Legends of a Medieval Female Pope May Tell the Truth

September 21, 2018

Medieval legends claim that Pope Joan was the first and only female pope. And now, an analysis of ancient silver coins suggests that the ordained woman may have actually lived.

According to legends from the Middle Ages, a pope named John, or Johannes Anglicus, who reigned during the middle of the ninth century, was actually a woman, Pope Joan. For instance, a story from the 13th century written by a Dominican monk from Poland named Martin claimed that Pope Joan became pregnant and gave birth during a church procession. [History’s 10 Most Intriguing Popes]

However, there is much debate over whether a pope named Johannes Anglicus existed, much less whether this pope was a man or woman. The doubt stems in part from the great deal of confusion over the identities of popes during the middle of the ninth century. For example, in the oldest surviving copy of the “Liber Pontificalis,” the official book of biographies of popes during the early Middle Ages, “Pope Benedict III is missing entirely,”study author Michael Habicht, an archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, told Live Science.

Discovering whether Pope Joan existed may not only solve a religious and historical mystery, but also factor in to modern arguments over the role of women in the church. “The debate on female ordination in the church is still ongoing,” Habicht said.

Now, Habicht has suggested that symbols on medieval coins show that Pope Johannes Anglicus may have existed, and so, Pope Joan may have been real as well. “The coins really turned the tables in favor of a covered-up but true story,” Habicht said.

The research began when Habicht was conducting unrelated work investigating burials of popes in Rome. “In the beginning, I also believed that the story of Joan was mere fiction, but when I did more-extensive research, more and more, the possibility emerged that there was more behind the story,” he said.

Habicht analyzed silver coins known as deniers that were used in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Their name comes from the ancient Roman silver coin known as the denarius. “They are quite small, perhaps the size of a U.S. dime or quarter,” he said.

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