This apocryphal Middle Ages pope said to be a woman in disguise probably never existed.
by Brian Dunning
March 12, 2013
Has the greatest coverup of all time been successfully accomplished? That's the question we're going to try and answer today. If true, the Roman Catholic Church had a female pope, sometime around the year 1100, give or take a century or two. No women appear in the list of historical popes, so is it possible that the Church could have doctored all the many historical records? That seems to be an impossible task, given the number of historians worldwide and the number of manuscripts written. So let's take a look at these manuscripts and see if Pope Joan was real.
The earliest known reference to Pope Joan comes from a Middle Ages document, the best-known publication of which was made in Germany in 1874. It was the Archiv der Gesellschaft fur altere deutsche Geschichte, the Archives of the Society for Old German History. It records a portion of the chronicle of the Diocese of Metz, the Chronica universalis Mettensis, written in the early 1200s by the Dominican historian Jean de Mailly. He did not give many details, but he wrote the following (my own rough translation of the original Latin is given):
A popess was not included in the catalog of Roman pontiffs, who was a woman pretending to be a man. She was sufficiently talented that she became a notary of the court, then a cardinal, and then pope. One day she was climbing onto her horse when she gave birth to a child. Immediately, her feet were bound to the tail of the horse, and she was dragged and stoned by the people. She was buried on that spot.
There do not seem to be any known writings that mention the "popess" during the ensuing century or more, which is odd. But, very soon after de Mailly's account, the story was repeated by the Dominican Etienne de Bourbon, whose specialty was as an historian of heresies — for which Pope Joan would certainly qualify. Bourbon gave the year of the event as 1099.
Shortly thereafter, the lady pope appeared in print again, this time in a list of Roman popes and emperors. It was published right around 1300, some 20 years after the death of its author, who was yet another Dominican chronicler, Martin von Troppau, known as Martinus Polonus. The work, Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum (Chronicle of Popes and Emperors) corroborates de Mailly's account. Martin fleshed out the story a bit, but from where he could have gotten his additional details is not known. A frequently published translation says:
John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the papacy of one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers. There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and afterwards in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city, and she was chosen for pope. While pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St Peter's to the Lateran, in a lane once named Via Sacra (the sacred way) but now known as the "shunned street" between the Colisseum and St Clement's church. After her death, it is said she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the holy pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter.
The obvious thing to do, it would seem, is to look at the historical record of popes and see if there's a gap matching Martin's two years, seven months; and when we do, we find a very enticing tidbit. The record of popes named John skips over John XX. There's a John XIX whose reign ended in 1032, and a John XXI who began in 1276. The timing does work for Pope John XX to have fallen from his horse in 1099 and been discovered to have been a woman. Did the Church close this gap with a false history to erase the heretical Joan from its records?
Interestingly, it's a fairly muddy topic; it might not have been so hard after all for a pope to have gone missing from the records. Circa 1100 was a difficult time for the papacy; there wasn't just one pope. A series of "antipopes" were seated at the same time, who were competing claimants with significant support. Officially, Blessed Urban II reigned from 1088 to 1099 and was succeeded by Paschal II who reigned from 1099 to 1118, leaving no gap for a John XX. But around that same time, Clement III was also considered pope from 1080 to 1100, succeeded by Theodoric from 1100 to 1102 and Aleric from 1102 to 1105, and so on. In summary, it's not absolutely necessary for there to have been a gap in the record for a pope named John XX, later discovered to be Joan, to have been considered pope, at least by some chroniclers.
But it is pretty unlikely that Joan could have become pope without being disguised as a man. The laws of the Catholic Church are set forth in the Code of Canon Law. The Canons make only a single reference to papal eligibility, and it's found in Canon 349. This is the entirety of the law governing who can become a pope:
The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college which provides for the election of the Roman Pontiff according to the norm of special law. The cardinals assist the Roman Pontiff either collegially when they are convoked to deal with questions of major importance, or individually when they help the Roman Pontiff through the various offices they perform, especially in the daily care of the universal Church.
Basically, the Canons provide only that the pope be some person who is elected by the College; and so, at a glance, there is no law making women ineligible to be elected pope. But note that phrase "according to the norm of special law". Special law? Special law, it turns out, refers to rules that are not included in the Canons. The Church can make edicts and constitutions, as can the pope, that supplement the Canons. And a whole raft of declarations have been made, many contradicting each other, any of which can be interpreted as having to do with who is eligible to become a pope.
In the year 769, some 200 or 300 years before Pope Joan is said to have ruled, a Roman synod mandated that only Roman clerics were eligible to be pope; but that if necessary, a non-Roman cleric could be considered. In 1069, Pope Nicholas II reinforced this, stating that a candidate could be selected from outside the Roman church only if a suitable Roman priest or deacon could not be found. At that time, about a quarter of the popes were not cardinals — a tradition since abandoned, as for the last 600 years, the college of cardinals has always selected a new pope from among their own ranks. Although the pope is the "Bishop of Rome", he need not necessarily be a bishop at the time of his election. If he's a priest or deacon, he must be at least 25 years old, according to Canon 1031, whereas Canon 378 says you have to be 35; and various mandates have arisen saying that you have to be a priest to be made a cardinal, or some other such complication. Pope John Paul II ruled that the college of cardinals must all be under 80 years old, which limits the age of the pope in practice, if not in the letter of the law.
Similar rules require that only men be allowed to become priests, and so while neither the Canons nor special law appear to explicitly prohibit women from becoming a pope, sufficient special law existed throughout the centuries when Pope Joan is said to have lived that prohibited women from attaining the prerequisite ranks of priest or deacon.
During the full century and a quarter or so between the time that Joan fell from her saddle and de Mailly wrote of her, not a single surviving account exists of such an earth-shaking event. This makes it essentially impossible — for all practical purposes — for Pope Joan to have been either the real pope or a competing antipope who was well known enough to be among those who were chronicled.
Perhaps John (or Joan) was a minor pope among the antipopes, one who escaped the notice of all historians of the day. If true, then all we can say about de Mailly's account is that we don't know where he got it. Perhaps it came from a chronicler who was himself inconsequential, and his own writings did not survive beyond de Mailly's time. Another interesting possibility was raised by several historians in the 1600s: Joan could have been a satirical figure. Some popes, notably John XII, had mistresses. What if one of these ladies had risen to a position of some social influence? When Bill Clinton was President of the United States, there were so many jokes about his wife Hillary actually running things that it makes perfect sense for 12th century wags to refer to a mistress by name as the "real" pope.
Whether either of these possibilities was the case, a century had gone by before de Mailly and the others wrote about them. Jokes and minor popes might well have not made it into long-lasting important chronicles, and these authors may not have had the documentation to be able to tell real history from either a satirical Pope Joan or a minor antipope.
What about that missing Pope John XX? The explanation given for this is that there is some confusion over whether John XIV was one pope or two (a pope and an antipope both named John XIV in the late 10th century), thus the numbering from XV to XIX was wrong. There were also at least three antipopes named John over the centuries. In 1276, Pope John XXI skipped XX in order to correct the error and set the record straight. If there was a church-wide conspiracy to suppress the history of Pope Joan, aka John XX, the logical step would have been to correct the error in the other direction and make sure that John XX was accounted for by a man. It also seems inconsistent with a conspiracy for the Church to allow prominent Dominican chroniclers such de Mailly, Bourbon, and Martin to freely write about her and have their works preserved by the Church.
Whatever the facts, the absolute answer to whether there was a Pope Joan is lost to history, but I think it's best to err on the side of the null hypothesis. It's improbable that a woman in such a rank could have kept her gender a secret for so much of her life, but it strains credibility that an event like the pope turning out to be a woman — and her subsequent execution — evaded being recorded by all but a scant handful of writers. For now, Pope Joan is best left where most historians consider her: in the fiction aisle at your local German bookstore.
Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly translated Geschichte as "stories" when in this context it should be "history".
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Pope Joan." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
12 Mar 2013. Web.
21 Jul 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4353>
References & Further Reading
Catholic Church. Codex Juris Canonici / Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition. Washington, D.C.: Canon Law Society of America, 1983.
de Mailly, J. Chronica universalis Mettensis. Hanover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1874. 469-473.
Guruge, A. "The Minimum Age to be a Pope." Papam: All About Papal Elections. Anura Guruge, 19 Mar. 2009. Web. 8 Mar. 2013. <http://papam.wordpress.com/2009/03/19/the-minimum-age-to-be-a-pope/>
Holy See. Annuario Pontificio 2012. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012. 12.
Knight, K. "Pope Joan." Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent, 18 Jan. 2000. Web. 8 Mar. 2013. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08407a.htm>
Lord, L. "The Lady Was a Pope: A Bestseller Revives the Outlandish Tale of Joan." US News and World Report. 24 Jul. 2000, Volume 129, Number 4.
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