The Legend (?) of Pope Joan

Was there ever a woman pope?  There is an old legend of “Pope Joan.”  While it may have been fabricated to discredit the Catholic church during a period of religious upheaval, the legend continues to lives on.

The story dates to the 13th century or so, when mentions of a female pope — who went by “Pope John” — begin to appear.  The legend says she was English but supposedly born in Mainz, Germany.  She apparently was a person of intellect, who disguised herself as a man to study religion, her body hidden under shapeless robes.  Her lack of facial hair would match the clean-shaven monks; and as for the rest of her, bathing was not a common practice in the medieval period, so her secret could be readily maintained.  One source specifies the time of her papal reign as starting in C.E. 855 and lasting two years, seven months, and four days.

So, how was she found out?  During an Easter procession in Rome in the Celio neighborhood (heading to the Basilica of St. John Lateran), she fell from her horse and went into sudden labor, giving birth to a baby boy on the spot — to the shock of all around her.

Pope Joan giving birth

Today, that spot, not far from the Colosseum, is known as the Vicus Papissa — the female pope street.  But you won’t find that name on Google maps.  However, at the intersection of Via dei Santi Quattro and Via dei Querceti, you will find a very dilapidated, locked shrine, inside which is an even more dilapidated, and sadly faded, Madonna and child icon — said to commemorate the Papessa.  Legend says that all future papal processions have intentionally avoided this intersection due to the bad memories associated with it.

Some versions of the story say that Pope Joan, upon being discovered, was tied by her feet to a horse and dragged through the streets before being stoned to death. Others say she was immediately locked away in a convent for the rest of her life to repent her evil ways.  Either way, it did not end well.

But there’s more. To prevent another woman from ever becoming pope, it was said that subsequent popes had to be checked for their, um, male credentials.  To do this, the pope would sit on a special chair known as the sedia stercoraria, currently in the Cabinet of the Masks, one of the rooms in the Vatican Museums only open to special tours.

The “special” papal chair (the Vatican Museum website doesn’t mention it)

The Pope would sit on the chair, and some unfortunate soul would put their hand underneath for the “verification procedure.”  Supposedly, when the Pope passed the test, the tester would shout, “pontificalia habet” (he has the “pontificals”).

There are other relics of the legend. For example, there was once a game called “Pope Joan.”

People playing the “Pope Joan” card game

On some Tarot cards, there’s a woman called the Popess.

A “Popess” tarot card – wearing the papal tiara

Still another part of the legend involves Bernini.  On the Baldalchin in St. Peter’s Basilica, it’s said he carved the faces of a woman representing Pope Joan supposedly in various stages of labor.

I’ve seen the shrine, and the chair.  Makes one wonder…