"Pope Joan" © wood engraving (ed. 40) image: 7 x 5 in. $100.00 (go to "Hi There" for purchase information)

If anyone deserves the prize for pulling off the grand hoax it's Pope Joan, whose outrageous story took place in the 10th century. She was rumored to have been born of English missionary parents in Germany, as Agnes or Gilvera or Jutta (depending on which monk is recording the story), and grew to be a very bright little girl. Later, a monk or priest who was her teacher and lover, dressed her as a boy so she could receive an education worthy of her intelligence. Eventually she ended up studying in Rome and became a priest, then a bishop and eventually a cardinal and at the end of the reign of Pope Leo IV she was elected Pope, where she was named Pope John Anglicus. She apparently didn't adhere to the celibacy rules applied to Popes and this was her downfall.

A few years into her reign, when she was mounting a horse on a street in Rome she gave birth while the faithful citizens of Rome looked on in shock. Accounts vary as to what happened next. Most records have her being stoned to death while tied to the tail of her horse and dragged through the streets of Rome. Other records indicate she was put away in a convent while her son went on to become a bishop. Whatever her ending, no Pope since then will go down the street where she is rumored to have given birth. From the time of Pope Joan's discovery, until the 16th century, a chair with a hole in the seat was used to inspect Papal candidates so their gender could be checked discreetly.

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