Top Girls: Pope Joan

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Maria Theodorakis as Pope Joan (Photography: Marcel Aucar)

Whether Pope Joan is a figure of fact or fiction is debatable, but according to stories first recorded in the early 13th Century, Pope Joan was a woman who, by dressing like a man, managed to become Pope from 855 to 858.


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Pope Joan, c1560, Illustrated Manuscript
via Bibliothèque Nationale de France

As a knowledgeable young woman, Joan disguised herself as a man and began working within the Roman Catholic Church before becoming a Cardinal and eventually the Pope. According to most stories, Pope Joan was only outed as a woman when she gave birth, some say while mounting a horse, others claiming it was during a public procession, as seen in the engraving from Giovanni Boccacio’s De Claris Mulieribus (On Famous Women) below.


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Pope Joan giving birth, 1353. from Giovanni Boccacio’s De Claris Mulieribus,
Chapter XCIX, “De Ioanne Anglica Papa”

Most accounts say she died soon after – but once again the details differ. The original account refers to a more gruesome death in which Joan was bound to a horse, dragged and stoned as punishment for her deception. Over time many writers have retold her story in works of fiction and non-fiction (including a recent movie staring David Wenham), while others have rejected it as a myth.

Real or not, Pope Joan will be played by Maria Theodorakis in “Top Girls”: at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 29 September.

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