The She-Pope of Rome

This is one of the most mysterious events of the Roman Middle Ages. Rumor or truth, Rome would have had a female pope during the ninth century AD.



Who’s her?

Her name was Joan, she was of English origin but she was born in Mainz, Germany. She moved to Athens and became a real expert in theology and…cunningness! The Church in fact has always denied the priesthood to women … our Joan, then, used a stratagem: she dressed as a boy and, thanks to her tenacity, in 855 AD was elected Pope with the name of John VIII, remaining in office for two years.


The She-Pope Joan in an ancient representation (Credits:



No lie lives forever

But its history was not a happy ending. Chastity, in fact, was not among the virtues of the Papess who soon fell in love with a subordinate, the only one who knew his secret. When she got pregnant, she was ill while riding from the Vatican to the Lateran, then the residence of the pope. Forced to stop, she gave birth to a child under the eyes of all, suddenly revealing her secret.


The She-Pope Joan gives birth to her own child (Credits:


Tradition reports that the place where Joan would have given birth to her son would be a few steps from the Colosseum and to be precise in Via dei Querceti, where today we can admire a sacred shrine in the form of a chapel with the image of a Madonna and Child. The road, among other things, was known in ancient times under the name of Vicus Papisse.


The sacred shrine of the She-Pope in Via dei Querceti (Credits:


The end of the story

You’ll be curious by now what happened to Joan. Most sources report that she died immediately after giving birth. There is, however, a second hypothesis according to which, immediately deposited, she became a nun and lived in penance, until her son became bishop of Ostia. At the point of her death, she asked to be buried where she gave birth. The son prevented this and, having transported the mother’s body to Ostia, had her buried in a church, paying her honours.


The She-Pope Joan in a famous film dedicated to her (Credits:


The story, perhaps born to discredit the institution of the Papacy, increasingly powerful over the centuries of the Middle Ages, remains in itself very fascinating.


Posted by Sara Pandozzi

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