Popess Joan is a legend

Approach: The story has no real background

Platina as papal librarian
Bartolomeo Platina
Beginning of the Book of Accounts

In the canonical form as it is known today, the story of a Popess Joanonly appears in the 13th century. It is told by Martin von Troppau (Martin Polonius).

He tells of a Pope John, who was born in England and came from Mainz.
He gives details about the duration of the pontificate on the day and states that after this Pope John no Pope had been appointed for one month.
In addition, he gives the hint that this John - it was John VIII in the original census - was a woman. For this reason, this pontificate had not been included in the official list of the Popes; moreover, he pointed out «the perfidy of her actions».

In the following centuries, numerous scholars and chroniclers took up history.
It was considered a historical reality. This, in any case, is shown by numerous texts and pictorial representations, even of persons such as Giovanni Boccaccio, who was by no means pleased with this fact.
Many authors referred to Martin von Troppau's statements..
This is the approach of later interpretations of legends.

Reasons for the Legend Theory

For several centuries there was no doubt in history that once an elected pope was in fact a woman. This is to be taken from the sources.

Late Middle Ages

In the late Middle Ages (approx. 1250 to 1500) the church was partly in a chaotic state: it was the time of the many antipopes.
The voting cardinals were influenced by various interested parties, so that at times two or even three popes were in office. From 1309 to 1377 Avignon was the new papal seat. Seven popes ruled from there before Pope Gregory XI was convinced in 1377 that a return to Rome would be appropriate.

The figure of a female pope - Popess Joan - served as a rhetorical figure to indirectly criticize this confusing situation.
Through the story about her about became less and less objective.


From 1517 there were serious efforts to renew the Catholic Church (Martin Luther).
This Reformation, however, led to a division of the community of believers into those who sought a modification of customs (Protestants) and those who remained faithful to the Pope in Rome (Papalists).

The Protestants were also convinced that once a woman was sitting on the Pope's throne.
Some saw in her the proof of the depravity of the Catholic Church.

In some cases, Protestant publishers were even more misogynistic on this subject than Catholic chroniclers in connection with the persecutions of witches.


In the course of this development a possible Popess Joan became completely unacceptable for the Catholic Church. One wanted to take away this sharp weapon of criticism from the Protestants and end the debate once and for all.

The means to it: Popess Joan was from now on declared a legend, a fictitious figure.


It should be remembered that letterpress printing was not invented until the middle of the 15th century. Handwritten documents are the witnesses up to this time. Interesting or important texts were copied, mainly in monasteries, because writing and reading were not general skills.

Obviously, one did not shrink from anything at all. Manuscripts «disappeared», pages were torn out, new editions with the «corrected truth» were published. - No wonder the overview became difficult.

The criticisms of the Protestants can be found at Friedrich Spanheim. They accuse the Catholic Church of falsifying history.

Cover Pagine Strappate
Cover picture

The manipulations in the case of the chronicle of Platina are impressively documented:
Bartolomeo Platina (1421-1481) was commissioned by the pope to write a chronicle of the popes, which was first printed in 1479. This list was very much appreciated by Catholics as well as Protestants, because it has a high source value especially in the representation of their own time (Reformation).

Platina herself regarded the story about the female pope as real, as did numerous chroniclers and scholars before him.
He included this pope in his list as Giovanni VIII.
In the later editions of his chronicle - after the Counter-Reformation - the Popess no longer existed.
In the 2014 published study (in Italian language) these occurrences are described. (1)

Establishment of the legend theory

The purges showed their effect: from the 18th century onwards, Popess Joan was generally regarded as a fiction or «literary figure».

In order to present her story as a legend, various arguments were put forward:
Popess Joan is dismissed as a malicious invention of the Protestants.
The story of Pope Joan is said to be an urban legend that originated in Rome in the 10th century. At that time, courtesans entered and exerted their power at the court of the Popes. Therefore, the term pornocracy is also used for this time. Among the papal whores there is also said to have been a Joan, from which the legend of the pope is said to have originated.

Unanswered questions

Päpstin Johanna. Weltchronik des Jan Enenkel
Popess Joan.
Chronicle of Jan Enenkel
The first argument for the legend theory is that the story of a female pope over the centuries before of the Reformation is documented in numerous manuscripts.

There is no evidence for the second claim (urban legend).

In both cases there are also chronological problems. If the legend at the time of pornocracy (940s) has its origin:
Why do the earliest manuscripts with manipulations that can still be proven today date back to the 870s? And why do the chroniclers of the Middle Ages usually locate the Pope in the 850s?

Nevertheless today many historians and theologians hold fast to the legend theory.
The figure of Johanna is ultimately undesirable, since she questions the dogma that is still valid: Women are not called to the priesthood.


(1) Pietro Ratto, Le Pagine Strappate. Casa Editrice Elmi's World, 2014 and in the Internet

Image «Book of Platina»: The beginning of the first book of accounts which Platina wrote as a papal librarian (autograph). Rome, Archivio di Stato, Camerale I, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana 1497, fol. 2r. Public domain.
Image «Popess Joan»: Illustration in the World Chronicle of Jan Enenkel (Jans der Enikel). Passau (?), c. 1420. Public domain