The Mystery of the She-Pope

A young Catholic woman dresses up as a man and joins the priesthood (not hard, given that the robes they wear), goes to Rome, and ends up as the pope. She then gets pregnant and delivers the child on a public street during a procession in which she is wearing the full papal regalia. The bystanding worshippers, outraged by the revelation of her deception, kill her and bury her by the roadside. This is the story in a new German film called Die Papstin.

Far fetched? Perhaps, except that the film is based on events that might have actually happened. The September/October issue of The New Humanist has an article by Sally Feldman (not available online) that looks at the story of ‘Pope Joan’ who supposedly lived in the ninth century. The catch is that even though there are about 500 reports on this episode written from early medieval times to the 17th century, there are no contemporaneous records of what happened during her time, which has rightly called the Dark Ages, and the powerful Catholic Church would have had every reason to expunge any mention of such an embarrassing episode.

The article points out that this story has been investigated by many people and even though unproved is quite widely known and believed. In the course of investigating it, Peter Stanford, the former editor of the Catholic Herald discovered a chair that was used in papal elections in medieval times that had an odd key-shaped hole cut in the seat. According to accounts, before the election of a new pope could be confirmed, the would-be pope was required to sit in it and then the youngest deacon present would have to reach up through the hole and confirm the pope’s ‘eligibility’, if you catch my drift. Such a precaution might well have been the result of the Pope Joan episode.


  1. Ryon Adams says

    Hate to break this to you, but it’s a myth. A Protestant historian already debunked it hundreds of years ago.

  2. says


    The article looks at the attempts at debunking the story too. The problem is that while her existence has not been proven conclusively, the efforts of the debunkers have not been completely successful either.

    This story is likely to remain in the category of enigmas.

  3. says

    The film was shown in October 2009, an European production, directed by a German, Soenke Wortmann, and based on the historical novel of Donna Woolfolk Cross, a US writer, from 1996. But I think I watched a different ending: Johanna dies in childbirth and is not killed by worshippers. Maybe there are different versions but actually it doesn’t really matter. The film is worth seeing.

  4. Jared A says

    The history of the story of Pope Joan is quite interesting, and it tells a lot about the changing political climate of late Dark Age and Medieval politics. From a feminist perspective it is especially interesting and deserves a place in any discussion of gender-hiding in the middle ages. However, the evidence strongly suggests that the is no historical Pope Joan. I think it should be counted in the line of things that are “most likely false.”

    The Feldman article seems well enough researched but the lack of scholarly integrity is a little glaring. I mean, even the wikipedia article on Pope Joan is better in its scholarship. That’s really inexcusable. On the one hand Feldman has us believe that dark age history is mostly a blank slate with no contemporaneous scholars keeping track of anything, while on the other we are supposed to believe that the there was a concerted effort by contemporaries to expunge references to a female pope. It’s a blatant contradiction. She also deals poorly with the debunkers. Specifically, she thinks that the main debunk argument is that this was a protestant plot, which is just stupid because the legend was first referenced as early as ~1100 CE. Of course, then the roman catholic church wasn’t the monolith it is now, and there were plenty of people willing to throw propaganda stories around.

    How the telling of the legend evolved also says a lot about it. In many ways it is more then a little reminiscent of “Obama is a secret Muslim Kenyan” myths. The way the medieval version of THAT story goes is that Pope Obama was on the road when the Muslim call to prayer went out so he had to praise Allah. Outraged peasants stoned him. Totally happened.

    As a side note, the holes in the papal seats really do exist, but they were there long before Pope Joan was purported to have existed.

  5. says

    Jared A,

    Thanks for the additional information. Too bad the story is likely false. It makes a good yarn, which is probably why it will never die.

  6. Jared A says

    Yeah, I was also sad after i looked into it more. I was originally told that it actually happened and was disappointed–though the version I heard didn’t have her being murdered. Without the childbirth on the road part it is within the realm of possibility and is really just a funny story.

  7. says

    I believe Jessica Rowley a female priest in St. Louis was the first female priest who got pregnant. I highly doubt this hasn’t happened before but I believe this was the first official documented case.

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