Pope Joan

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There exists a persistent legend which has been reported since at least the thirteenth century of a woman who became Pope. In some later versions, she is named John Anglicus ('English John [or Joan: the two are different versions of the same name]: most commonly, when she is named, it is as Pope Joan. She is said to have passed as a man, until one day she gave birth, while riding a horse. This led, so the legend goes, to her death (at the hands of the infuriated mob), or at least deposition.

There is no evidence for any part of the legend.

There have been several publications on the subject, including anti-Catholic pamphlets and responses to them. Two novels may be worth noting even by those who have no historical, or historiographical, interest in the topic:

  • Lawrence Durrell The curious history of Pope Joan: translated out of the modern Greek of Emmanuel Royidis, with an interesting publishing history:
    • London, Rodney Phillips & Green, 1947. Suppressed in this edition before publication; a prospectus was issued in 1948.
      • Original title Papissa Iōanna, described variously as 'A Romantic Biography' and a 'historical novel'.
    • (1953) Pope Joan: a romantic biography by Emmanuel Royidis; translated from the Greek by Lawrence Durrell. London, Derek Verschoyle.
  • Cross, Donna Woolfolk (1997) Pope Joan, London, Quartet. Originally published: 1996, New York, Crown.

Two films have appeared.

  • Pope Joan (1972: UK), starring Liv Ullmann, Jeremy Kemp. Director: Michael Anderson Writer: John Briley
    • A DVD release in 2003 of a recut version was called The Devil's Imposter
    • This film was revived and re-edited to bring it closer to the original intention in 2009, using previously unseen footage. This may be regarded as a different film, She ... Who Would Be Pope.
  • Pope Joan (2009: Germany: Die Päpstin), based on the second book above. Starring Johanna Wokalek as 'Johanna von Ingelheim'. Director: Sönke Wortmann Writers: Donna Woolfolk Cross (novel) Heinrich Hadding (screenplay) 2009 (Germany)