The Legend

A Film About A Legend... And A Legend In Its Making

The legend

Pope John – or Joan?

The legend of Pope Joan is one of the world’s oldest mysteries. Did this woman really disguise herself as a man and serve as Pope for two years? The Catholic Church dismisses it yet there are over 500 chronicled accounts of her existence.

In the ninth century, Rome was witness to corruption, violence and intrigue, which is why the possibility of a female Pope could be strong. Pope Joan is the name of a legendary female pope, (also "La Papessa"), who was known as English John and who supposedly reigned in the 850s between Leo IV and Benedict III. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city, and she became Pope. However, she became pregnant by her companion.

Through ignorance of when the birth was expected, she went into labour while in procession from St Peter's in a lane between the Coliseum and St Clement's church. Stories vary – some say she was stoned to death; others that she was dragged from a horse. She was supposedly buried in that same place. One thing is certain: for decades, the intersection was known as the "Street of the Female Pope" and until the present day, Popes take a detour to avoid that spot. Polonus wrote, ‘The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street…because of the abhorrence of the event.’

The first known reference to Joan occurs in the thirteenth century, 350 years after her supposed reign. Around this time her image also began to appear as the High Priestess card in the Tarot deck. Notes in a fifteenth century document refer to a statue called "The Woman Pope with Her Child" supposedly erected near the Lateran. Many believe that the chair used during papal consecrations had a hole in its seat for an official check of the pope’s gender. The person checking would then proclaim "mas nobis nominus est" - our nominee is a man, a tradition followed to this day.!!

During the Reformation, the Catholic Church began to deny the existence of Pope Joan. However, at the same time, Protestant writers insisted on her reality, primarily as a convenient piece of anti-Catholic propaganda. Many clues are to be found in art, literature and architecture though modern scholars have been unable to resolve the historicity of Pope Joan. And yet she is discussed in many circles today - even on the BBC when Pope Benedict XVI was crowned.