"Pope John VIII"

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The woman history refers to as Pope Joan was believed by some to have been a female pontiff who reigned over the Roman Catholic Church for a short time in the mid-800s. However, her existence has been dismissed by the church as purely a myth. Still others point to evidence in documents and artwork that indicates a woman once held the highest position in the church.

It is thought that she grew up in Mainz, Germany, and studied Greek and Latin at a monastery founded by English missionaries. At the time, girls were not educated so Pope Joan may have disguised herself as a boy in order to pursue her studies. She allegedly fell in love with a monk and went with him to Athens disguised as a fellow monk. Assuming the name John Anglicus, she later moved to Rome. A talented scribe, she worked as a papal notary and rose up the ranks within the Vatican, eventually becoming a cardinal.

Elected pontiff around 855, Pope Joan supposedly reigned as Pope John VIII. Sources vary on the length of her time at the helm of the church from a few weeks to more than two years. Some theorized that her term came between Pope Leo IV and Benedict III. Unfortunately, according to the stories, her secret was uncovered during a papal procession. Pregnant at the time, Pope Joan was on her way to the Church of the Lateran in Rome when she began having contractions. Learning that the pope was having a baby, the people reacted in horror. Most reports indicate that she was killed that day, either by stoning or by being dragged behind a horse. Later popes avoided the crossroads where Pope Joan was supposedly killed, which was called the Vicus Papissa, or street of the female pope.

Another ending of the story gives an alternative fate for the female pope. According to this, she did not die immediately after her exposure, but was confined and deposed, after which she did many years of penance. Her son from the affair eventually became Bishop of Ostia, and ordered her entombment in his cathedral when she died.

Public Domain Appearances


  • Päpstin Johanna (1813)


  • The Papess Joanne (1866)


  • Most modern religious scholars consider this story fictitious, perhaps deriving from historicized folklore regarding Roman monuments or from anti-papal satire.
  • However...
    • In 1601, Pope Clement VIII declared the famous bust of her, inscribed Johannes VIII, Femina ex Anglia, which had been carved for the series of papal figures in the Duomo di Siena about 1400 and was noted by travelers, be either destroyed or recarved and relabeled, replaced by a male figure, that of Pope Zachary.
    • Medieval popes, from the 13th century onward, did indeed avoid the direct route between the Lateran and St Peter's, as Martin of Opava claimed and there is no evidence that this practice dated back any earlier. The origin of the practice is uncertain, but it is quite likely that it was maintained because of widespread belief in the Joan legend, and it was thought genuinely to date back to that period.
    • The female pope has been referred to as "John VIII" and, indeed, a genuine Pope John VIII reigned between 872 and 882. Due to the Dark Ages lack of records, confusion often reigns in the evaluation of events.
    • A problem sometimes connected to the Pope Joan legend is the fact that there is no Pope John XX in any list. It is said this reflects a renumbering of the popes to exclude Joan from history. Historians have known since Louis Duchesne's critical edition of the Liber Pontificalis that the "renumbering" was actually due to a misunderstanding in the textual transmission of the official papal lists. In the course of the 11th century, in the time after John XIX, the entry for John XIV had been misread as referring to two different popes of this name. These two popes then came to be distinguished as Iohannes XIV and Iohannes XIV bis ("John XIV the second").
    • The existence of a second Pope John XIV was widely accepted in the 13th century, hence the numbering of Popes John XV through XIX was regarded as being erroneous. When Petrus Hispanus was elected pope in 1276 and chose the papal name John, he decided to correct this error by skipping the number XX. He numbered himself John XXI, thus acknowledging the presumed existence of John XIV "bis" in the 10th century.

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