Peter was the rock on which Christ built his church, and from that crown has sprung a string of Popes, both worthy and unworthy of the title. The vicar of Rome is a crown which can only grace the head of a male, as tradition throughout the years has dictated. And yet somewhere among the bells and cathedrals is a tale that has been passed on throughout the years of a woman pope who defied the laws of the Church and ruled for just over two years. Regarded as fable or legend by the Catholic Church, the tale of Pope Joan has survived thousands of years. A woman, disguised as a man rises through the ranks to become Pope, only to have her true identity revealed through her delivery of a child. It seems far-fetched and false, but what if Joan really did exist? What if a woman was able to disguise her sex and allow her mind to prove her worthiness? Whether or not Joan did truly live, her tale has intrigued us and caused us to ask the question ‘what if?’.
A Humble Beginning
Because very little is known about Joan, her beginning in life is just speculation. In fact, we don’t even know what her real name was. Joan was given to her because it was a version of John, her name as Pope. However, her true name has been recorded as several different names, including Agnes, Gilberta, Margaret, and even Jutt. It is recorded that she was English, but from the German town of Mainz. Most likely her parents were English missionaries serving in Mainz, and Joan was born there around 818. All research confirms that Joan was a bright child and most likely encouraged to learn from her parents. Growing up in Mainz she was not far from Fulda, a town which hosted a monastery with a decent library. No doubt she spent much time visiting Fulda and the library there to increase her learning. The library would have been opened to her until the age of twelve. At twelve, the monastery would have forbid her entry, on account of her sex. It is at this time that it is believed Joan decided to become John and conceal her sex in the ambition of expanding her mind and possibly even gaining a position of power and learning. Whether or not the idea of Pope crossed her mind at this time is unknown.
Being educated and having missionaries as parents Joan would have been schooled in the history of Catholicism. Saints like Saint Pelagia, Saint Euphrosyne, and Saint Theodora may all have inspired Joan with the tales of their cross-dressing in attempts to escape gender roles for one reason or another. These women’s’ tales would have been the stories of Joan’s childhood and may have been the spark that led to the idea of escaping a lifetime of household chores and childbearing by dressing as a man. Joan’s deception began at twelve, the age she would have crossed from being seen as a child to being seen as a woman. The myth is that she fell in love with a monk and followed him into a monastery. The idea of this however contradicts the belief that Joan would want to escape her gender. Further, during this time priest were allowed to be married. If Joan was truly in love with this man, and he with her, she would have had a greater chance of being with him by maintaining her femininity and convincing her lover to become a priest and marry her. More likely Joan entered the monastery with a male who was willing to help her hide her true identity; potentially this was a man who saw Joan’s intelligence and potential and also did not wish it to be squandered because of her sex. The myth says that somehow Joan was found out and fled to Athens in 830. Whether she found out or simply realized she had learned all she could from her current location Joan journeyed to Athens. It is debated whether or not she had a companion at this time, but it is entirely possible that the same monk who helped Joan to enter into the monastery also went with her to pursue an education in Athens. In Athens Joan learned both Greek and Latin, a skill that would help her surpass her peers in the future. She also progressed greatly in the realm of sciences and was said to have no equal. All of these qualities would help her to stand out when she journeyed to Rome.
Rome: Land of the Pope
Joan ventured to Rome in the late 840s, most likely again realizing she had learned all she could in Athens. Joan is believed to have taught in a school in Rome and had many men of high influence as students. Word of a learned monk eventually made its way to the ears of the highest man in Rome, Pope Leo IV, and Joan soon became a favorite of his. Leo made Joan a cardinal and when Leo died in 855 Joan was unanimously made his successor. Joan’s reign is said to have lasted two years, seven months, and four days. Joan is recorded as writing the most prefaces to mass since Saint Ambrose. Besides this, little is recorded of her time on the papal throne. What is recorded is her death. The legend says that while enthroned Joan became pregnant by a companion. While travelling through the city of Rome she went into labor and delivered a child. Her demise and that of the baby is recorded in different manners. Some say she was stoned to death for her deception and her child along with her. It was said she was buried where she died. Other have Joan dying from childbirth but her son going on to live with monks and rising within the church himself. However she died, Joan’s reign was ended and her deception revealed for all to know. The Catholic Church was appalled and shunned the Via S Giovanni, the street the woman Pope gave birth on. Years later the statue of Joan was destroyed, her reign erased, and mention of her practically forbidden.
How was it possible?
Many wonder how a woman could impersonate a man for so long and not be discovered. The profession Joan chose made it easy to conceal her true sex. The outfits of the churchmen at the time, similar to current times, hid most of their body. Long sleeves would have concealed Joan’s feminine write and a hood would have hidden much of her face. At twelve, when Joan first entered the church, she may not have yet had a woman’s bodies. Females’ maturation of the body can occur as late as sixteen. Further, depending on how well fed Joan was she may never have really developed. If Joan did not eat regularly, as may have been encouraged with being in the church, her body’s development and her menstrual cycle may have been affected. It could be that Joan had a very irregular period with months where she did not have a period, which could explain how she could give birth in the street. She may not have realized she was pregnant, or more likely, not known when her child was due. One historian has even suggested that Joan’s situation and mental state may have caused a change in her hormones and suppressed her menstruation. If this was the case it would have been easy to disguise her sex, for no one would have reason to question it. There are many possibilities for how this woman hid who she truly was from a plethora of men, the easiest explanation being that the men had no reason to believe she was anything other than a man. After all, how could a woman ever devise such a nefarious plan? They were after all believed to be the weaker sex in all things, including intelligence.
Though the story of Pope Joan is still debated to this day and denied by the Catholic Church, the story has managed to survive the years. Joan lives on as an inspiration to novelist, movies, plays, and most importantly, women who wish to step out of the traditional role of their sex and aspire for something more.
Blackwood, Gary L. Legends or Lies? New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2006. Print. Pardoe, Darroll and Rosemary. The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan. Great Britain: Crucible, 1999. Print. Stanford, Peter. The Legend of Pope Joan. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998. Print.