Because celibacy is such a fundamental and controversial aspect of Catholicism, it's not surprising that the Catholic hierarchy would scoff at any possibility of the existence of a female pope. After all, you wouldn't want a woman around to tempt the celibate men. Nevertheless, the legend of Pope Joan, a woman pope, has swirled around the church for centuries.
While Joan's tenure in the ninth century is generally perceived as an unsubstantiated legend, the analysis used to dismiss her existence would also dismiss much of papal history as well. There are numerous accounts of the existence of a female pope, and for hundreds of years, Pope Joan was actually celebrated with a statue in the cathedral at Siena. Eventually, the Vatican would shrug off the possibility of a female pope as mere folklore, but scholars still debated her existence well into the twentieth century. Pope Joan continues to fascinate historians and curious history-buffs alike, and has been the subject of many dramatic works, including two high-profile films. Read on to discover more fascinating facts about the legend of Pope Joan.
Several ancient historians have written about Pope Joan, her origins, and her biography. None of these accounts are in complete agreement, but there are some commonalities in their description of a woman who eventually became a pope.
Most notably, historians note that women weren't typically allowed to study or even leave their homes in the early to mid-9th century. But, during this time a young woman named Johanna is said to have masqueraded as male and gained entry to a monastery in Mainz, Germany. Here, she would learn Greek and Latin and other aspects of a classical education. Allegedly, she then fell in love with a fellow monk, and followed him to Athens and ultimately Rome.
Historical evidence suggests that, once she arrived in Rome, Joan quickly ascended the ranks of the church. Martin Polunus, a monk who wrote a major work about this time period entitled History of Emperors and Popes, claimed that Joan initially assumed the title of "John Anglicus," or English John. Because of her education and ambition, "John" was able to climb the ladder of the Catholic church hierarchy, first as a secretary to a curia, then as a cardinal. She was finally elected pope in 855 CE.
Pope Joan, who was officially named Pope John, allegedly presided as pope as a man for over two years before her secret came to light. Involved in a customary procession from St. Peter's Basilica, Pope Joan reached a spot between the Colosseum and St. Clement's Church on a road known as the "Via Sacra" or "Sacred Way." Having become pregnant during her tenure as a result of a liaison with a companion, she was suddenly seized by labor pains, collapsed, and gave birth in the middle of the street.
What happened next differs according to the source. Some chroniclers have her dying as a result of this debacle, some have her being shunted off to a convent, and others have her being stoned to death on the spot by an angry mob, outraged by her duplicity. Most accounts claim that her child, a son, eventually became a bishop. There is some anecdotal evidence for this story: some claim that the pope historically avoids this spot, known as the "shunned street," when on a procession nearby.
It was rumored that, for many centuries, a potential pope had to sit in an an ornate, marble chair with a hole cut into it, much like a toilet lid. This chair, known as the "sedes stercoraria," was used in a process described by Vatican Library prefect Bartolomeo Plalinie in 1471:
"... when the popes are first enthroned on the seat of Peter... their genitals are felt by the most junior deacon present."
Although the church has denied the practice ever existed, it is clear that this step in the papal election process would insure that no interlopers like Pope Joan would ever ascend to the pontiff. Any such chair has been removed from public view and is believed hidden away in the Vatican museum.