By Maria I. New
Transactions of the American Clinical And Climatological Association, Vol.104 (1993)
Introduction: Last year for Christmas I received a lavishly illustrated book from my friend and colleague Patrizia Bourelli. It was called La Papessa Giovanna: Roma e Papato Tra Storia e Leggenda?, and it was written by Cesare D’Onofrio. In perusing this beautiful book, I learned of the great controversy about the existence of a female pope during the Middle Ages. Because my scientific interest has been directed at understanding the genetic and hormonal basis for infants born with ambiguous genitalia, I began to search for a biological basis for the existence of a pope who was elected as a male but was unmasked as a female, as the legend goes.
The story of the female pope first appeared in a manuscript by friar Jean de Mailly in about 1250 A.D. During the late Middle Ages and Reformation dozens of people wrote about this scandal, many of them Franciscan and Dominican friars or Protestants, and their stories were widely believed. The most popular version, which was a best seller all over Europe for hundreds of years after its publication circa 1265, was that which appeared in friar Martin Polanus’ Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum…
After … Leo, John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was pope for 2 years, 7 months, and 4 days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the papacy of 1 month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers. There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and afterwards in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city, and she was the choice of all for pope. While pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St. Peter’s to the Lateran, in a narrow lane between the Coliseum and St.Clement’s church. After her death, it is said that she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the holy pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter.