Pope Joan was a female pope who allegedly reigned for a few years some time during the Middle Ages. The story first appeared in 13th-century chronicles, and was subsequently spread and embellished throughout Europe. It was widely believed for centuries, though modern religious scholars consider it fictitious, perhaps deriving from historicized folklore.
According to legend, Pope Joan concealed her gender and ruled as pope for two years, from 853-855 ad. Her identity was exposed when, riding one day from St. Peter’s to the Lateran, she stopped by the side of the road and, to the astonishment of everyone, gave birth to a child.
In most versions of the story, she dies shortly after, either being killed by an angry mob or from natural causes. Her memory is then shunned by her successors.
From the mid-13th century onward, the legend was widely believed, however a problem with this legend is the fact that there is no Pope John XX in any list. It is said this reflects a renumbering of the popes to exclude Joan from history.
So what can we uncover ?
In 1856, the Encyclopedia Britannica took on the Pope Joan legend, and concluded that the legend was false. Here’s an excerpt from the article there:
The grounds on which this conclusion is arrived at may be briefly stated. In the first place, 200 years elapsed between the era of the supposed pope and the date at which her name is first mentioned by any historian. In the next place there were at Rome, during the time assigned to her Papacy four persons, who each in succession sat on the papal throne, and left behind them many and various writings. Had they ever heard of the story, it is impossible to believe that they should each and all have passed it over in silence as they have done. In the third place, all the contemporary writers, without a single exception, attest that, immediately on the death of Leo IV., the papal chair was offered and accepted by Benedict III.