Pope Joan was a legendary female Pope who allegedly reigned for a few years some time during the Middle Ages. The story first appeared in 13th-century chronicles, and subsequently spread throughout Europe. It was widely believed for centuries, though modern religious scholars consider it fictitious, perhaps deriving from folklore regarding Roman monuments or from anti-papal satire.
The first mention of the female pope appears in the chronicle of Jean Pierier de Mailly, but the most popular and influential version was that interpolated into Martin of Troppau’s Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum, later in the 13th century.
Most versions of Pope Joan’s story describe her as a talented and learned woman who disguises herself as a man, often at the behest of a lover. In the most common accounts, due to her abilities, she rises through the church hierarchy, eventually being elected pope. However, while riding on horseback she gives birth, thus exposing herself. In most versions, she dies shortly after, either being killed by an angry mob or from natural causes. Her memory is then shunned by her successors.
The earliest mention of the female pope appears in the Dominican Jean de Mailly’s chronicle of Metz, Chronica Universalis Mettensis, written in the early 13th century. In his telling, the female pope is not named, and the events are set in 1099. According to Jean:
“Query. Concerning a certain Pope or rather female Pope, who is not set down in the list of Popes or Bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man and became, by her character and talents, a curial secretary, then a Cardinal and finally Pope. One day, while mounting a horse, she gave birth to a child. Immediately, by Roman justice, she was bound by the feet to a horse’s tail and dragged and stoned by the people for half a league, and, where she died, there she was buried, and at the place is written: ‘Oh Peter, Father of Fathers, Betray the childbearing of the woman Pope.’ At the same time, the four-day fast called the “fast of the female Pope” was first established.”
It is most likely that Pope Joan has been the subject of too much popularisation and fictitious conspiracy cover-ups, and that the entire story is nothing more than a hoax. It is true that in the coarse of history a lot has happened in the Vatican that was not quite according to God’s law; however, it remains certain that the Catholic church has never been governed by a women – besides the Virgin Mary perhaps.