Pope Joan: The Woman Who was Pope


For today's installment of fan mail Monday, podcast listener SooWan asks us to investigate the infamous legend of Pope Joan. According to the legend, the Catholic Church once instituted a pontiff who was not only female, but very pregnant. Talk about breaking the glass ceiling. But, is there anything to this legend? Unlike the fishy Catholic myth I investigated a little while back, this one has many seemingly legitimate (and very old) sources. In fact, back in the 14th and 15th centuries, most everyone believed in the legitimacy of the myth, according to New Advent.

Encyclopedia Britannica points to the 13th-century French Dominican Stephen of Bourbon as one of the earliest references. In his version, a nameless, pregnant woman was elected pope around 1100. After giving birth during a procession, the people stoned her to death. The next important source is the 13th-century Polish Dominican Marin of Troppau, who wrote that the woman actually died and was buried on the spot where she gave birth. This is supposedly the reason why subsequent papal processions avoided that street.

Various sources use different names for her in addition to Joan, such as Agnes, Gilberta and Jutta, and estimate her date of election in 855, not 1100. Some versions say that she dressed in men's clothing to follow her lover, a Benedictine monk, to Athens and Rome. During this time, she acquired such a good education that she eventually became a cardinal and then pope.

No one questioned the legend until after the Protestant Reformation, when scholars (particularly Calvinist David Blondel) started investigating the matter and found that it was fiction. Modern scholars agree, and New Advent points to a lack of contemporary references and lack of a gap in papal history as two big holes in the story. So, it turns out that this myth is almost definitively busted.

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