It’s an enticing tale: A precocious girl, Joan, growing up in the 9th century in Mainz, Germany, disguises herself as a boy so she can learn Greek and Latin at a monastery. She, still dressing as a male, eventually makes her way to Rome, where under the name of John she becomes the secretary to a cardinal. Impressed with her/his knowledge, the cardinals in 855 A.D. eventually appoint Joan-as-John the pope. But her reign doesn’t last long; in her third year as pope, Joan has become pregnant, and she ends up giving birth during a papal procession, and thus her secret is discovered. Depending on which tale you believe, Pope Joan and her baby are stoned after being drug by a horse, or she was sent to a convent where she raised her son, who eventually became a bishop.
The only problem with the story is that there’s no compelling evidence that it is true. It is little more than an urban legend, apparently spread not as a story of women’s empowerment or cleverness, but as a way of ridiculing the papacy or as a warning to women that they shouldn’t step outside their place.
Even so, you can go to Rome today and find supposed evidence of her existence — paintings, sculptures, ancient documents — even Vicus Papissa, the street where she supposedly gave birth. There are even old papal thrones with a hole in the seat, supposedly used so that cardinals could verify future popes’ manhood and prevent such a mistake from happening again. To this day, the purpose of the seat design is unknown.
The story was believed in many circles for centuries. The problem for historians, though, is that there are no contemporary documents even suggesting that there was such a person as Pope Joan. The earlier document comes from about 200 years later — but the notation about Pope Joan was not in the original scribe’s handwriting and probably was not written until centuries later. Although there are said to be about 500 ancient documents that mention or allude to Pope Joan, they generally were written some 400 years after her death. In light of how many enemies the papacy had during this time period, it is hard to imagine the critics not seizing on the story of Pope Joan centuries earlier if she had in fact existed.
Furthermore, the historical record is clear that there were no three-year gaps in the papacy where Pope Joan could have served. Benedict III became pope almost immediately after the death of Leo IV. There just wasn’t time for some rogue pope to have held the office for as long as Pope Joan supposedly did.
Even today the story gets attention, as a German-produced movie on Pope Joan is in the works. So why has the legend survived for so long? Part of the answer has to do with what makes many urban legends persist: We all like to heard about the rich and the powerful being bamboozled, and this story is a classic in that regard. Also, many urban legends are at least remotely plausible to those who know some of the facts — the papacy was nothing in the 800s like it is today, and more than one man acceded to the papal throne despite a history of scandal, so this tale might seem like just another in a series of papal shenanigans common to the era.
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