There’s a narrow street in Rome on the route between the Lateran Basilica and the Vatican that for many years in the Middle Ages was shunned by the popes. Rather than chance journeying down its dark way, the pontiffs made certain that all processions went around it.
The reason the popes tried so hard to avoid one particular street? It was here, the story goes, the shocking discovery was made in the year 858 that Pope John VIII — who had already reigned for two years — was actually a woman.
How the papal court learned the truth was even more scandalous, for the female pope gave birth to a child while in procession to the Lateran and was promptly stoned to death.
According to the myth, this female pope, called forever after “Pope Joan,” was originally from Mainz, Germany, and had made her way to Athens as a young woman in the company of a lover. As she had a great aptitude for scholarship, she disguised herself as a man and became proficient in law, theology and philosophy.
Having won notoriety for her learning, she was soon invited to Rome where, still pretending to be a man, she was ordained and rose swiftly in the papal service. When Pope Leo IV died, she was promptly elected bishop of Rome around 855 and served for two years, seven months and four days before her true identity was revealed.
Her downfall was her love for an official in the Curia. She gave birth to his child before she could reach the safety of the Lateran Palace, where the newborn would be hidden from the eyes of the world.
Truth be told, of course, the tale of Pope Joan is an absolute fiction and has long been dismissed by all reputable scholars. Still, the spurious story has been believed by many people over the centuries, and, not surprisingly, it was adopted by Protestant polemicists in the 16th century to promote anti-papal sentiment. It has found new believers even today.
The simple fact is this: There’s not a single piece of historical evidence to support the claim that Joan ever existed or that there was ever a female pope. The very date of the hypothetical election makes the story easily dismissed, for the interregnum between Popes Leo IV and Benedict III was much shorter than two years (it lasted only a few weeks).
Then there is the curious fact that no legitimate historical source exists that mentions a woman pontiff until the middle of the 13th century, some 400 years later. Had such a scandal occurred, the many enemies of the popes during the Middle Ages would certainly have made great use of it.
The legend had its actual start not in the ninth century, when it allegedly happened, but in the 13th century, thanks to the flamboyant account of a female pope by two Dominican chroniclers, Jean de Mailly and Stephen of Bourbon.
The fairy tale was soon spread with greater embellishments through the writings of the Polish Dominican Martin of Troppau, later in the 1200s.
Much as it is today, once the lie was told, popular culture embraced it, and the idea of Pope Joan caught the imagination of writers, satirists and clowns in the medieval carnivals who lampooned popes and bishops to the amusement of the common folk.
With the start of the Reformation in the 16th century, the old urban legend was given new life as a weapon against the papacy. Such was the widespread retelling of the story that in 1601 Pope Clement VIII felt it necessary to issue a formal statement that Pope Joan never existed.
Pope Clement was not alone in his concern. In 1587 the French historian and jurist Florimond de Raemond published the book Erreur populaire de Pape Jane (“The Popular Error of Pope Joan”). With remarkable attention to historical and logical detail, Florimond destroyed the notion of a female pope, and the book itself became something of a bestseller that was published in 15 editions over the next century.
Just as important was the work of the 17th-century French historian David Blondel. His research concluded that Pope Joan was a total invention and perhaps had its origins in a satire related to Pope John XI, who died by violence at a young age in 935. What made Blondel’s contribution all the more significant, however, was that he was a Protestant.
Against the frequent accusation that the popes had merely ordered the true accounts to be censored or removed from the histories, the opposite is apparent from the various records found throughout Europe. The annals and official papal lists demonstrate changes from time to time, but the alterations were clearly not to remove the mention of some female Pope John VIII.
Instead, the changes are actually much later additions to the texts (at the bottom of the page or in the margins) inserting references to a female pontiff by someone hoping to include salacious stories about the popes or to perpetuate the myths of an earlier age.
Amazingly, the fable of Pope Joan still endures. It is dredged up these days by secularists and anti-Catholics in the wake of “The Da Vinci Code” and especially by those working to change the teachings of the Church on the ordination of women.
In late 2005, for example, the ABC television program “Primetime Live” broadcast a breathless documentary entitled “On the Trail of Pope Joan,” and several recent books have treated the subject as a serious historical possibility.
Fortunately, modern scholars are just as adamant as Florimond and Blondel were in their eras: Pope Joan never existed, regardless of anti-Catholic wishful thinking.
As for the dreaded street in Rome, popes in the Middle Ages did avoid it. But they were not thinking of Pope Joan. Several pontiffs were assassinated along its path by enemies of the Church, and the later popes wanted both to escape a similar end and to honor the memory of their fallen predecessors.