There is no proof that there was a Pope Joan. However, there are things that make me (and maybe others) wonder. Legend has it that Joan was born Johanna in the 9th Century in Germany. She supposedly changed her name to John Anglicus
In this account the popess is placed about the year 1100. It is said that a woman, dressed as a man, became notary to the Curia, then cardinal and finally pope; that one day this person went out on horseback, and on this occasion gave birth to a son; that she was then bound to the tail of a horse, dragged round the city, stoned to death by the mob, and was buried at the place where she died; and that an inscription was put up there as follows: “Petre pater patrum papissae prodito partum“. In her reign, the story adds, the Ember days were introduced, called therefore the “fasts of the popess”.
However, there may be evidence of a woman pope. Let’s look at traces buried in ancient parchment, artwork and writings, even in tarot cards and a peculiar chair once used in a Vatican ritual before the pope was proclaimed.
Her story first appeared in histories written by medieval monks, but today the Catholic Church dismisses it.
“Ninety percent of me thinks there was a Pope Joan,” says Mary Malone, a former nun who wrote a history of women and Christianity.
Donna Cross, a novelist who spent seven years researching the time period, says the historical evidence is there. “I would say it’s the weight of evidence — over 500 chronicle accounts of her existence.”
Rare book dealers in Rome pull ancient tarot cards from their shelves. The card for hidden knowledge is “La Papessa” — the Female Pope. Baronius also wrote that the pope at the time decreed that the statue be destroyed, but some say the local archbishop didn’t want a good to statue go to waste.
At Siena to the Duomo, the cathedral has a collection inside of terra-cotta busts depicting 170 popes. In the 17th century, Cardinal Baronuis, the Vatican librarian, wrote that one of the faces was a female — Joan the Female Pope. Baronius also wrote that the pope at the time ordered the statue destroyed, but it is rumored that the local archbishop didn’t want to waste it.
“The statue was transformed,” believes Cross. “I mean, literally, it was scraped off, her name and written on top of Pope Zachary.”
At the Basilica in St. Peter’s Square are carvings by Bernini, one of the most famous artists of the 17th century. Among the carvings are eight images of a woman wearing a papal crown, and the images seem to tell the story of a woman giving birth and a baby being born.
She was killed after giving birth, though the story as to how are varied. In the decades that followed, the intersection was called the Vicus Papissa — the Street of the Female Pope — and for more than 100 years, popes would take a detour to avoid the shameful intersection. Polonus writes: “The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street … because of the abhorrence of the event.”
Many scholars say there were many women martyrs in that era, women who were tortured for their religious beliefs. And there were women who became saints while cross-dressing as monks.
St. Eugenia, for example, became a monk while disguised as a boy, and was so convincing she was brought to court on charges of fathering a local woman’s child. She finally proved her innocence only by baring her breasts in public.
“There are over 30 saints’ lives in which women dress as men for a variety of reasons, and with a variety of outcomes,” says Hotchkiss
But how do historians explain the enormous purple marble chair on which popes once sat as they were crowned. The chair has a strange opening, something like a toilet seat, reportedly used to check “testiculos habet” — or whether the pope had testicles. After looking underneath the chair, it was proclaimed, “The pope has testicles” in Latin. Now why would they need to do that if a woman had never been passed as a man? Protestants in the 1500s had a field day making fun of the chair, and so it was hidden from view.
In 1276 Pope JOHN XX changed his name to pope JOHN the XXI in official recognition of Joan’s reign as Pope JOHN VIII. Or were the Pope misnumbered? Whatever the reason there has never been a Pope John XX.
Uppity Women of Medieval Times by Vicki Leon