The Story of the First Female Pope: Pope Joan

What’s that you say, you never knew there was a female pope? Well, considering the powerful machinery of the papacy, that comes as little surprise. Not that the Catholic Church is alone in officially casting doubt on the story of Pope Joan; many secular scholars believe it to be more a case of legend than fact. But, since much of Catholicism’s contribution to the history of religion is imbued with the same amalgamation of truth and half-truth and untruth, that is probably as it should be. The story of Pope Joan begins in AD 818, with the birth of a woman named Joan in the town of Mainz. Joan was said to possess both great beauty and great intelligence. She was perhaps a bit precocious as well since she fell madly in love with a monk when she was a mere twelve years old, following the object of her desire into his monastery and pulling a Yentl so as to disguise herself as a dude. She took the name John Anglicus and, allegedly, studied hard during the daylight hours and loved passionately at nightfall. Even if it isn’t a true story, that’s the making of a great movie right there. Am I right?

Eventually, John Anglicus was discovered for what she was and both she and her lover were forced to flee. Their route of choice might well be expected: directly toward the Holy Land. But something happened along the way, as often does in road movies like this story would make; Athens, Greece saw the disappearance of the monk and Joan making her decision to continue onward alone, still hiding behind the cloak of a monk. To pay for her passage, Joan would take jobs as a teacher, which was when her notoriety began to grow. Her students admired her passionate devotion and the breadth of knowledge she displayed. Soon, respected Catholic cardinals were espousing the great genius of this mysterious man and the court of the Vatican was receiving word that a truly impressive theologian was in their midst. And then, in AD 855, Pope Leo IV died. Joan was unanimously elected and took the title Pope John VIII.

It is important to remember, however, that Pope Joan was not just intellectually gifted, but was also a very sexual being. That part of her personality cut short her reign as Pope. Joan had taken her personal valet into her confidence, also making him her lover. In 857 after appearing before a large crowd at St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope John VIII led the procession toward the palace. In a narrow corridor between the Colosseum and the Church of St. Clement, the Pope suddenly stumbled and collapsed. As those around the Pope rushed to make sure everything was okay, they were astonished to watch a sight that must have shocked their faith to its very core: the Pope was giving birth! The mystery of the situation was quickly solved as it became more than apparent that this was not a Godly miracle of a man being able to bear a child, but was simply a case of a woman masquerading as a man.

Pope Joan probably wished she had been more of a freak of nature than a gifted woman in an era when such things were almost as frightening to the multitudes as it now. Both Pope Joan and her newborn infant were dragged away from the scene by outraged Christians and stoned to death. In case you are wondering if this incredible story could in any possible way actually be true, consider that there is a reference to Pope Joan as early as two 13th century books, The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and The Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors. Not only are there literary references to the story, but a statue of a woman clutching a child was erected in that alley between the Colosseum and the Church of St. Clement. Adding to the mystery is that for over two centuries, all subsequent Popes made a concerted effort to avoid leading a procession down that alleyway. Your belief may be cemented when you hear that a statue given the title Pope John VIII, a woman from England” was on display in the Siena Cathedral for over 200 years.

And then there is the Sella stercoraria, a specially constructed marble chair that was said to be situated in the Basilica of St. John Lateran. This chair, allegedly, was utilized during the enthronement ceremonies, specifically for the purpose of conducting a medical exam so as to determine the actual sex of the papal nominee.