Conspiracy Theories

The secret female pope: is the Catholic Church covering up the existence of Pope Joan?

So I thought it was high time I got back to writing regular monthly articles on conspiracy theories, urban legends and mysterious/paranormal happenings. And boy am I starting with a corker! The Catholic Church has been concealing the fact that it was once led by a woman.

As we know, the Catholic Church is one of the most patriarchal institutions in the world. Its leader, the pope, can only ever be a man. In the Middle Ages, one woman reportedly said, “Screw that,” and ascended to the role of pope in disguise, ruling the Church for two years before her secret was uncovered.

The ‘shunned street’ and nicely dangling testicles

Most versions of the Pope Joan story describe her as a learned and talented woman who disguised herself a man in order to rise through the ranks of the Church. She studied in Athens before travelling to Rome and teaching. Due to the high opinion of her life and learning in the city, she was eventually chosen to become pope. While pope, she became pregnant by her lover. Not knowing when the birth was expected, she ended up giving birth publicly during a procession, exposing her secret.

It’s said that the baby was delivered on the way from St Peter’s Basilica to the Lateran in Vatican City. Specifically in a lane that used to be called Via Sacra, meaning the ‘sacred way’, and thereafter became known as the ‘shunned street’. Since then, all papal processions deliberately avoid going down it. It’s also said that the pope always turns his face away when passing it, out of abhorrence of the event.

Woodcut illustration of Pope Joan giving birth

Probably my favourite part of this story is that after the Pope Joan scandal, subsequent popes had to be subjected to an examination to confirm that they were men. This involved sitting on a chair with a hole and a cardinal reaching up through the hole to feel the new pope’s testicles. The cardinal would then be required to announce, “Duos habet et bene pendentes,” meaning, “He has two, and they dangle nicely.” No joke.

You’re probably wondering what happened to the ‘popess’ after she gave birth in the street. This is where the story gets hazy. Some accounts say that she died in childbirth. Another says she was immediately deposed and confined and did many years of penance, and her child, a son, became Bishop of Ostia. The grisliest accounts say that she was bound by her feet to a horse and dragged, while onlookers stoned her to death.

Myth or cover-up?

A female pope was first mentioned in the early 13th century in Dominican chronicler Jean de Mailly’s Chronica Universalis Mettensis. The events were set in 1099. She later appeared in Martin of Opava’s Chronicon Pontificum, which named her ‘Johannes Angelicus’. Martin changed the date of her reign to 855-858, setting it between the pontificates of Leo IV and Benedict III. Conrad Botho’s 1489 Chronicon Brunsvicensium picturatum diaclecto saxonica conscriptum recorded that a ‘Pope Johannes’ had crowned the new Emperor Louis II in 856.

Joan was a widely accepted part of Catholic history in the late Middle Ages. In the 15th century her existence was regarded as fact even by the council of the Church. The 14th-century writer Giovanni Boccaccio mentioned Joan in a book about famous women. She appeared in paintings, sculptures and tarot cards and was even included in a collection of papal busts in Siena Cathedral, Italy. A guidebook for pilgrims to Rome told readers that the female pope’s remains were buried at St Peter’s.

It was during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that the existence of Pope Joan became contested. The long gap between her supposed lifetime and the first time she’s mentioned in historical texts formed the basis of the arguments against her existence. In 1601, Pope Clement VIII declared the legend of the female pope to be untrue and her bust at Siena Cathedral was destroyed and replaced with a figure of Pope Zachary.

Most modern scholars agree that Pope Joan is fictional. They argue that that in addition to the lack of contemporary evidence, there’s actually no room for her in the timeline because Benedict III became pope immediately after Leo IV.

However, there are still scholars who contend that Pope Joan was deliberately expunged from Church records during the Reformation. Why would the Catholic Church have done this? Because at this point she was a scandal they could do without. The Catholic Church was coming under fire from Protestants for just about everything. In particular, Protestants were questioning the authority of the pope. They said that the reign of Pope Joan had destroyed the validity and infallibility of the papacy and was an irreparable breach in the line of succession from St Peter. In effect, Pope Joan had become a Protestant weapon. What better way for Catholics to undermine the Protestants’ cause than pretend she never existed?

New evidence for Pope Joan emerges

Perhaps lending credence to the Catholic Church cover-up theory is some new evidence that emerged to support Pope Joan’s existence just last year. During an analysis of some medieval silver coins, Michael Habicht of Flinders University in Australia found that the coins had two different monograms on them (the forerunner of today’s signature) that had both been attributed to the same pope: Pope John VIII, who led the church between 872 and 882. According to Habicht, there were “distinct differences in the placing of letters and the overall design” and he believes that one of the signatures is actually Pope Joan’s.

Habicht argues that, in fact, Pope Joan did not reign between Leo IV and Benedict III, but after Benedict III, and that Benedict III began his reign a few years earlier than records suggest.

Habicht wrote: According to official papal chronology there is no Pope Johannes in the mid-850s. At least not someone who is acceptable for the Church. It is quite obvious that something is wrong with the dating of the pontificates and that there is a Pope Johannes attested.

And in an interview with Live Science, he said, “The coins really turned the tables in favour of a covered-up but true story.”

I love the idea that there was a secret female pope whose existence became ‘unhelpful’ to the Catholic Church, leading them to subsequently erase her existence. I’ve already thought of a great new novel idea to incorporate it.

If you like gender-bending mysteries and conspiracy theories, check out my article on Queen Elizabeth I and the long-believed claims that she was actually a man in drag. This also forms the basis of two of my short stories in Million Eyes: Extra Time, the companion book to my upcoming novel, Million Eyes. Million Eyes: Extra Time is available now for free download.

And if you have yet to watch the teaser trailer for Million Eyes, here it is.

Next month: Nazis on the moon!

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