A Woman to Know: Pope Joan

Nor is she placed on the list of the Holy Pontiffs, both because of her female sex and because of the foulness of the matter. — Martin of Opava

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

A female pope. It's a mystery and a legend, one centuries have debated. "Ninety percent of me believes there was a Pope Joan," one writer claimed. "I would say it's the weight of evidence -- over 500 chronicles of her existence," another wrote.

The legend goes like this: a new pope "John" takes charge of the papacy in the ninth century. After two years ruling over a peaceful Church, the cardinals go riding through the streets of Rome. There, John suddenly gives birth to a child while still astride the horse. The other riders undress the Pope and beneath the figure-disguising papal robes, "John" is revealed to be a woman, "Joan"; she had been hiding her gender during her career inside the Church. Disgusted, the other riders drag her body until she dies, through the same street where she just gave birth.

Pope Joan believers point to a couple pieces of evidence as proof of her existence. Medieval Bibles, books and tarot decks include reference to Pope Joan, even pictures depicting her brutal delivery and death. Scholars have devoted entire bodies of work to examining the role of cross-dressing in ancient papal ceremonies, women's roles in the church and the mystery of a lady hidden in the ranks. In one museum, the Pope's coronation throne includes a hole in the middle of the seat -- supposedly for officials to "check" that the soon-to-be Pope indeed had the "right genitalia" lest the same mistake occur twice. And for centuries after the Pope Joan legend spread throughout Europe, new Popes would avoid the "shunned street" where she supposedly gave birth and died. In Rome, they call it "Vicus Papissa": the Street of the Female Pope.

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