakespeare could write something like that if he thought it could not have happened? In modern lit. (we will take a script as a form of play) we have Yentl by Barbra Streisand where a Jewish girl of the same of the play dresses as a boy to study the holly scriptures. Just One of the Guys (1985 film) Terry posses as a boy to enter a writing contest. Even in anime we have Ribbon no Kishi, pioneer in the shōjo genre that portrays a young princess raised as a boy that disguises her/him self as a masked vigilante.
If you ask me I think the chances are high of more than one woman posing as a man in the search of knowledge of freedom.
Posted by Vilka  on  Fri Jan 27, 2017  at  01:01 AM