The fable about Pope Joan surfaces in the writings of Dominican Jean de Mailly in the thirteenth century. From this work, another Dominican Etienne de Bourbon (d. 1261) incorporated the fable in his work on the “Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost.”
The fable involves a talented and intelligent woman named Johannes Anglicus who wanted to pursue opportunities not available to a woman at the time, but were reserved to men. So, she dressed as a man. Disguised as a man, she traveled to Athens accompanied by her lover and pursued higher learning (again, that which would have been open only to men at the time). She then moved to Rome, where she taught science and gained a favorable reputation in academe. She eventually became a notary in the Papal Curia and then a cardinal. Upon the death of Pope Leo IV, she was elected pope, all the while keeping her disguise as a man. At some point she became pregnant by one of her lovers. (It is hard to imagine her gender remaining secret amidst her lovers and the chatty curia officials.) One day, during a procession from St. Peter’s Basilica to St. John Lateran, and somewhere between the Colosseum and St. Clement’s, she gave birth to a son. Needless to say, the procession stopped. After that, the legend has various endings: in one version, she died immediately; in another, she was bound to the horse, dragged about the city, stoned to death, and buried; and finally in another, she was deposed and confined to do penance. One variation also asserts that her son became Bishop of Ostia. Please remember that all of the aforesaid is fiction.
Apparently, the fable had such an impact that many believed it to be true (just like the impact of The DaVinci Code). For instance, in the Cathedral of Siena, the busts of the popes line the nave, and her bust was included originally. Whether this was done as a joke or out of ignorance is left for debate. However, Pope Clement VIII, to prevent scandal and preserve truth, had the bust transformed into Pope Zacharias. Also, she was not among the official portraits of the Popes that line the walls of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.
Later, John Hus, the radical heretic of the 1400s, referred to “Pope Joan” to discredit the whole office of the papacy. He had proposed a more figurehead-type of papacy with the governance of the Church left to majority rule.
Keep in mind that even in the fifteenth century, scholars like Aeneas Silvius (Epistles) and Platina (Vitae Pontificum), using historical-critical methods, discredited the story as bogus. In the sixteenth century, scholars like Onofrio Panvinio (Vitae Pontificum), Aventinus (Annales Boiorum), Baronius (Annales) and others corroborated these findings. Even Protestant scholars found the fable untenable: Blondel (Joanna papissa) and Leibniz (Flores sparsae in tumulum Papissae). However, some Protestants, especially in America, have continued to use the fable to discredit the papacy, even though the fable is truly a fable.
The main proofs against the “Pope Joan” fable are as follows: First, “Pope Joan” is not listed in the Liber Pontificalis (the official documented listing of the popes which has chronological veracity). Supposedly, Pope Joan succeeded Pope Leo IV, a very saintly man credited with several miracles, who died on July 17, 855. Immediately Pope Benedict III was elected. There was some controversy because the Byzantine Emperor attempted to have his own excommunicated son, Anastasius, installed as Pope. The imperial forces with Anastasius invaded Rome, seized the Lateran palace, and imprisoned Pope Benedict. The faithful of Rome, however, refused to accept Anastasius and rebelled. They freed Pope Benedict who was officially installed on September 29, 855. Interestingly, Pope Benedict was merciful to Anastasius, and eventually made him an abbot. One interesting point is that Pope Benedict’s image appears along with the image of the Holy Roman Emperor Lothair on coins minted prior to September 29; this point corroborates that Pope Benedict was recognized from the time of his election as the true Pope. Therefore, there is no room for Pope Joan.
A few other sources of the fable place Pope Joan during other Pontificates. However, the extant historical accounts become even more specific and numerous as to events and dates regarding the papacy. Historically, there is no Pope Joan, who supposedly was pope by disguise for over two years.
Second, no mention of a Pope Joan arises until the mid-1200s. Given her dramatic “coming out,” there should be historical accounts dating to the alleged time of her pontificate. Obviously, the legend was made up 400 years later.
Third, other possibilities for the source of the fable exist. St. Robert Bellarmine posited that the legend was brought from Constantinople to Rome to discredit the legitimacy of the papacy. Remember that with the decline of Rome and the western side of the old Roman Empire, the Patriarch of Constantinople believed he should be the head of the Church, which eventually was one reason for the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in 1054.
Baronius posits that perhaps the legend arose from the alleged effeminate weakness of Pope John VIII (872-82), although this charge is also disputed.
Two last points: Some proponents of the legend have mentioned a special papal chair (something that looked like a potty chair) used to verify the sex of the new Pope; yet, the story admitted there was never an “eyewitness” account of this test. In reality, the newly elected Pope was installed on a marble throne, oftentimes an ancient bath stool which were not uncommon in Rome. Such bath stools had been used for papal events long before any mention of a Pope Joan. Due to the long duration of papal ceremonies, the Pope did use such a throne to relieve himself. To suggest otherwise is vulgar let alone erroneous.
Finally, some proponents suggest the story mentions Bernini’s beautiful baldachino over the papal altar of St. Peter’s and how the bases of the columns have carved a progression of a woman’s face showing the pains and joys of child birth. They insinuate that these carvings were of Pope Joan giving birth. Oh please! Bernini was a devout man, who is buried along the altar rail of the Basilica of St. Mary Major. A better explanation is what Jesus said during his farewell discourse to the apostles at the Last Supper: “When a woman is in labor, she is sad that her time has come. When she has borne her child, she no longer remembers her pain for joy that a man has been born into the world. In the same way, you are sad for a time, but I shall see you again; then your hearts will rejoice with a joy no one can take from you” (John 16:21-22). Despite our labors and sufferings here and now, we too should rejoice that at each Mass, Christ comes again to us in the gift of the Holy Eucharist.
In sum, there is no truth to the legend of Pope Joan. Period.