Pope Joan: Legendary Church Leader

By Student Elissa Meyers

She appeared like a specter on the margins of medieval thought—a rumor of a woman dressed as a man, traveling through the countryside gaining love, knowledge, and the ultimate power—the papacy. She went by many names: Jutta, Gilberta, the popess, la papessa, and in English, Pope Joan.

This picture from an illuminated manuscript called the “Weltchronik” (1450) shows Pope Joan literally on the margins of medieval literature. Go to image source.

The basic elements of Pope Joan’s story usually remain the same. She was a German girl who lived in the ninth century, or the 800s A.D. She somehow earned a university education, though women were not allowed to attend university at the time, and managed to rise in the ranks of the Catholic Church, eventually getting to the office of the papacy. She allegedly reigned as Pope John VIII from 855 to 857, and fell in love during her reign (Afterlife 1), which was said to have ended when she gave birth to a baby during an important religious procession. Because she had had sinned according to the Church by having sex, and by impersonating a man to gain such power, she is alternately reported to have died in childbirth or to have been killed for her sins (Afterlife 1).

Though her story is fascinating,  it never really took place.

Nevertheless, this has hardly stopped people from writing about her. In the nine centuries since she was first mentioned, Pope Joan’s image has been made and remade again and again. As far as we know, Joan was first written about by a friar, Jean de Mailly, in the year 1250. De Mailly’s mentions Joan in a short, doubtful way, as though requesting more information about her, and openly admits that he does not know whether or not she was real (Afterlife 4).

Many stories characterized Joan either as good or as too complex to pass judgment on, while in the early modern era, Protestant playwrights started characterizing her as solely, unredeemably bad. They used her image in plays and books in order to show the immorality of Catholics, with whom they were often in bitter disputes about religion and politics. In more recent times, however, Joan’s image has become a symbol for the rights and privileges that women often do not have even today. Her story can also be seen as an empowering one for women today, inspiring them to try to gain power even in the face of obstacles. Though men have often written about Joan as a bad girl, women have now taken back the image of Joan, and have re-written her story. Because her image refuses to stay static, she is, like the other women on this site, a woman of action.

Medieval interpretations of Pope Joan often depicted her as a woman who was complex, both good and bad. Authors also usually depicted her fate as tragic, even when they saw her as mostly bad (Afterlife 64). For instance, in the late medieval German play Ein schon spiel von Frau Jutten by Dietrich Schernberg, which was first performed in 1480, Pope Joan cross-dresses in order to go to university, and rises to the papacy as a consequence of the great learning she gains there. This version therefore makes her appear less immoral than in some other versions, as she is only cross-dressing in order to learn, not in order to gain power (Wright 162). Jutta, as she is called in this play, also behaves virtuously as a pope, making those who discover her true identity realize that a woman could be virtuous and disciplined enough to perform such an important role (Wright 161). In the end, she is still stoned to death as in many other forms of this legend. However, those who kill her pity her, and Jutta’s soul is eventually allowed to go to Heaven after the Virgin Mary herself petitions Jesus Christ on her behalf (Wright 163).

Pope Joan
This example is an engraving from “Liber chronicarum” by Hartmann Schedel. It was created in 1493, toward the end of the medieval period (Afterlife 28).

Images from this era also depict Pope Joan more sympathetically. She is often shown holding a baby, bringing to mind a woman whom medieval Christians thought of as almost divine, the Virgin Mary.

This picture is from an illuminated manuscript written in shows Joan in the act of giving birth during the procession that would prove her undoing–another common way of showing her in the medieval period (Afterlife 22).


 One very important event in the history of Europe that greatly affected representations of Pope Joan was the Protestant Reformation, in which Protestants made public their theological disagreements with the Catholic Church, resulting in much violence. Early modern (1500s-1700s) versions of Pope Joan were written by both Protestants and Catholics, among whom there was great tension. Both groups wrote plays and books that depicted Joan in a harsher light, often to gain not only religious power, but also political power. The stakes were high, because if people could affect the beliefs of kings and queens, they could also affect the ways they governed their countries.

In 1680, Elkanah Settle, an  English Protestant, wrote the play, The Female Prelate (“Gender” 271). At the time there was great outrage because there were rumors that the king, Charles II, was looking to find his son, James II, a French Catholic bride (“Gender” 271). Protestants burned effigies of popes to show their disapproval of the Catholic Church, and each side attempted to make the other seem immoral.

This engraving was done in 1539. The fact that Joan is pictured lying down while giving birth to her baby suggests that early modern culture saw her as lowered by sin (“Afterlife”23).

In Settle’s version of the legend, Joan disguises herself many times–as a monk, as a cardinal, as the bride of the Duke, who is her lover, and as a priest’s mistress. It seems important that she often disguises herself as powerful men, while several other times, she disguises herself as a man’s mistress. This version of the play made Joan and the Catholic Church she represented look very immoral.

The reasons Joan disguised herself also make her look immoral. She always disguises herself either to save herself or to get revenge on someone, making Catholics look selfish and vengeful. Settle’s play tried to make the Catholic Church look immoral by associating them with a woman who disguised her true identity by cross-dressing, had premarital sex, and according to the rules of the Catholic Church, unfairly took the right to rule (Afterlife 27).

On the Catholic side of post-Reformation debates about Pope Joan, the French author, Raemond de Florimond wrote the book Erreure Populaire in the year 1587 to disprove the legend of Pope Joan and to absolve the Catholic Church of the scandal caused by her legend. However, like Protestants who wrote about Pope Joan, he was not only concerned with the religious power of the Church, but also the political power. For instance, his book contains two chapters in which he links the legend of Pope Joan to England’s then queen, Elizabeth I. Just as Pope Joan’s legend made people doubt the power and religious authority of the Catholic Church, so Raemond thought that Queen Elizabeth had stolen the true authority of the Catholic Church in acting as the head of the Protestant Church of England (Afterlife 63).

Unfortunately for him, Raemond actually made the Catholic Church look worse in the process (Tinsley 397).

This example show how though people often used Pope Joan’s legend for political power, Joan’s legend was difficult to control; it already had a life of its own.

Pope Joan is show hanging, which shows how harshly early modern people thought of her.
This engraving is from Lectionum memorabilium, written in 1600. Pope Joan is show hanging and surrounded by devils, which shows how harshly early modern people portrayed her. (Afterlife 29)
This picture comes from a production of Top Girls in Trafalgar Square in London.


In recent times, one interpretation of Pope Joan, showing the influence of feminism, presents her as a powerful woman whose lack of knowledge about her woman’s body results in her tragedy. Top Girls, a play written by British playwright, Caryl Churchill, and first performed in 1982, tells the story of a female executive named Marlene who dreams that she meets up with several spunky women from history for a dinner party. One of these women is Pope Joan.

In one speech, Pope Joan declares “I would know God. I would know everything” (Top Girls). This statement suggests that her quest for knowledge as well as the power of infinite knowledge were key in her decision to ascend the throne.

In a second speech, Joan again reveals that she enjoys the sheer power of being pope, as shown by her pleasure in ordaining cardinals and receiving the penitent king of England. However, she also reveals that she enjoyed taking a lover, an act in which she can no longer hide her sex.

Joan characterizes herself as defeated by her body when she talks about having her baby. She says that she could not avoid the scandal of childbirth because “I wasn’t used to having a woman’s body” (Top Girls). She relates that when the contractions of birth came, “I couldn’t plan things properly anymore” (Top Girls), again suggesting that her body and her mind are directly at odds.

Watch the entire play below. It touches on women’s lives today and in the past.

Through the virago ideal, the idea that a woman could learn and serve God better if she was a man was popular in medieval times, its similarity to Marlene’s story illustrates that it has relevance for modern audiences. For instance, Marlene struggles with whether or not to abort her child, and with how to have a child and still be a powerful woman. The comments of women in the audience polled by one researcher show that many women felt Joan’s story to be empowering, but that they often have ambivalence about the dramatic sacrifice of her womanhood that Joan had to make (Ammen 89). While Marlene’s pant-suited success shows that to some degree, women still have to pretend to be men to succeed, these comments illustrate that many women now think that one should be able to be a woman and a success.

Aside from Top Girls, Joan’s image has gone a bit wild in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in terms of both how often her image is used, and the many different ways in which people interpret that image. In literary terms, Pope Joan has become a simulacrum, a symbol without a referent. Pope Joan has inspired several movies, a stage musical, an opera, a novel, a hurdy-gurdy band, and perhaps most strangely, a brunch restaurant in Melbourne, Australia.


I am going to comment briefly on the ways in which Joan’s image is used in these different interpretations.

Die Papstin


In this musical, Die Papstin, Pope Joan is a character who is, according to the trailer, “forced to choose between duty and love” (Die Papstin trailer). This is a much different choice than the one Joan has often made in the past–the choice between power and love. Though the musical (based on the novel) looks as glitzy and full of singing as anyone could want, it seems not to give Joan as much power as even her early modern detractors did. Though they portrayed her as evil, at least they gave her the credit for choosing the papacy.

See the musical trailer

See the entire film in German. It has sensitive content.

Pope Joan (the movie and the novel)

I will only comment briefly on these two, because the musical is based on the book, as is the movie. Though I have not read or seen these interpretations, I have read reviews and synopses. They both seem to portray Joan, as in the musical, as reluctant to become the pope, rather than eager to gain power. Be warned that they also seem to portray the medieval period in a way that is blatantly inaccurate, claiming that women were not allowed to be educated. In reality, they could become educated as nuns, though they certainly would not have had the power afforded a pope. Watch and read with caution.

Read a synopsis of the novel

Ammen, Sharon. “Feminist Revision and Audience Response: Tracing the Absent Utopia in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.Utopian Studies 7.1 (1996): 86-102. JSTOR. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

“Die Papstin.” Musical World. http://www.musical-world.de/theater/musicals-alphabetisch/m-r/paepstin/spielzeit-2013/.

Hackett, Helen. “Suffering Saints or Ladies Errant? Women Who Travel for Love in Renaissance Prose Fiction.” The Yearbook of English Studies 41.1 (2011): 126-140. JSTOR. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

“Homepage.” Pope Joan. Pope Joan Eatery, n.d. Web. 21 April 2014. http://popejoan.com.au/.

Rustici, Craig M. The Afterlife of Pope Joan: Deploying the Popess Legend in Early Modern England. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2006. Ebrary. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

Rustici, Craig M. “Gender, Disguise, and Usurpation; The Female Prelate and the Popish Successor.” Modern Philology 98.2 (2000): 271-298. JSTOR. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Tinsley, Barbara Sher. “Pope Joan Polemic in Early Modern France: The Use and Disabuse of Myth.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 18.3 (1987): 381-398. JSTOR. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Wikimedia Commons. Web. 21 April 2014. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ein_fraw_was_pabst.jpg.

Wright, Stephen. “Joseph as Mother, and Jutta as Pope: Gender and Transgression in Medieval German Drama.” Theatre Journal 51.2 (1999): 149-166. JSTOR. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.