Pope Joan

The Strange Tale of the Pope who gave Birth

A 15th-century illustration of Pope Joan giving birth during a papal procession.

In this day and age of sexual equality, the notion of a woman disguising herself as a man to gain entry into a male-dominated career will seem absurd and demeaning to today's liberated women, but there have been numerous cases of females dressing up as men to further themselves throughout history. One such example of an upwardly-mobile female transvestite was Dr James Barry, a dashing, handsome army surgeon who served in the West Indies, South Africa and India. In 1808 he was accepted as a medical student at Edinburgh University at the age of sixteen, and ended up as a prominent surgeon. When he died at the age of 73 on July 25th, 1865, many mourned the popular old man's passing. Then came the startling revelation when Dr Barry's body was stripped naked for the post-mortem examination. Dr Barry was in fact a woman. He had breasts and a vagina. Furthermore, the post-mortem revealed that 'Mr Barry' had given birth to a child in her youth, but what became of the scion is a secret that the unidentified woman took with her to the grave.
Another bizarre case of a woman masquerading as a man is said to have taken place around AD 864 at Rome. The first mention of this incredible and heretical tale is to be found in an obscure manuscript in the Vatican Library at Rome. In a yellow, timeworn tome that is now hidden from the light of day, a 9th century Roman scribe named Anastasius Bibliothecarius tells the story of a woman who, after passing herself off as a man - was elected Pope! The scribe's account is today classified by the Vatican as a blasphemous, apocryphal fable, but other writers after Bibliothecarius have also recorded more detailed accounts of 'Pope Joan' - as she was allegedly known.
In the 11th century, Martinus Scotus, a monk from the Abbey of St Martin of Cologne in Germany, wrote:

In AD 854, Lotharii 14, Joanna, a woman, succeeded Leo, and reigned two years, five months, and four days.

A 12th century scribe known as Sigebert de Gemlours, also writes of the controversial event:

It is reported that this John was a female, and that she conceived a child by one of her servants. The Pope, becoming pregnant, gave birth to a child, whereof some do not number her among the Pontiffs.

The 13th century scribe Stephen of Bourbon also alludes to the Pope Joan incident in his religious work, De septem donis Spiritu Sancti ('Of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit') but he was very reticent about the exact details of the story. The only reliable and detailed account of the Pope Joan episode is contained in the pages of Chronicron pontificum et imperatum ('The Chronicle of the popes and emperors'), written by the 13th century annalist Martin of Troppau. He writes:

After Leo IV, John Anglus, a native of Metz, reigned two years, five months and four days. And the pontificate was vacant for a month. He died in Rome. He is related to have been a female, and when a girl, to have accompanied her sweetheart in male costume to Athens; there she advanced in various sciences and none could be found to equal her. So, after having studied for three years in Rome, she had great masters for her pupils and hearers. And when there arose a high opinion in the city of her virtue and knowledge, she was unanimously elected Pope. But during her papacy she became in the family way by a familiar. Not knowing the time of the birth, as she was on her way from St Peter's to Lateran she had a painful delivery, between the Coliseum and St Clement's Church, in the street. Having died after, it is said she was buried on the spot.

And where is this spot where Joan was irreverently interred? It was said to have been indicated by a large stone slab, inscribed with a very concise summary of the blasphemous woman who laid beneath it. But because the stone was becoming an embarrassment to the church, Pope St Pius V (1566-1572) had it removed and broken up.
After the Pope Joan foozle, all papal candidates were forced to undergo a brief physical examination to prove their gender.
In 1557, a century after the advent of the movable type which had made the mass-production of books possible, the Catholic Church drew a list of censored writers and their books. One of the first scribes to appear on the list of prohibited books, or the Index Librorum Prohibitorum as it was officially known, was Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian writer. His book of one hundred licentious stories, The Lives of the Decameron, which took ten years to write, happened to mention the story of Pope Joan, and so the papacy immediately placed the book on the Index. Boccaccio later reissued a sanitised version of his epic tome, minus all the sinning monks and nuns, and the Council of Trent subsequently forgave him and struck the book off the Index. But with the Reformation in full swing, the Protestant pamphleteers saw the Pope Joan story as excellent propaganda, and error-laden printed accounts and word-of-mouth tales of the 'Popess' were soon circulating Europe, and with each telling of the story, the details became more sordid. In England, it was said that Joan's first lover had been a Benedictine monk, and her second paramour had been a cardinal, and she had ended up copulating with Lucifer himself. Because of the bitter anti-Catholicism that swept western Europe, the story of Pope Joan was distorted until it bore no resemblance to the original account, and as the Vatican is still withholding most of the intriguing references about the incident in its subterranean library, we simply don't have the necessary information which would enable us to determine if the female Pope ever existed.

All rights reserved. Tom Slemen. Copyright 2000.