Vatican official says ‘Pope Joan’ a myth

An engraving of Pope Joan in a 17th century book by Alexander Cooke (CNS/Google Books/Public Domain)

An official at the Vatican’s apostolic archive has poured cold water on the story of “Pope Joan”, an urban legend about a woman who covertly climbed the clerical ladder in the 9th century and was elected Pope John VIII. Source: NCR Online.

Intelligent, in love, highly cultured and heavily pregnant, the legend says the “Pope Joan” cover was blown only after two-and-a-half years when her horse took a fright during a procession near St John Lateran, triggering spontaneous labour and the instantaneous birth of a child — events colourfully chronicled in numerous paintings, books and some films.

That a woman apparently became the pope is why the legend insists that a special chair, with a large open keyhole shape in the middle, would be used from that day on at each enthronement ceremony at St John Lateran so a deacon could verify a new pope’s gender, Msgr Stefano Sanchirico noted.

But is any of this true? That was the question the long-time Vatican official discussed on December 14 at the “Pope Joan: Between Ritual and Myth” event.

Msgr Sanchirico, an official at the Vatican’s apostolic archive, gave a definite scholarly answer – there was no female pope.

In fact, “the legend does not emerge at the same period of time” as the supposed events, but crops up 250 years later, he said. The myth fell into oblivion after the 13th century, he said, but returned to popularity during the contentious period of the Protestant Reformation.


Pope Joan: Old rituals, wild imaginations led to legend, archivist says (By Carol Glatz, CNS via NCR Online)

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