The Legend Of Pope Joan Explained

Women have achieved many things in history, but can a woman ever become a pope? The answer is no, according to the Roman Catholic Church’s laws. The first step to becoming a pope is to be ordained, and women are not allowed to become priests. The reasoning is that Jesus had 12 male apostles and the Catholic Church believes it is a sign that only men should have certain positions inside the church (via Livescience).

According to Britannica, the world has seen 260 popes since St. Peter, considered the first pope in history. Officially, they were all men, but the medieval legend of Pope Joan claims there was an exception in the 9th Century when a woman became pope for the first and only time in history.

The legend became popular in Europe during the 13th Century, and many people believed it was a real story. The tale says Joan disguised herself as a man and was ordained as a priest. She was outstanding, achieved higher positions inside the church, and eventually became pope. The oversized clothing worn by clergy helped Joan to hide her identity. However, people discovered she was a woman when Joan went into labor during a papal procession. The stories diverge; some say the crowd stoned her and her child to death on the spot; some say she was tortured and killed; others say she and her child left town (via History).

There is no evidence Pope Joan ever existed. However…

The legend of Pope Joan was reportedly written by Martin Polonus, a Dominican Monk during the 13th Century, per Livescience, and many people assumed it was true. Giovanni Boccaccio included her name in the book “100 Famous Women” in the 14th Century, and she became a cultural icon, portrayed in paintings, sculptures and even tarot cards as “La Papessa.”

According to ABC News, there is no evidence in the Vatican Archives that Pope Joan existed, and most historians believe she is a myth. Some claim it was an anti-papal tale created as a criticism of the church. However, ancient silver coins featuring a monogram of the pope, possibly Pope Joan, have triggered new theories. LiveScience reports that they were used in Western Europe during the Middle Ages.

Some people believe that Pope Joan was erased by the Catholic Church, something not tricky back then, as there is a confusion about the popes that lived during the 9th Century. In the oldest version of the official book with the popes’ biographies, there are no references to Pope Benedict III, who died in 858, for example.

Pope Joan would not be the only woman to live under a disguise inside the church. According to ABC News, over 30 female saints pretended to be a man for various reasons. Perhaps most famously, St. Joan of Arc came under attack for wearing men’s clothing, though she never presented herself as male. She was executed for heresy and witchcraft in 1431; in 1920 she was officially recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.

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