Pope Joan (2009)

Dublin Core


Pope Joan (2009)


Religious Orders
Women and Power


Pope Joan (2009) tells the story of Johanna, a woman whose extraordinary life in the ninth century led her to disguise herself as a man and become Pope. It was based on Donna Woolfolk Cross’ 1996 novel Pope Joan, which was a bestseller. Despite being in English, the film was produced in Germany with a limited release around the world. The film was a box office flop with a budget of €22,000,000 and a gross of only $27,412,220. It earned a 6.7/10 stars on IMBd and a 64% on Rotten Tomatoes. The Pope Joan story was previously adapted in 1972’s She Who Would Be Pope.

The film takes place between 814 and 847 AD and follows the life of Johanna. She is an exceptionally intelligent child who secretly learns to read against her father’s wishes. She attends school where she lives with Count Gerold. Johanna and Gerold fall in love but he soon leaves for war. While he is gone, his wife plots to marry Johanna off but the wedding is interrupted by Norsemen who kill everyone except Johanna. She disguises herself as a man and escapes to become a monk. She thrives as a physician at the monastery, but decides to take a pilgrimage to Rome. While in Rome she becomes a physician and advisor to Pope Sergius. Shortly after Gerold arrives and the two are reunited as lovers, Sergius then dies and Johanna is elected Pope. She soon learns she is pregnant. Gerold and Johanna decide to leave but before they do Gerold is killed during a Papal procession and Johanna miscarries and dies, revealing her female identity to the horrified crowd.

Reviewers noted that the film came across as over-stuffed and rushed. Derek Elley of Variety was particularly critical and stated that “Pope Joan drifts along like a cut-down miniseries.” On the other hand, Sandra Alvarez, a reviewer for Medievalists.net, argued that “if anything, the story itself is fascinating. If you’re looking for a way to pass the night, I can happily recommend this film as time well wasted.” While critics debated the effectiveness of the film, L'Avvenirre, the newspaper of the Italian Bishop’s Conferences, dismissed the content of the film a hoax with extremely limited vision.

While some argue otherwise, the vast majority of historians regard the Pope Joan story as a myth that originated in the thirteenth century was accepted as fact until the sixteenth century. The first mention of Joan came from a chronicle written by Jean Mailly in 1255. He described a female Pope who ruled in the ninth century and was discovered when she gave birth during a procession.

Thomas F.X. Noble of the American Catholic Historical Association presents considerable evidence against Joan. Firstly, the story was found and spread by Protestants because it delegitimized the Catholic papacy and, therefore, served a political function. Secondly, there is no record of Joan’s papacy until the thirteenth century, 400 years after she died. Thirdly, there is no gap in the Papacy during the time Joan was said to have reigned. Finally, there are so many inconsistent dates, names, and details across the story that it is historically unreliable and likely an invented legend. On the other hand, historian Peter Stanford and author Donna Woolfolk Cross both believe Pope Joan existed. Stanford claims that the historical records of the ninth century are incomplete, and therefore one must turn to the medieval chronicle tradition, in which Pope Joan is mentioned over 500 times. Cross argues that Joan’s existence could easily have been deleted from the records by Church officials to hide the embarrassment of a female Pope.

There is no definitive answer to Pope Joan’s historical status, but the evidence points to her being a legend over a real woman. Noble argues that she has proliferated throughout history “because she continues to be what she has always been: useful.” Whether she was real or not, Pope Joan paints a fascinating picture of life for women in the early Middle Ages and ends by posing the question of how many women throughout history lived and worked as men to gain their independence and were never discovered.


Kate Courter


October 19, 2009


Constantin Film




Historical Film
Religious Drama
Romantic Drama


Based on the novel Pope Joan (1996) by Donna Woolfolk Cross.


Early Middle Ages (c. 500-1000)
9th century

Moving Image Item Type Metadata

Original Format

Feature Film


149 minutes


Bernd Eichinger
Oliver Berben
Martin Moszkowicz


Sönke Wortmann


pope joan.jpg


Kate Courter, “Pope Joan (2009),” Medieval Hollywood, accessed June 16, 2024, https://medievalhollywood.ace.fordham.edu/items/show/16.

Output Formats