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Perils of the Popess

By Sandra Miesel

Pope Joan is one of the most tenacious myths of the Middle Ages, told and retold by Catholics and anti-Catholics alike since the 13th century. It is said that beautiful young Joan, an Englishwoman born in Mainz, Germany, disguised herself as a man to gain higher education beside her scholarly lover. Her brilliance won her election as pope under the name John in 855 (some say 1100). After reigning less than three years, she bore a child during a papal procession and died immediately, either from childbirth or stoning. Subsequent popes are supposed to have avoided this shameful place and had their maleness verified during their coronation ceremonies, during which an inscription was read as a commemoration of Joan: “Peter, Father of Fathers, Publish the Parturition of the Popess.”

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