Did the Medieval Catholic Church Have a Female Pope?

Correction Appended

The election of Pope Francis as the 266th bishop of Rome held many milestones. Francis is the first Latin American pope in history and the first non-European pontiff in about 1,200 years.

However, some have claimed that a Medieval pope might have reached a milestone considered impossible given the standards and rules of Vatican City for ordained clergy.

Legend has it that in the ninth century the Roman Catholic Church was ruled briefly by a "Pope Joan," who disguised herself as a man, rising through the ranks of the male-dominated hierarchy.

Many have hailed the legend as true, with two feature-length films (1972 and 2009) and a 2009 novel by American writer Donna Woolfolk Cross advancing the idea.

"For 1,200 years her existence has been denied. She is the legend that will not die--the woman who disguised herself as a man and sat for two years on the papal throne," reads an entry on the home page of Cross' website for the work.

"In this stirring international bestseller, Donna Woolfolk Cross brings the Dark Ages to life in all their brutal splendor, and shares the dramatic story of a woman whose courage makes her a heroine for every age."

However, historians are unconvinced. Mack Holt, professor of History at George Mason University, told The Christian Post that the "Pope Joan" story is fictional in nature.

"Pope Joan is a myth and no serious scholar today believes the story to be true. It was first claimed in the 13th century by Jean de Mailly, a Dominican chronicler, that a woman in male disguise succeeded Pope Leo IV in 855," said Holt.

"After reigning for two years she gave birth to a child and died soon thereafter. Although many medieval Christians believed in this myth, there is no evidence whatsoever to substantiate the story."

Holt attributed the enduring nature of the story to "some people's readiness to believe in any and every conspiracy theory out there."

Diarmaid MacCulloch, a theologian and historian from Oxford University, recently told CNN in an interview that the Pope Joan story is merely fictional satire.

"It keeps appealing to new anxieties and new interests … So first it's medieval people who resented the papacy. Then it's Protestants. Then it's French revolutionaries who want to discredit the church," said MacCulloch.

"The next constituency is actually Catholics who want to see women priests. And this seems to me the most dangerous aspect of the story, because it's using a story which is patently nonsense to boost a good cause."

Andrew Galloway, director of the Medieval Studies program and Graduate English program at Cornell University, told The Christian Post that stories like the Pope Joan one were products of Medieval imagination and politics.

"Dominicans and Franciscans were often in conflict with the papacy, especially in the later 13th and early 14th century (at that time the Franciscans were forced by the papacy to relinquish one of their founding principles of not owning property, or be burned as heretics, which a number of them were)," said Galloway.

"There are reasons why a scandalous story against the papacy might have been launched, and there are always stories of cross-dressing of heroes and holy men in medieval culture. The oddity of a very learned woman always attracted interest in the Middle Ages as well."

In addition to no confirmed accounts from the ninth century of a "Pope Joan," positioning her after the reign of Leo IV becomes awkward given the confirmed record of papal reigns. According to Catholic Encyclopedia, in the same year that Pope Leo died Pope Benedict III was consecrated; this would make it make hard for a two-year reign by a female pontiff to take place.

Correction: Monday, March 18, 2013

An article on Thursday, March 14, 2013, about scholars denouncing the "Pope Joan" story incorrectly attributed remarks by Andrew Galloway, Cornell Professor of Medieval Studies and Chair of English, to Oren Falk, associate professor of History at Cornell University and academic director of its Medieval Studies Program.