The Story of a Woman Who Never Lived...But Refuses to Die
Legend states that an English woman was elected pope in the mid-ninth century, and this myth was held as truth for seven hundred years. Joan's parents recognized her intellect at an early age and dressed her as a man, and sent her to study at the monastery of Fulda. She later traveled to Athens with a lover to earn an education and quickly impressed the cardinals who did not know her true sex, and, as Thomas Noble writes in his article "Why Pope Joan?", one thing led to another and the cardinals voted this intellectual youth to the papacy.
Allegedly elected after Pope Leo IV who died in 855, Pope Joan's papacy ended after a two year pontificate when she birthed a son while processing from St. Peter's to St. John Lateran in Rome.
Noble writes, "While crossing the city in a procession she unexpectedly gave birth near the church of San Clemente, died on the spot, and was buried there." George Waitz claims that she did not die by childbirth but rather a Roman justice had her feet tied together and was then "dragged by the tail of the horse and was stoned by the people for half a league" til her death. Other sources have her as giving birth to her child, and then being thrown into prison where she died shortly after.
But what is most shocking about this legend is how it captured the hearts and deceived thousands into believing it true until the sixteenth century. La Papessa Joan's modern interest is less in its authenticity (which researchers quickly debunk), but rather why Catholics were universally misinformed for seven hundred years.
Noble seeks to answer where this story of a female pope even arose. There is virtually no evidence from the ninth century to verify this mythical woman, "no gap in the papal succession between Leo IV and Benedict III," and furthermore, there is perfectly reliable, authentic and datable letters from Benedict III. Some researchers claim that Pope John VIII, who reigned from 872-882, had some womanly features which may have contributed to Joan.
Noble claims that the most likely answer is that la papessa is simply an urban legend that arose in Rome and grew into a legend and was not written down some centuries later when "northern Europeans...went to Rome and brought Joan back with them."
The final point to make about Pope Joan is that for years, her illegitimate papal authority was somewhat overlooked: there is an astonishing lack of refutations or denial from the Papacy until Onofrio Panvinio, author of Lives of the Popes and published in 1562, took an adamant stance to refute Joan's historicity and set the record straight. Michael Imhof, author of Joan's latest biography published in 2011, claims that one of the reasons why Joan's story was accepted for so long was because "there were so many popular female saints, not least from the religious orders. There were women who were famous, did good deeds, and were highly educated; at their graves miracles occured. For those people, why not a female pope?"
The weight of historical accuracy decimates this legacy, but for seven hundred years it refused to be quelled. A shadowed figure rising through the Vatican ranks unchecked? Peter's rock is a bit more solid than that.
Source: Why Pope Joan? By Thomas Noble. The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. XCIX, No. 2. April 2013.