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Pope Joan: A Novel Paperback – June 9, 2009

4.4 out of 5 stars 1,094 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

One of the most controversial women of history is brought to brilliant life in Donn Woolfolk Cross's tale of Pope Joan, a girl whose origins should have kept her in squalid domesticity. Instead, through her intelligence, indomitability and courage, she ascended to the throne of Rome as Pope John Anglicus.

The time is 814, the place is Ingelheim, a Frankland village. It is the harshest winter in living memory when Joan is born to an English father and a Saxon mother. Her father is a canon, filled with holy zeal and capable of unconscionable cruelty. His piety does not extend to his family members, especially the females. His wife, Gudrun, is a young beauty to whom he was attracted beyond his will--and he hates her for showing him his weakness. Gudrun teaches Joan about her gods, and is repeatedly punished for it by the canon. Joan grows to young womanhood with the combined knowledge of the warlike Saxon gods and the teachings of the Church as her heritage. Both realities inform her life forever.

When her brother John, not a scholarly type, is sent away to school, Joan, who was supposed to be the one sent to school, runs away and joins him in Dorstadt, at Villaris, the home of Gerold, who is central to Joan's story. She falls in love with Gerold and their lives interesect repeatedly even through her Papacy. She is looked upon by all who know that she is a woman as a "lusus naturae," a freak of nature. "She was... male in intellect, female in body, she fit in nowhere; it was as if she belonged to a third amorphous sex." Cross makes the case over and over again that the status of women in the Dark Ages was little better than cattle. They were judged inferior in every way, and necessary evils in the bargain.

After John is killed in a Viking attack, Joan sees her opportunity to escape the fate of all her gender. She cuts her hair, dons her dead brother's clothes and goes into the world as a young boy. Gerold is away from Villaris at the time of the attack and comes home to find his home in ruins, his family killed and Joan among the missing. After the attack, Joan goes to a Benedictine monastery, is accepted as a young man of great learning, and eventually makes her way to Rome.

The author is at pains to tell the reader in an Epilogue that she has written the story as fiction because it is impossible to document Joan's accesion to the Papacy. The Catholic Church has done everything possible to deny this embarrassment. Whether or not one believes in Joan as Pope, this is a compelling story, filled with all kinds of lore: the brutishness of the Dark Ages, Vatican intrigue, politics and favoritism and most of all, the place of women in the Church and in the world. --Valerie Ryan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Cross makes an excellent, entertaining case in her work of historical fiction that, in the Dark Ages, a woman sat on the papal throne for two years. Born in Ingelheim in A.D. 814 to a tyrannical English canon and the once-heathen Saxon he made his wife, Joan shows intelligence and persistence from an early age. One of her two older brothers teaches her to read and write, and her education is furthered by a Greek scholar who instructs her in languages and the classics. Her mother, however, sings her the songs of her pagan gods, creating a dichotomy within her daughter that will last throughout her life. The Greek scholar arranges for the continuation of her education at the palace school of the Lord Bishop of Dorstadt, where she meets the red-haired knight Gerold, who is to become the love of her life. After a savage attack by Norsemen destroys the village, Joan adopts the identity of her older brother, slain in the raid, and makes her way to Fulda, to become the learned scholar and healer Brother John Anglicus. After surviving the plague, Joan goes to Rome, where her wisdom and medical skills gain her entrance into papal circles. Lavishly plotted, the book brims with fairs, weddings and stupendous banquets, famine, plague and brutal battles. Joan is always central to the vivid action as she wars with the two sides of herself, "mind and heart, faith and doubt, will and desire." Ultimately, though she leads a man's life, Joan dies a woman's death, losing her life in childbirth. In this colorful, richly imagined novel, Cross ably inspires a suspension of disbelief, pulling off the improbable feat of writing a romance starring a pregnant pope.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 425 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; 37600th edition (June 9, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307452360
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307452368
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,094 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #29,760 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J Thomas VINE VOICE on April 30, 2007
Format: Paperback
I really did want to like this book. The author is a good storyteller, does a wonderful job of evoking a real sense of the period (no shirking of historical research here), and the idea of a female pope is a fascinating one. One can imagine that spiritual women denied access to the church, or clever women denied access to learning, might indeed have sought to escape the confines of their gender.

But somewhere between Joan/John outarguing Greek philosophers, becoming a famous healer, inventing intinction, miraculously surviving beatings/viking raids/plague, inventing modern courtroom procedure (witnesses, questioning), establishing orphanages, saving peasants from floods, cleverly applying her knowledge of hydraulic engineering to save the Vatican from an invading Frankish army, saving the pope from [...], exposing ecclesiastical corruption, and thwarting a raging city fire, I found it harder and harder to keep suspending disbelief. This Pope Joan is a liberal, feminist, secular humanist, Dark Ages superhero rather than a living, breathing, believable woman of her time. The author takes such pains to eliminate anachronism in all other aspects of the novel: perhaps that is why John/Joan's highly anachronistic behavior & beliefs seem so grating in contrast.

John/Joan's enamorata Gerold is also a disappointment. There is no attempt at character development here. Think Ken to Joan's Barbie, Ned to Joan's Nancy Drew ... the tall, lusty, handsome, resourceful hero of any one of a thousand cheesy romance novels.

Finally, I was disappointed by the author's overreliance on deus ex machina (sp?). Far too often she relies on improbable plot twists, timely intercessions and amazing coincidences to move her plot forward.
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Format: Paperback
Some have heard of the infamous Pope Joan, the woman who disguised herself as a man, and achieved the highest status of the time...The Pope, but many have not. Donna Woolfolk Cross has brought the legend of Pope Joan to life. The novel is written in a fictional sense, but weaves many of the little known facts into the tale. You decide for yourself...
Joan was considered a very abnormal woman who's desire to learn was ungodly and considered sinful. A woman's place was to be subserviant to men. The reader will experience the struggle and conflict that Joan experienced as she embarked on her journey of higher actualization. To say that Joan was immune from seeking and wanting love would be untrue. The reader will follow Joan as she reconciles her feeling for her one true love.
The characters have been created with amazing detail and are a very good representation of the time. One can create a visual image of the atire; the struggle to meet basic needs; and mostly the status and order that prevailed among the classes.
I highly recommend Pope Joan, both to the individual and to any book club. This novel was truly engrossing, it offers a different perspective than the traditional patriarical view of past times. Pope Joan will spark conversations, heighten your awareness, and remain in your memory for a very long time.
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By A Customer on April 30, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I just finished this book and loved it! I was alittle skeptical to continue when I first started it as I am easily upset about references to torture and medieval lifestyles. I am so glad that I continued reading. Unfortunately, the scenes of torture and representations of women as being lowlier than dogs was fact in this era (ninth century) and an important part of the story. They provided the basis for understanding what drove Joan to make the decision to live her life as a man. She was a woman filled with a passion for learning and exploring all that life had to offer the men of her time, but was forbidden for women to know. She was brave in the face of danger, had a keen and intelligent mind, and yet always exhibited an underlying femininity as she nurtured the sick, the poor and the children and when she spoke of her love, Gerold. She not only wanted to better her own life, but was committed to helping those around her as well.
I am not Catholic and was completely unaware of her so-called legend. It is still debated as to whether or not she existed; some believe that the Catholic Church has deliberately removed her from any records of the time to avoid having to deal with the embarrassment of her rise to be Pope (the author spends a short time at the end of the book presenting this debate). I, for one, want to believe she existed. She represents all that is good in people and proves that we can attain our goals if we truly believe in them.
Definitely, recommended reading!
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Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
POPE JOAN is part historical fiction, part epic romance. It's a novel that is based on the legend of the woman who, for a few years, became Pope of the Roman Catholic Church back in the 9th century. In this version of the story, Joan is born to a Canon (member of the clergy) and a German heathen who was forced to convert to Catholicism when her village was pillaged and captured by the Roman Catholics. At an early age, against her father's wishes Joan learns to read and write, and is favored by Aesculapius, a travelling bishop of the Greek Church, who encourages Joan's reading abilities and eventually finds a way to continue giving her lessons.
She is taken to a school along with her brother to be further educated. Because she cannot live with the boys in their dormitory, she and her brother are invited to live with a nobleman named Gerrold and his family, and her life becomes intertwined with Gerrold's from that day forward. She is only 13 when she meets him, and he is twenty-five, but Gerrold is attracted to her, to his wife's dismay.
After her brother dies in a Viking attack that kills many others, including Gerrold's wife, Joan runs away and decides to take her brother's place in the monastery where he was to receive an education, and in order to do so she disguises herself as a young boy. From this point, she lives her public life as a boy, and later as a man, because as a woman she would never be able to live the life she had always dreamed about. As a woman, she was expected to be married at the proper age and to bear children for her husband. There were no other options for a woman of her day. But Joan had ambition and knew that the life of a woman was not for her.
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