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Why Pope Joan?

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 99, Number 2, April 2013
pp. 219-238 | 10.1353/cat.2013.0078



For 700 years a tale has been told about an English woman who was elected pope in the mid-ninth century. Called Pope Joan, she supposedly was born in Mainz of English parents. Dressed as a man, she traveled to Athens with a lover, acquired an education, moved to Rome, impressed the cardinals (who did not know she was a woman), and was unanimously elected pope. While crossing the city in a procession she unexpectedly gave birth near the church of San Clemente, died on the spot, and was buried there. Joan’s story cannot be traced back to the ninth century. It arose in the thirteenth century and was universally believed until the sixteenth century. In succeeding historical periods the figure of Joan proved useful to many writers.