Looking for Pope Joan

ByABC News
August 19, 2015, 2:54 PM

Dec. 29, 2005 — -- In a medieval mystery of the Catholic Church lies evidence of a woman pope, with clues buried in ancient parchment, artwork and writings, even in tarot cards and a bizarre chair once used in a Vatican ritual.

Was there a Pope Joan -- a woman with nerve enough to disguise herself as a man and serve as pope for more than two years in the ninth century? It is one of the world's oldest mysteries. Her story first appeared in histories written by medieval monks, but today the Catholic Church dismisses it.

"Ninety percent of me thinks there was a Pope Joan," says Mary Malone, a former nun who wrote a history of women and Christianity.

Donna Cross, a novelist who spent seven years researching the time period, says the historical evidence is there. "I would say it's the weight of evidence -- over 500 chronicle accounts of her existence."

Life was often short and brutal for women living in A.D. 800.

"No woman would have been allowed to appear on the streets in public," says Malone. "That named you as a prostitute immediately. Women were confined to their homes."

In the town of Mainz, Germany, where it is thought the girl who might have became Pope Joan grew up, most people lived in mud huts. The average life span was only 30 or 40 years.

But English missionaries were bringing Christianity to Germany, and they created a monastery called Fulda, which became a center of education, books and conversation for travelers -- but it was only for boys.

In his "History of Emperors and Popes," a monk named Martin Polonus, who was a close adviser to the pope wrote about a young woman from Mainz who learned Greek and Latin and became "proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge."

Cross and other historians say a girl studying at the monastery would have no choice but to disguise herself as a boy. But how was it possible to keep the secret?

"First of all, you might want to remember that clerical robes are very body-disguising," says Cross. "Also, in the ninth century, personal hygiene was nonexistent. Nobody bathed. They washed their hands, their face, their feet, but they didn't bathe."

Also, clergy members were required to be clean shaven, and malnutrition made most men and women physically gaunt.

Polonus wrote that this woman was "led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers." Then, according to the 500 accounts, the woman made her way to Rome.

In the ninth century, Rome and the Vatican were nothing like today's solemn and civilized center of culture and faith. Then the center of the Christian faith was home to bawdy monks, scheming cardinals, cross-dressing saints, intrigue, melodrama, corruption and violence.

"Popes ... killed each other off, hammered each other to death," says Mary Malone, the former nun. "There were 12-year-old popes ... we have knowledge of a 5-year-old archbishop. ... It was a very odd time in history."

That also means it would have been a time of opportunity for someone with ambition and nerve. The chronicles say that's how Joan, known as John Anglicus, or English John, became secretary to a curia, a cardinal, and then, as Polonus writes, "the choice of all for pope" in the year A.D. 855.

If you travel to Italy and ask questions about Pope Joan, many people will direct you toward the clues embedded in art, literature and architecture.