Stupid Question ™
Feb. 21, 2005
By John Ruch
Q: Was there ever a female pope?
—Tracy, from the Internet
A: The short answer is, “No”—despite an 800-year-old legend that a woman masquerading as a man indeed beat Vatican sexism at its own game.
The long answer is more complicated, because the legend has gone through a strange progression of being strongly believed to strongly reviled and/or debunked, and then believed again in some circles. Almost no one, including modern Catholic historians, has written about it with objectivity.
I relied on Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe’s history “The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan” for much of what follows. It’s the only rational, in-depth study available.
The story first appears in obscure histories dating to the mid-1200s. They have an unnamed, highly-educated woman, dressed as a man for traveling purposes, being hired into the Vatican and eventually rising to pope around 1100. She is discovered when she becomes pregnant and inconveniently gives birth while mounting a horse for a public procession. A demon outs her, to boot.
The tale was later interpolated into the contemporary manuscripts of Martin of Troppau’s extremely influential history of the popes and Roman emperors. This slightly different and more elaborate version identified the woman as a German called “Johann Anglicus” (indicating an English connection), and further confused matters by placing the action in the 800s.
Other histories quickly picked up the story, too, adding various details and commentary, usually describing her death by stoning. She had some aliases, with Agnes being popular in the 1400s. “Johannes” or “Joan,” the feminized “Johann” or “John,” became popular in the late 1400s through the present.
There is no doubt that the story somehow was taken seriously by both the public and the Church. A bust of her—later removed—was included in a series of papal portraits in the cathedral of Siena, Italy around 1400.
And popular legend connected to her some type of statue, now lost, in a Roman street said to be the location of her unmasking, along with an inscription of unknown content and location. The elaborated legend was that the popes avoided this street due to the connection, and there appears to be some validity to that.
The legend did have its doubters, including the future Pope Pius II. However, the Church didn’t really change its tune until Protestant reformers in the late 1500s began making fun of the supposed female pope, which was held up as a sexist example of hypocrisy and corruption in the Church. It also incarnated the Protestant image of the Church as the “Whore of Babylon” and spun off other insulting legends, such as the pope being required to undergo a proof-of-sex display.
It didn’t help that many Catholics continued to believe the legend, forcing them to attempt to explain her as a hermaphrodite.
Ironically, it was Protestant authors, influenced by modern rationalism, who took the first shots at debunking the legend.
Women gaining power by dressing up as men was a motif of medieval storytelling. The Pardoes point out specifically that it’s an element of the legends of many women Catholic saints. They even found a similar legend, dating to about 980, about a woman ascending to a bishopric of the Eastern church that way; the tale apparently stuck in the imagination, being brought up in 1054 in a nasty letter to the Eastern church from Pope Leo IX.
The Pardoes suggest the woman pope legend—which first appears in histories written by Franciscan monks—was invented, based on pre-existing material, as part of potshots in an internal dispute between their order and Rome.
Why the story would be taken seriously and even embraced is another question. The setting around 1100 was credible, since there were several would-be popes vying for power (and short reigns for those who got it). Perhaps the warning to troublemaking women or anyone who would sneak into power was considered useful.
Interestingly, however, the idea of the woman pope seems to have been responded to positively in the 1400s, the same period in which its popularity appears to have peaked. Some sources credit the humanist movement for embracing papal equal opportunity.
While the popularity of the legend is mysterious, there is no doubt is simply a legend. There are no contemporary references to a woman pope or such a remarkable scandal. There isn’t even room in the currently acknowledged papal chronology to fit her in.
Things are now coming full circle among some feminists, who argue “Pope Joan” was real, her history now somehow censored by the Vatican. Her bust in Siena was indeed censored—one might say, properly edited out—during the Protestant controversy. But it takes a lot of wishful reading to locate her historically.
Likewise, some feminist sources refer to Maifreda (sometimes “Manfreda”) as a woman pope. She was a figure in a late-1200s Italian sect called the Guglielmites, which formed around a deceased woman preacher. The group supposedly plotted to overthrow the Roman Catholic Church and elected Maifreda as its would-be pope; the Inquisition had them all killed around 1300.
While Maifreda may have called herself a pope, that’s like me declaring myself president. The Guglielmites were a small group that never threatened the formal Catholic papacy.