Pope Joan

Legendary female pope who supposedly reigned in the 9th, 10th, or 11th centuries as John VIII. The story began to spread in the 13th century, principally due to Dominican Martin of Troppau's Monumenta Germaniae Scriptores. His version, the most widely accepted, declared that Johannes Anglicus, a woman who dressed as a man, succeeded Leo IV from 855 and lasted two years. It was claimed that she was an Englishwoman, but was born in Mainz. She visited Rome, and her learning made a great impression. She was eventually made pope, but her real gender was discovered when she gave birth during a procession between the Colosseum and St Clements. She allegedly died on the spot and was buried there. That particular street was avoided during later papal processions. An earlier version of the legend states that she was dragged out of Rome and stoned to death.

The legend made its appearance in numerous literature, including works by Ranulf Higden, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. The name Joan was adopted in the 14th century, although other names were ascribed to her such as Agnes or Gilberta. By the 15th century, the legend was considered factual, and was even accepted by the Council of Constance in 1415. An ancient statue discovered near St Clement's, and an inscription which apparently referred to Pope Joan were destroyed on Pius VI's orders. A statue of her was included in Siena's cathedral.

The story began to be refuted in the 16th century.


1. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014.
2. Marthaler, B. L., exec. ed et al. New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edn, Vol 7. Detroit: Thomson/Gale; Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 2003.

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