Joan, pope(ss), is the name of a fictitious female who was supposed to have occupied the chair of St. Peter, as John VIII, between the popes Leo IV and Benedict III, about 853-855. This personage is first said to have been spoken of as a Roman pontiff by Marianus Scotus, a monk of the abbey of Fulda, who died at Mentz in 1086, and who says in his chronicle (which many authorities declare to be spurious), under the year 853, the thirteenth year of the reign of the emperor Lotharius, that Leo IV died on the 1st of August, and that to him succeeded Joan, a woman, whose pontificate lasted two years, five months, and four days, after which Benedict III was made pope. But Anastasius, who lived at the time of the supposed pope Joan, and who wrote the lives of the popes down to Nicholas I, who succeeded Benedict III, says that fifteen days after Leo IV's death Benedict III succeeded him. Further, Hincmar of Rheims, a contemporary, in his twenty-sixth letter to Nicholas I, states that Benedict III succeeded Leo IV immediately. It is proved, moreover, by the unquestionable evidence of a diploma still preserved, and of a contemporary coin which Garampi has published, that Benedict III was actually reigning before the death of the emperor Lothaire, which occurred towards the close of 855. It is true that some MS. copies of Anastasius, among others, one in the king's library at Paris, contain the story of Joan; but this has been ascertained to be an interpolation of later copyists, who have inserted the tale in the very words of Martinus Polonus, a Cistercian monk and confessor to Gregory X (latter part of the 12th century), who wrote the Lives of the Popes, in which, after Leo IV, he places "John, an Englishman," and then adds, "Hic, ut asseritur, foemina fuit." Other authorities for this story are Sigbert of Gemblours († 1113) and Stephen de Bourbon, who wrote about 1225.
According to these accounts, she was the daughter of an English missionary, was born at Mayence or Ingelheim, and was a woman of very loose morals. She is said to have removed to Fulda, and having there established an improper intimacy with a monk of the convent, assumed male attire, entered the convent, and afterwards eloped with her paramour, who was a very learned man, to Athens, where she applied herself to the study of Greek and the sciences under her lover's able directions. After the death of her companion she went to Rome, where she became equally proficient in sacred learning, for which her reputation became so great, under the assumed name of Johannes Anglicanus, that she easily obtained holy orders, and with such ability and adroitness clad the deception that at the death of Leo she was unanimously elected as his successor, under the general belief of her male sex. Continuing to indulge in sexual intercourse, the fraud was finally discovered, to the infinite mortification of the Roman Church, by her sudden delivery of an infant in the public streets, near the Colosseum, while heading a religious procession to the Lateran Basilica. The mother and child died soon after, and were buried in 856. This event is said to have caused the adoption of the Sella stercoraria, which was in use from the middle of the 11th century to the time of Leo X, for the purpose of proving the sex of the popes elect.
The story was generally credited from the latter part of the 11th until the opening of the 16th century. All Church historians after Martinus generally copied it from him, and presented it as an authentic narrative. The first to doubt the accuracy of the story was Platina (1421-1481), who, although repeating it in his Lives of the Popes, concludes with these words: "The things I have above stated are current in vulgar reports, but are taken from uncertain and obscure authorities, and I have inserted them briefly and simply not to be taxed with obstinacy." Panvinius, Platina's continuator, seems to have been more critical: he subjoins a very elaborate note, in which he shows the absurdity of the tale, and proves it to have been an invention. Later Roman Catholic writers, seeing the arguments which their opponents in doctrine obtained from this story against papal succession, took great pains to impeach its accuracy; but it is truly curious that the best dissertation on the subject is that of David Blondel, a Protestant, who completely refutes the story in his Familier Eclaircissement de la question si une Femine a ete assise au Siege Papal entre Leon IV et Benoit III (Amsterdam, 1649). He was followed on the same side by Leibnitz (Flores sparsi in tumulum Papissoe, in [Chr. L. Scheidt] Biblioth. Hist. [Götting. 1758], 1, 297 sq.), and, although attempts have been made from time to time by a few writers to maintain the tale (among which one of the most noted was a work published in 1785 by Humphrey Shuttleworth, entitled A Present for a Papist, or the History of the Life of Pope Joan, proving that a Woman called Joan really was Pope of Rome), it has been all but universally discarded, its latest patron being professor Kist, of Leyden, who but a few years since devoted an elaborate essay (Verhandeling over de Pausin Joanna) to the subject. Nearly all ecclesiastical writers of our day seem to be agreed that no feminine character ever filled the papal chair, but there is certainly a variety of opinions as to the causes which provoked the story. Some attribute it to a misconception of the object of the Sella
stercoraria; the canons excluded eunuchs from the papal throne, and the sella stercoraria was contrived to prove that the person elected fulfilled the requirements of the canons. Others consider it as a symbolical satire. Still others look upon it as a lampoon on the incontinence of the pope, John VIII; or, and perhaps more correctly, as a satire on the female regiment (under Marozia) during the popedom of John X-XII. See, for further details, Gieseler's Kirchengeschichte, vol. 2, pt. 1 (4th ed.), 29 sq.; also Wensing, Over de Pausin Joanna — in reply to Kist — (S'Gravenhage, 1845); Bianchi Giovini's Esame Critico degli atti relativi alla Papessa Giovanna (Milan, 1845) ; Bower, Hist. Popes, 4, 246 sq.; Fuhrmann, Handwörterb. der Kirchengesch. 2, 469 sq.; Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 6, 721; Christ. Examiner, 75, 197; Western Rev. April, 1864, p. 279. (J.H.W.)