Show artwork for Top Girls: Pope Joan

Top Girls: Pope Joan

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.

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.

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.

Published on 29 August 2012