Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Pope Joan

According to the earliest versions of the legend, Joan was a 9th-century Englishwoman reared in Germany. In male dress she accompanied a lover to Athens, where she studied extensively, then went to Rome, perhaps masquerading as a Benedictine monk. Being a person of intellect, learning and charm, she rose in office, eventually being elected pope and reigning for 2-3 years as Pope John. She then became pregnant by one of her household and, during a street procession, suffered a fatal miscarriage. According to some, her body was thrown into the Tiber; according to others, she was buried at the spot. Later popes, when processing, avoided the place of her death, which was marked by a monument.

The origin of the legend, which first appeared in the 13th century, is not known, although it seems certain it has no historical basis; by the Reformation it was rejected except by religious polemicists. It was probably a folktale that emerged from a coalition of anecdotes about transvestite female religios, local folklore about Roman monuments, and a distorted memory of the early and middle 10th century, during the reigns of various Popes John – when for example Marozia (?   -938) scandalously controlled the papacy.

Despite the power of the theme, it has had few literary treatments. Boccaccio included a section on Joan in his De claris mulieribus. A lost English play, Pope Joan, was performed in 1591-1592, and in 1689 The Female Prelate, or The Life and Death of Pope Joan by Elkanah Settle (1648-1724) was acted on the London stage. A less significant treatment occurs in Pope Joan, or The Female Pontiff (1850-1851) by the sensational novelist G W M Reynolds (1814-1879), where Joan is identified with the 9th-century John VII/VIII. The story, which concerns itself with a sentimentalized Joan before she entered the clergy, takes place in a Gothic-novel Spain and stresses sex and sadism, with plentiful harassment and tortures. Only in the last chapter does Joan appear as pope. To fit Victorian sensibilities she is not pregnant, but drops dead merely through being recognized and unmasked. Other novels include The Woman who was Pope (1931) by Clement Wood, When Joan was Pope (1931) by Richard Ince, The Book of Joanna (1947) by George Borodin (real name George Milkomane, 1903-1996) and The Legend of Pope Joan (1983) by Emily Hope. A collateral work, Marjorie Bowen's supernatural Black Magic (1909), tells of one Ursula who became Pope Michael II. Much the outstanding fictional account of Pope Joan is Papissa Joanna (1886) by the Greek author Emmanuel Rhoïdes, which is essentially a very witty satire on the Greek Orthodox Church, Christianity, religion and politics. It has been translated into many languages – into English at least three times; of these translations Pope Joan (1960) by Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) is the finest, though sometimes inaccurate.

There is a Card game called Pope Joan, and Joan (as "La Papessa") often figures on one of the Tarot cards. Joan has been taken up by modern feminists; such works include Elizabeth Gould Davis's The First Sex (1973) and Elizabeth Goessmann's scholarly Mulier Papa: Der Skandal eines weiblichen Papstes (1994), which contains an elaborate historical apparatus and facsimile reproductions of many Renaissance texts. A UK movie, Pope Joan (1972; vt The Devil's Impostor US), is generally regarded as undistinguished. [EFB]

further reading: The Female Pope (1988) by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.