Adaptations in Books and Movies

The story about a woman who pretended to be a man and was finally elected Pope was and is attractive for adaptations. This is especially so because she is said to have been exposed by a birth in the open street. To this this statement according to Elisabeth Gössmann(1), a proven connoisseur of the matter:

Apart from the earlier literary texts such as those by Boccaccio or Schernberg, in the second half of the 18th century there was a strong interest in the poetic treatment of the subject matter, which continued to the present day.
Until the 19th century, the majority of poetic adaptations of the Popess's figure were obscene reworkings of the material with a political objective or tendency. Thus here, too, she retains the function she had from the very beginning: to represent or expose negative conditions or developments in church institutions: an institution that has been fought or no longer taken seriously, but is still a powerful signatory, is ridiculed by the Popess.(2)

The figure thus serves as a vehicle for certain messages. These adaptations - all written by men - offer space and pretext for the spread of teachings, revenge and sexual fantasies that accentuate reprehension.

The message is clear: only men can achieve intellectually and spiritually, only they can ignore the body (celibacy) and devote themselves to the spiritual. Women are incapable of this because of their body and sexuality.
This attitude makes it understandable why women cannot take up spiritual offices.

Also the bestseller of D. W. Cross as well as the films stick to this pattern.

The Popess in Literature

Since the Renaissance, the story of a disguised woman sitting on the Pope's throne has been told. A selection of texts:

Up until the end of the 18th century

Drama, epic, novel, opera and novella work on the material in different languages and with changing focuses.

The first editing is the "Spiel von Frau Jutten" by Dietrich Schernberg (1480). Today it is only available in a print from the Reformation period (1565) and is supplemented in this version with a prelude and an epilogue.

19th Century

Romantic tale

The german author Achim von Arnim romanticizes the story. In a mixture of prose and verse he changes the context. The main character is purified and finally converted to the (ancestral) role of the sexes.
The author also does not shy away from allusions to Goethe's Faust.

Political concern

  • Cover book E. Rhoidis

    Emanuel Rhoides wrote his book with the intention of working for the separation of church and state. It is a satire peppered with insinuations. The novel caused a scandal when it was published in 1866, and the author was excommunicated.
    Rhoides had and has numerous successors in the genus obscene Popess literature.

    The book is still available today and in numerous editions and translations, including German.
    The story served as a script template for the 1972 film adaptation.

  • 20th century


    The tragedy of the learned woman is unrolled, in other dramas she is a tragic heroine or her emancipative attitude is put in the centre.
    In some arrangements, "brown thoughts" shimmer through.

    Historical novels

    People all over the world were getting to the material:

    The US-American Clement Wood shows some positive traits of the Popess in addition to the familiar.

    The Australian Emily Hope strives for positive reception, but uses a considerable number of fictional elements.

    The French journalist and author Claude Pasteur presents a fictitious correspondence.

  • Cover Book D. W. Cross

    The US-American Donna Woolfolk Cross published the novel «Pope Joan. A Novel».
    In spite of intentions to the contrary, the author deals generously with historical aspects. And also here applies - as for the two films: Sex sells.
    The book became a bestseller.
    It is the template for the 2009 film adaptation.

  • The Popess in film and musical

    Monumental film

    Anderson, Michael, and John Briley. 1972. Pope Joan. UK.
    Especially interesting is the scene where the Popess crowns the Emperor Louis II and how he later recognizes her in the private audience as a woman he already knew from earlier.

    Wortmann, Sönke. 2009. Die Päpstin [Pope Joan] (Film)
    The film shows correctly the Pope's election by the people .


    The bestseller by D. W. Cross also served as a model for a musical. It was premiered in 2011 in Fulda (Germany).


    (1) Elisabeth Gössmann. Mulier Papa. Der Skandal eines weiblichen Papstes. Zur Rezeptionsgeschichte der Gestalt der Päpstin Johanna. iudicium verlag. München 1994
    (2) Translated with