Haunted History: The Legend of Pope Joan
Updated: Jul 26
While I was researching the history of the High Priestess tarot card, I learned about Pope Joan. Pope Joan was allegedly a Pope during the Medieval Ages, I say allegedly because the Vatican’s official records indicate that only men have had the position. Still rumors and legends of a lone female Pope have endured. And it seems at some points throughout history, her existence was an accepted part of Catholic history. The story of Pope Joan first appeared in writings by Dominican Friars Stephen of Bourbon and Jean de Mailly, during the 1200s. Her story became even more commonplace in the 14th Century after Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about her, and other famous women, in a book.
Pope Joan wasn’t given the title despite her gender. The story goes that she was so determined, she hid her gender carefully for many years. She excelled in her studies and was finally elected to the position in the year 855, under the name Pope John VIII (though I’ve also seen her written about as Pope Johannes). The legend says that Pope Joan ruled successfully for two years in disguise, until she went into labor during a religious procession that she was leading through the streets of Rome in 858.
Here is where accounts differ. Some believe that the childbirth killed her and others that the people were so upset by her trickery that she was killed in quite an upsetting way.
Despite the vivid details of her story, there is still much speculation that Joan was not a real person. The years of her alleged rule overlap with other well known Popes. One leading theory is that her story started as satire, meant to mock the Church. Though others still hold that she was real, but that her story had been removed from all official documents.
As recently as 2018, Smithsonian Magazine wrote about modern historians who were attempting to prove her existence by locating physical evidence. Archaeologist Michael E. Habicht claims that there are slight differences on the papal monograms that would have been engraved into the coins of the time. He believes that you can see differences between the coins of Pope Johannes Anglicus (who he believes to be Popess Joan), and the following Pope, Pope John VIII.
We may never know for sure, but regardless of if she was real or legendary, Popess Joan has had an impact on art, tarot and history forever.