Famous people who may never have existed

Pope Joan

Pope Joan supposedly became Pope in 855 AD, a time when most women did, well, nothing at all. But then, two years later, she got pregnant — a solid clue that the leader of the Catholic Church is no dude — and was either murdered or banished that day, depending on what account you read. It’s an amazing story, both from a feminist and historical perspective.

Except that may be all it is: a story. According to ABC News, there’s tons of debate about whether Pope Joan ever existed. Believers point to hundreds of documents detailing her life, art and architecture bearing clues about her, and Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio placing her #51 in his book 100 Famous Women. Plus, St. Peter’s Square sports carvings by the artist Bernini of a woman sporting a Papal crown while giving birth. That sounds very Joan.

The Catholic Church’s official stance is that she’s an urban legend, and legitimate scholars back them up. Professor Valerie Hotchkiss, of Southern Methodist University, believes Joan’s story comes largely from a single book: History of Emperors and Popes, by a monk named Martin Polonus. However, Polonus might not have added Joan — somebody else possibly edited her in after his death. From there, other monks blindly added the story into their manuscripts, because it sounded good and they didn’t think enough to fact-check it. True or not, all we truly know is that, were Joan real, she would’ve at least been a better pope than the one from The Borgias.