POPESS JOAN: MYTH OR HISTORY? December 1, 2020

Actualizado: ene 22



For many chroniclers and historians, Pope John VIII was a woman named Ioannes Anglicus, who masqueraded as a man. She was born between 825-830 in Mainz, Germany, to missionaries' parents from England. Her story spread widely throughout Europe since it first appeared in the 13th century. Most people believed the information to be accurate, based on chroniclers, historians, and theologians about the chronological papal reigns. Although she reigned for only two years and five months (855-857), her pontificate was outstanding and exemplary, if you compare it with her predecessors, even if you apply today's behavioral standards. Although modern historians regard her as a fictional figure, Joan's biography is so credible that, irrespective of whether the Popess is a historical figure or a figment of some creative writer's imagination, her reign as Pope John VIII left so many indelible marks in the church's history that it is not possible to disregard her. As pope, chroniclers described her as beautiful and decent, the only pope deserving these descriptions. Even Emperor Ludwig II showed great enthusiasm about the Popess' abilities. Man or woman, John VIII reigned successfully as pope during the Middle Ages, as chroniclers and historians reports show.


Modern scientists have collected extensive evidence about the existence of a female pope. They support their postulates by citing chroniclers and historians such as Martinus Polonius, Jan Hus, Friedrich Spanheim, Magdeburg Centuries, the letter from Anastasius to Pope John VIII, the report from historian and chronicler Conrad Botho, and the official Liber Pontificalis of the 9th century.


Martinus Polonius, Archbishop of Gniezno (ca. 1215/1220 died 22/06/1278), is one of the Middle Ages' most respected chroniclers. His extensive work, Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum (500 manuscripts), is regarded as one of the most reliable chronicles of the popes and emperors' lives since Pope Nicolaus III. In his famous Latin Chronicle of the Middle Ages, he writes about a female pope. He wrote: "Ioannes Anglicus, who adopted the name John VIII, was Pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome. It is claimed that John VIII was a woman. She is not placed on the list of the Holy Pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter." The publication of his report in 1277 started a lot of heated debates that still continue.


Jan Hus (1370-1415), theologian and reformer. He delivered a speech during the Council in Constance in 1413 where he opposed the Pope’s position on faith matters, alleging that the Bible, not the Pope, was the highest authority in those matters. The important thing on Mr. Hus’ testimony is that he said, in front of 20 cardinals, 49 bishops, and 272 theologians, that the Church did not have a ruler, a head, in the two years five months in which Popess Joan sat on the Holy See. The participants did not challenge his affirmations, implying they were true. Because of his opposition to the Pope, and this statement, the council condemned him to burn at stake as a heretic on July 6, 1415.


Friedrich Spanheim (1632-1701) was a church historian and theologian, born in Geneva, Switzerland. In his most important work, published in 1691, he reports a letter sent by the Holy See to the librarian Anastasius ordering him to erase Popess Joan from all official documents of the papal state. A copy of the message is kept in Paris. The letter describes a Cardinal who led the burial celebration of Pope Benedict III. All evidence indicates this nameless deacon to be Cardinal-Deacon John, possibly the Popess. Additionally, he believed that some of the reforms to adopt the northern Gallican rite could have been initiated by Popess Joan because she came from the north and knew the rituals well. He expressed his doubts that Leo IV or Benedict III had the intellectual capacities to execute such a big task. He concluded that Popess Joan had to be responsible for these important liturgical reforms, which persisted until the Second Vatican Council, which took place in 1962-1965.


Magdeburg Centuries, a chronicles reporting work, say that Popess Joan carried out the sacred coronation of Ludwig II. The same chronicles report that Iohannes Anglicus, now John VIII, received a large donation from Aethelwulf of Wessex.


Anastasius Bibliothecarius was a Cardinal Priest in Rome, who became a librarian in Hadrian II papacy after an eventful career. I mention him because he wrote a letter to Pope John VIII, proving Ioannes Anglicus' existence. When the note is dated, the later John VIII, the pope that does not exist in their records, was head of the church.


Conrad Botho, a biographer and historian from the late 15th century, reports about the coronation of Emperor Ludwig II by Pope John VIII. Botho did not know John VIII was a woman because he did not mention it in his report. Contrary to Botho's well-documented report, the official church lines state that Benedict III crowned the Emperor.


The Liber Pontificalis from the 9th century is a religious work containing a chronological and biographical description of all the popes, which included disguised evidence of the existence of Popess Joan. The earliest copy dates from the 11th century. The Liber Pontificalis says that John VIII was a “pious and modest mystic who generously cared for the poor, widows and orphans.” The chroniclers did not generally attribute these characteristics to the papacy of the times. The Liber’s biographical information describes Joan as a highly talented girl, introduced by her father to the seven liberal arts to prepare for further studies in theology, jurisprudence, and medicine. The same source indicates that she attracted a lot of attention because of her talents. She spent several years traveling and studying. She went to Athens and Rome to continue her studies there. Later, while in Rome, she taught the three linguistic subjects of the Seven Liberal Arts in the reputed Santa Maria in Schola Graeca. Because women were not allowed superior studies, and the only way to study the subjects mentioned above was with monks, the young woman masqueraded as a man to enter the Fulda Monastery in Fulda, Germany. At the time, it was easy to disguise as a man because men and women dressed similarly, including the haircuts. A monk’s robe was all that was necessary to go into the monastery.


Because of her knowledge of medicine and herbal treatments, she was recommended to the Pope, whom she cured. Eventually, she became a collaborator and confidant of the Pope. Furthermore, the Liber Pontificalis reports that, masquerading as a man, she managed concrete assignments for the papal administration under Sergius II, who appointed her Sub Deacon. Later, Pope Leo IV appointed her to the position of Cardinal Deacon. These career movements as a man correspond precisely with Joan's steps during her life in Rome. Pope Leo IV died around 853. His successor, Benedict III, was elected Pope. He continued using the services of Cardinal-Deacon John as a distinguished player in his administration. Most nobility and papal court members recognized her outstanding abilities. The Liber Pontificalis also reports that Pope Benedict III preferred to work with Cardinal-Deacon John instead of other members of his court and even members of his own family. The report suggests a strong emotional relationship with his Cardinal-Deacon. Some go as far as suggesting that the Pope knew John was a woman.


She did not aspire to become the next pope but surprisingly, even by her, the masses acclaimed her and elevated her to the papal throne as the successor of Benedict III. As witnesses to the coronation of Pope Johannes Anglicus, John VIII, many distinguished personalities from northern Europe, such as the Carolingian Emperor Louis II of Italy and the local kings of England, attended the ceremonies. It is important to note that the current Emperor of the Franconian empire needed sacred papal crowning, and the new pope required the consent of the Emperor. Louis II and Johannes Anglicus were depending upon each other to legalize their official status. The Liber Pontificalis echoes the rumor that Louis II knew that Johannes Anglicus was a woman masquerading as a man when he invited her to a banquet celebrated in Louis' field camp, an unusual place for an official ceremony.


There is a statue on the frontispiece of St. Peter’s Basilica that depicts a woman in a papal robe, wearing the crown and papal symbols, which confirms the existence of a pope with feminine features. Religious authorities assert that the statue represents the church, always depicted in the feminine. In the Vatican Museum, there are two chairs with a hole in the seat, presumably used to check the male organs of new popes to avoid the situation with the Popess Joan. The youngest cardinal was ordered to do the palpation test and then proclaim in a loud voice that the new pastor had testicles. There are also monograms of Pope John VIII from the times when he was directing the papacy, and coins commemorating the Papal State. When the Pope and Emperor showed on the coin, they called them combination coins. On one side, they showed the monogram of the pope – IOHANNIS – and, on the other, a representation of the reigning Carolingian emperor, Louis II, crowned by John VIII in 855 and reigned until 876. A papal edict attributed to Pope John VIII (Popess Joan) conveniently stated that priests and monks had to shave fully every day.


Some historians date the death of Popess Joan at the beginning of March 858, when the Easter procession occurs. This event correlates with the one-month vacancy before the election of Pope Nicholas I, which, according to church records, took place on April 24th, 858. Chroniclers of the High Middle Ages and later documented the death of the Popess. Historian G. Boccaccio, in his “De Claris Mullieribus,” reported that the Popess fell from her horse during the Eastern Procession from St. Peter to Lateran and died on the street, dismembered by the mob. There is a small shrine, popularly known as “Shrine of the Popess” near the place where Popess Joan died (Via Dei Querceti, 27, 00184 Roma RM Italy). There used to be a statue of the Popess with the child in her arms. Martin Luther witnessed it when he visited Rome as an Augustinian monk. The procession still takes place; curiously, however, it takes a detour to avoid the area where presumably the Popess fell. Since then, religious authorities removed the statue and threw it into the Tiber.


If John VIII was a male pope, why was he so consistently erased from most church documents? It makes you think!

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