Question: Were there women popes?

Marcy asks, “Were there women popes?”  

There is a dark legend in Church history, stemming from the 13th century, of a great scandal that occurred in Rome between the pontificates of Pope Leo IV (847-55) and Benedict III (855-58) (or in the first decade of the 1100s): A woman was somehow elected pope.  The story usually goes thus: A young woman entered a monastery disguised as a monk in order to study.  She took a lover, who moved her up through the rankings of the Church, so that she might be close to him.  Her reputation as a brilliant mind grew, and she was elected pope.  However, she kept her lover (or found another) because the legend continues with her becoming pregnant, hiding the signs of her pregnancy under her papal robes.  She managed to hide this minor detail for the entire length of her pregnancy until one day, during a procession from St. Peter’s on the Vatican to St. John Lateran, she gave birth, much to the shock and horror of the crowd.  She died in one way or another (some say she died in childbirth, others say the crowd killed her, others say she and the baby were burned alive, and one record even states that she was dragged around by a horse and stoned to death), and thus ends the sordid tale of Pope Joan (as post-Reformation Church critics would call her, though the earlier medieval manuscripts all refer to her by the name of “John”).  Her legacy remains, according to those who argue for her existence, in a statue on the Via San Giovanni in Laterano, the road that leads to St. John Lateran (late medieval guides for pilgrims mentioned the statue), in a bust in the cathedral in Siena, and in over 500 medieval manuscripts which mention the story, or at least reference a pope named Joan. 

Pretty convincing, huh?  Lots of historical documents, exact dates, and artistic representations seem to provide ample evidence that there was a woman who reigned as pope and lost the papal throne due to childbirth.  The integrity of the papacy is ruined!  The Catholic Church has lost its claim to authority! 

A closer look, however, proves the claims false.  There was no Pope Joan. 

Our examination of the claims concerning Pope Joan turns to two well-researched sources.  The first is very sympathetic to the Church, an article written by Dennis Barton over at Churchinhistory.org; the other comes from John Julius Norwich’s recent book Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (Random House, 2011), which is less sympathetic to Catholic history.  Both men come to the same conclusion: Pope Joan never existed. 

The earliest references to a female pope come from Jean de Mailly, a French Dominican who wrote the Chronica Universalis Metensis around the year 1250, who mentioned a female pope “who is not set down in the lists of popes or bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man” (quoted in Norwich, 64).  Mailly claims the whole female pope scandal occurred in 1099, historically when Pope Paschal II began his reign (Mailly postponed Paschal’s reign until 1106, cutting Paschal’s nineteen-year reign by seven years).  The other major source of the legend is another Dominican, Martin Polonus, who in his Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum wrote the most famous record of the female pope (he places her story between the papacies of Leo IV and Benedict III).  The earliest edition of Martin Polonus’ work does not include the story, however, and it seems that it was added after the monk’s death.  The story appears throughout the Middle Ages, repeated with little variation from Polonus’ work (Polonus had been a chaplain for Pope Clement IV, and had thus earned an air of authority in all things papal).  It is this story that inspired later interpretations of the legend. 

But the Polonus legend falls apart under any serious examination.  The time he gives for Joan’s reign, between Popes Leo IV and Benedict III, leaves Joan only two months to reign, from July 17 – September 29, 855 (this assumes, of course, the impossible: an instantaneous papal election).  This is clearly not enough time to do any/all of the activities attributed to Joan.  The historical circumstances surrounding the election of Pope Benedict (worthy in itself of a short blog post. . . ) were crazy enough without throwing a woman papal claimant into the mix. 

No contemporary historian or writer at that time mentions a woman pope; antipope Anastasius (who also tried to be pope in the confusion) makes no mention of her in the memoirs of his antipope reign.  Likewise, Benedict III’s successor, Pope St. Nicholas the Great, makes no mention of a woman papal claimant, even as antipope, and says he immediately succeeded Benedict, who immediately succeeded Leo.  Likewise, Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, no friend of the papacy and papal authority, refers to Pope Nicholas (with whom he was embroiled in a controversy known as the Photian Schism) as following Leo and Benedict in progression of the papal throne.  If he wanted to attack Nicholas’ authority, what better weapon could there be than a scandalous female pope.  No such mention exists in any of Photius’ writings.  In a similar story, Pope St. Leo IX, in the 1050s, wrote to and criticized Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople for allowing eunuchs to be patriarchs in the eastern half of Christendom.  This too easily allowed for women to sneak into the role of bishop, the pope argued; no counter-reply from Constantinople cited the shocking story of a woman pope.  There is simply not enough historical evidence that Pope Joan lived when she was supposed to have lived. 

But what of the multiple documents that refer to her existence?  Dennis Barton notes that all of these major works, from the 9th century through the early decades of the 13th century, do not mention the story of the female pope in their earliest manuscripts; mention of a female pope does not appear in copies of the documents before 1275.  It was after the publication of Martin Polonus’ story that these earlier documents included their own copy of Polonus’ account. 

Also, upon examining the medieval guides for pilgrims in Rome, one does not see any reference to the story of a woman pope nor the statue that marked where she supposedly gave birth until after 1377, when the papacy returned to Rome from France (definitely the topic of another post).  Perhaps the return of the popes sparked an interest in sensational stories, and a woman pope would fit perfectly into the pilgrims’ curious mindset.  As for the notorious sedes stercoraria, large porphyry thrones with a large hole in the seat supposedly designed to check if a pope was a man, there is no mention of their use in any of the papal ceremony texts of the Church. 

So there we have it.  The story of Pope Joan doesn’t add up.  She does not fit into the history of the papacy.  Her shocking story only appears in chronicles written 400 years after her supposed reign.  “Not one contemporary chronicler nor one letter written anywhere in Rome or Europe mentioned a pope who had given birth in public. Yet this would have been the news story of the age” (Barton, 3).   And, as John Norwich notes, “the best argument of all is the sheer improbability of a female pope, a long deception, a hidden pregnancy, a sudden birth in public” (Norwich, 70).  Thus settles the story of Pope Joan. 

So no, there has not been a female pope in Church history, nor can there ever be one, as the pope is a bishop, and therefore a priest, and since only men can be priests in the Catholic Church, there cannot be a female pope in the future. 

For further reading

Dennis Barton, “Pope Joan,” Church in History, (May 29, 2006), available at http://www.churchinhistory.org/pages/booklets/popejoan.pdf, accessed July 30, 2012. 

John Julius Norwich, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (New York: Random House, 2011), 63–70. 

Johann Peter Kirsch, “Popess Joan” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08407a.htm, accessed July 30, 2012. 

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One thought on “Question: Were there women popes?

  1. Bob Rose says:

    Very interesting. I read about Pope Joan in a book called the People’s Almanac… Of course, as a teenager I believed everything I read… Now, I’m a bit more of a skeptic…

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