While not top conversation within the Catholic Church, a historical legend has it that a woman named Joan held the Papal Seat in the Middle Ages. In the 13th century, printed chronicles of her life spread throughout Europe recounting her story, shocking Christians throughout the world and gaining her wide fame. She was said to have lived her life disguised as a man named “John”, working her way up within the church until finally being elected Pope (or “Papessa”) in 855. As legend has it, she held the position for two years before her dramatic unveiling.
During a large religious procession, which the Pope herself was leading on horseback, the crowds cornered and startled her horse, causing it to buck. Joan’s sudden fall caused her to go into labour (she had apparently been hiding her pregnant belly under the Papal garb for some time), thus unveiling her secret: she was indeed a woman!
The public (and the church itself) were outraged – so much so that they tied her to her own horse and had her dragged around the city to be shamed before finally executing her.
Pope Joan Statue
While historians can’t seem to agree on whether the story of Pope Joan is true, the church insists that it is a mere legend – but we can’t deny that it is, at the very least, a rather creative tale! Illustrations of the legendary “Papessa” have been found in historical literature throughout Europe, in addition to a wide variety of sculptures! In fact, she even inspired a 2009 film, adequately titled “Pope Joan”.
Regardless of what may be true, it is undeniable that some choose to believe! In Rome, the Shrine to Pope Joan, which is said to mark the place of her execution, is frequently decorated with fresh flowers, candles, and cards even to this day. It can be found at Via dei Quercetti 27.
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Author: April Nicole
April is an American writer and photographer who has lived in Rome since 2013. She enjoys exploring the museums of the city, as well as indulging in authentic Italian cuisine!