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Do You Believe That Pope Joan Was Real?

Mona is a veteran writer, educator, and coach. She is presently affiliated with Enrich Magazine and Pressenza

Pope Joan tarot card

Pope Joan tarot card

Could it have been possible?

In the 9th century, did a woman successfully disguise herself as a man, join the priesthood, and rise through the ranks to become the first and only (in secret) female Catholic Pope?

A second question follows: Is it possible that a woman can successfully disguise herself as a man, live her life as a man, and get away with it?

According to Donna Woolfolk Cross, author of the bestselling novel, Pope Joan, (of which a movie was later made based on the book), the answer is "yes". And in this book, you will see how it can be possible. But after having finished the book, a part of you still wonders -- can one really get away with it? It is, after all, a fiction novel.

Drawing of "Pope John VII" published in 1493 in Hartmann Schedel's religious Nuremberg Chronicle.

Drawing of "Pope John VII" published in 1493 in Hartmann Schedel's religious Nuremberg Chronicle.

The legend of Pope John

Compellingly, nonetheless, the book Pope Joan ends with certain pieces of a story at the end of this highly readable book that indicates that yes, there may have been a woman pope.

The medieval legend speaks of a woman, a great scholar who disguised herself as a man to join the priesthood. In Cross' book, Joan was additionally skilled in medicinal arts and her gift as a healer is what made her highly respected by her male peers and people of the church.

She became Pope John in 855, according to She ruled for a little more than two years, her gender carefully hidden by the flowing holy robes required of the priesthood and later, of the Pope.

These flowing robes also hid her pregnancy, according to legend. Her secret was revealed during a papal procession. She experienced labor pains and gave birth to her child. This enraged people, who dragged her down the road and stoned her to death.

That's one version of the legend. The other is that she died in childbirth.

Frances Louisa Clayton disguised herself as a man so that she could fight in the civil war.

Frances Louisa Clayton disguised herself as a man so that she could fight in the civil war.

Women who disguised themselves as men to go to war

I googled the phrase, “women who disguised themselves as men” and found that historically, it was actually not a rare thing. During the American civil war, many women wanted to fight and disguised themselves as men so they could do so. Conversely, there are also stories of men who didn't want to fight and so they disguised themselves as women, in this way, evading having to go to war.

In fact, there is documentation of women who disguised themselves as men so they could be sailors or take on other male professions. Oftentimes these women craved the freedom that men had. They wanted to undo their garter strings and other restrictions that came along with womanhood.

Sometimes they did it so they could fight beside the man they loved. At other times they saw that in a profession run by men, they may find a man they could really love. And then there were financial needs. Because as women, they would be unable to find work.

Raphael's The Baptism of Constantine


Transition from paganism to Christianity

It is apparently true that women have oftentimes disguised themselves as men in history and gotten away with it. And yes, there may have been a Pope Joan who did that very same thing so that she could pursue what follows after one has proven to become an erudite scholar.

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Even more compellingly told in this story is the history of how pagans had to hide their own identities and pretend to be Christians, still in transition as Constantine became a Christian himself in the fourth century.

People prayed secretly to Thor and other gods. Women did so if they married a Christian man.

Interesting, too, is the role that herbal medicine played at a time when there were no medical discoveries approximating those of today. Joan's medical gifts lent stature to her as a priest and were pivotal in her becoming Pope John.

Pope Joan: A Novel

The earliest writings that mention Pope Joan were in the 13th century. It was chronicled by Stephen of Bourbon and Jean de Mailly, both Dominican friars. She was again mentioned in the 14th century by writer Giovanni Boccaccio who included her in a book about famous women. She was depicted in paintings, tarot cards, and sculptures. Also, she was briefly part of a collection of papal busts in the Siena Cathedral in Italy.

And yet today, she is considered a fictional character because no writings exist that are close to the time she supposedly reigned as Pope in 855.

What I also found compelling in Cross' book were extensive descriptions of how alternative medicine worked and why a practitioner could be given such stature, a picture of what the transition to Catholicism entailed, the mysterious life in a monastery, and the pomp and circumstance that came with papal ceremony and dress, versus the secret goings-on in the minds of people, and the secret acts behind the pulpit.

What do you think?


Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 10, 2021:

That is so true, Devika. Women have come a long way. To think, they would dress like men so that they could find freedom and get jobs, yes, the comparison is compelling.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 08, 2021:

grand old lady this is a good question. Nicely written and to think of how much women could do then and to see how much women can do in this time.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 07, 2021:

Thank you for your visit and your kind remarks, Mubarak. I am most grateful to you:)

Mubarak from INDIA on March 07, 2021:

It's really an interesting article. I live in a best generation I am lucky. Thanks to my star.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 07, 2021:

Yes, Mary, it is really interesting how women found freedom by disguising themselves as men. We can thank our lucky stars that we live in a better generation. The book was most interesting. Thank you for visit. It's always nice hearing from you:):):).

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 07, 2021:

I read that book, too, on Pope Joan. Interesting, isn't it? When women were not allowed to do many things, it's tempting to pose as men to do the things that women want to do.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 07, 2021:

Hi Ms. Dora, you're right about being deceitful in order to gain power. In the book though, she started as a priest and didn't expect to eventually become a pope. But she was so good in what we now call alternative medicine, that she was looked up to by many. It's a fictional book, and I think I wouldn't ordinarily read it, but it was so well written that I just couldn't put it down.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 07, 2021:

That's a very good point, Flourish Anyway. She was in far more danger of being caught than a woman pope, if there ever was one.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 06, 2021:

I'm tempted to say Kudos to Joan for getting away with it, but then something seems to be wrong with being deceitful in order to assume a spiritual position. Thanks for the revelation!

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 06, 2021:

Who knows about Pope Joan but that Civil War soldier was interesting. If she had been injured and needed surgery on the battlefield the charade would be all over for her.

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