Pope Joan Biography

Religious Figure, Pope, Folk Hero
Pope Joan is a Medieval religious leader believed by some to have been a female pontiff who reigned over the Roman Catholic Church, who dismisses her as myth.

Synopsis

Pope Joan is a Medieval religious leader believed by some to have been a female pontiff who reigned over the Roman Catholic Church, who dismisses her as myth. She allegedly assumed the name John Anglicus, disguising herself as a man and eventually becoming pope. It is believed that her story was discovered when she gave birth to her child, which led to her immediate execution.

Profile

Medieval religious leader. Pope Joan is believed by some to have been a female pontiff who reigned over the Roman Catholic Church for a short time in the mid-800s. But her existence has been dismissed by the church as purely a myth. Still others point to evidence in documents and artwork that indicates a woman once held the highest position in the church.

It is thought that she grew up in Mainz, Germany, and studied Greek and Latin at a monastery founded by English missionaries. At the time, girls were not educated so Pope Joan may have disguised herself as a boy in order to pursue her studies. She allegedly fell in love with a monk and went with him to Athens disguised as a fellow monk. Assuming the name John Anglicus, she later moved to Rome. A talented scribe, she worked as a papal notary and rose up the ranks within the Vatican, eventually becoming a cardinal.

Elected pontiff around 855, Pope Joan supposedly reigned as Pope John VIII. Sources vary on the length of her time at the helm of the church from a few weeks to more than two years. Some theorized that her term came between Pope Leo IV and Benedict III. Unfortunately, according to the stories, her secret was uncovered during a papal procession. Pregnant at the time, Pope Joan was on her way to the Church of the Lateran in Rome when she began having contractions. Learning that the pope was having a baby, the people reacted in horror. Most reports indicate that she was killed that day, either by stoning or by being dragged behind a horse. Later popes avoided the crossroads where Pope Joan was supposedly killed, which was called the Vicus Papissa, or street of the female pope.

For centuries, the mystery of Pope Joan has lingered. Author Donna Woolfolk Cross spent seven years researching the female pontiff mystery and the related time period for her historical novel Pope Joan (1996). She told ABC??s Primetime Live that she believed that Pope Joan was a real person based on the material available, having found ??over 500 chronicle accounts of her existence.?? Mentions of Pope Joan can be found in a book by poet Giovanni Boccaccio and many other sources and images of a female pontiff can be seen in numerous artworks, including sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini at the Basilica in St. Peter??s Square.

A feature film about this legendary figure is reportedly in the works, based on Cross??s novel.

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