Pope Joan – Legend and Legacy

Faithful Through the Ages

Pope Joan – Legend and
That a woman would sit in the papal
throne is not so inconceivable in light of
the fact that some popes in this
era were unordained teenagers. Furthermore,
women often held an honored place
in the church, sometimes, like Lioba,
overseeing large monastic

John Anglicus was reportedly an English scientist who
relocated in Rome and
gained a reputation for erudite scholarship. His status
and renown paved the
way for church office. Indeed, the scientist soon became
a cardinal and, with
the death of Pope Leo IV, was elevated to the papacy in
853. All went well
until one day, while in procession to the Lateran from St.
Peter’s Basilica,
the carriage was forced to make a quick stop while the pope
gave birth to a
baby “in a narrow lane between the Coliseum and St Clement’s
church.” One of
the earlier sources tells the story with a slightly different
slant. She
“disguised herself as a man and became, by her character and
talents, a curial
secretary, then a cardinal, and finally pope. One day,
while mounting a horse,
she gave birth to a child.”

Following the
birth, the narrative is muddled. Pope John VIII, who was
actually Pope Joan,
reigned for less than three years. But when she was found
to be disguising
herself as a man, there was no mercy. By one account she was
tied by the feet
and dragged over the cobblestones while citizens of Rome
stone her to death.
She was then buried at the very spot where she gave
birth—the whereabouts of
the baby unknown. She was not “placed on the list of
the holy pontiffs, both
because of her female sex and on account of the
foulness of the matter.”
Another version suggests a more humane post-partum
ending. She was secreted
away to an undisclosed convent, where she repented
and raised her son, who
grew up to become bishop of Ostia.

From the thirteenth century into the
Renaissance, the report of Pappess Joanna
was widely disseminated—in one
instance to defend a pope who was a heretic. If
being a woman does not
disqualify one from being pope, so the argument went,
why should heresy?
Although the church officially denied the account, the
rumors persisted—one
asserting that for a time there was a statue near the
Lateran called “The
Woman Pope with Her Child.” Likewise, the church was
rumored to be so nervous
about the possibility of electing another woman pope
that the chair used for
the papal consecration was designed with a hole so
that an inspector can
verify gender with certainty. Sixteenth-century
Reformers used the story to
disparage the church. Since that time the account
of the female pope has
continued to resurface, but it is generally considered
to be no more than a
fascinating, albeit false, story.

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