Every now and again we hear reference to a mysterious figure known as Pope Joan. Her dates are contested: some suggest that she reigned from 853-855, but others suggest that she reigned in 1199 for two years. Joan was said to have been a very scholarly woman of English origin who disguised herself as a male to avail herself of the educational opportunities available to men but not women. She was said to have been an enormously successful scholar who succeeded in becoming a great teacher at Rome and was elevated to the papacy, only to be found out when she went into labour in public, whereupon she was executed by an irate mob. Most scholars now regard this story as a myth, but what is the truth behind it? We can never have certainty in history, but what is the weight of the evidence.
Firstly, popes send out streams of letters and edicts, but there are none in the name of this pope,. She is said to have taken the name John Angelicus, and is sometimes confused with John V111. There was an a slightly later pope of that name who was renowned as the pope who led the papal ffleet to battle against the attacking Muslims. This story forms no part of the Pope Joan tale. Some think that she might have been John V11, but this misdates her more fully.Secondly, if she reigned from 853-855, she would have clashed with the eastern patriarch Photius, who detested the papacy and considered himself superior to the Popes. Were the pope to have proved an imposter, Photius and his supporters would have given maximum publicity to it in the writings of the Orthodox church. But there is no mention of the story.
Anastasius the librarian, writing about the time that Pope Joan was said to have existed, is said to have mentioned her in his chonicles, but it is noteworthy that not all copies of this chronicle mention her, the only ones being later versions. Some might suggest that Anastasius' writings were edited to delete mention of Pope Joan, but there is no evidence of deletion in any of the copies.
One mention of Pope Joan comes in the writings of Martin Polonus, a Vatican official who died in 1278, who wrote a historical chronicle which mentions Pope Joan. However, not all copies of Martin's works contain mention of Pope Joan. Furthermore, the copies that do seem to change in style when they mention her. Mention of her reign is in a handwriting distinct from the rest of the chronicle and seems to have been clumsily inserted in a space at the bottom of a page. An earlier mention of Pope Joan comes in the writings of Marinanus Scotus, 1028-1980, but not all copies of his manuscripts contain the story. Again we are looking a problem common with mediaeval writings, insertion of later material into an earlier document
There is also the problem of dating. Leo 1V died in 847, to be succeeded three months later by Benedict III. There seems to have been no space for the reign of Pope Joan, although devotees still argue that the dates were adjusted in the manuscripts. Hincmar of Rheims tells of how an emissary sent to Leo learned on the way to Rome that the Pope had died and then on his arrival presented his letter to Benedict III. There is no room for Pope Joan here.
there are some legends to be dispensed with. VAtican processions do not go down a certain street in Rome, which is said to be because it was where the female pope was found out. A better explanation is the more prosaic one that it is too narrow. Similarly there is the story that the pope at his consecration sits on a chair with a hole in it so that his maleness can be proved by a cardinal who feels underneath. This is a myth.
A more credible account of Pope Joan comes in the writings of Rosemary and Daniel Pardoe: The Female Pope, the Mystery of Pope Joan, who argue that a more plausible date is between 1086 and 1108, when there were several anti-popes elected in the generally confused situation at the time. An anti-pope who may have been a disguised female cannot be ruled out, but there would need to be some evidence of it, which there is not. Onofio Panvinio, a sixteenth century Italian historian, suggests that the legend may have arisen in relation to the utterly corrupt court of Pope John X!!, [955-964]who had several mistresses, one of whom was a lady called Joan, who was apparently very influential. She d a very influential assistant, Sister Pascalina, who was sometimes nicknames the she-pope.
There seems to be no room for a genuine Pope Joan, but there is sometimes truth behind a legend. It may have been the case that a senior Vatican official was actually a disguised woman and was eventually found out. It is also a sad case that some people have the sex organs of both sexes to a greater or lesser degree, though true hermaphrodites are rare. Most of these people are more one than the other, though they are generally infertile, so the story of Pope Joan giving birth would not be credible if this was the case. Was there a senior figure who was one such person.
I do not think that there was a real Pope Joan. But the issue has no bearing on whether or not there should be women priests. I believe that women should be allowed to be ordained as priests and even bishops, and if this is so there could in theory one day be a woman pope. There probably will be, but I don't think that it will be in my lifetime