A Chick in Pope’s Clothing


One legend I haven’t yet covered is that of Pope Joan, the only female Pontiff of the Catholic Church. The Church denies her existence, and the fact that records that do mention her were written long after the fact and can’t agree on when her reign was makes the story unlikely. The first known account appeared around 1250, in the work of a Dominican called Jean de Mailly. His story was that a woman disguised herself as a man in order to pursue scholarly pursuits in the Church (wasn’t there a Barbra Streisand movie kind of like that with Judaism?), rose up in the ranks, and was appointed Pope. While mounting a horse, she gave birth, and the angry crowd tied her to the horse’s tail and had her dragged around until she died, burying her on that spot.

Later tales add some details and contradict others. A more complete version reports that she was born in Germany to English missionaries, and fell in love with a monk who encouraged her to adopt her facade, which would explain how she came to be pregnant.

She gave birth while in a procession, and the spot where she was buried became a place where popes wouldn’t dare to tread. It’s sometimes said that she wasn’t executed right away, but rather exiled and imprisoned for some time. Her name was either Agnes or Gilberta, but the name she took as a man was Johannes Angelicus, so Joan or Johanna would have been the feminine version of that. Her reign seems to be most commonly dated to 855, after the death of Leo IV, under the name of John VIII. Even though the official record has it that Benedict III was appointed in 855, the legend has it that Joan ruled for as long as two years and seven months, but was erased from the record. Jean de Mailly’s account, however, dated her to the eleventh century instead of the ninth. After Joan was exposed, the Church was more careful to test whether popes were men, which was accomplished by making them sit in a chair with a hole for their testicles. There are actual chairs that look like this, but were probably intended for a different purpose.

Some say the tale was originally told with the female leader in Constantinople rather than Rome, and it’s also been speculated that it was simply a fanciful explanation for a statue in Rome of a woman with a baby. The legend became popular among Protestants, apparently because they thought the Catholic authorities being unable to recognize a woman made them stupid. I think it could actually be considered a point in favor for Catholicism, although they apparently didn’t treat her well after they found out about her deception. Maybe someday we’ll actually see a female pope.

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This entry was posted in Catholicism, Christianity, History, Religion, Urban Legends and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Chick in Pope’s Clothing

  1. Pingback: Nothing But a Pack of Cards | VoVatia

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