- Paperback: 422 pages
- Publisher: Ballantine Books; Reissue edition (1996)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0345416260
- ISBN-13: 978-0345416261
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 1,194 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,197,568 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Pope Joan: A Novel Paperback – August 19, 1997
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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
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 the Audible Audio Edition edition.
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The novel begins with Joan as the child in the village of Ingelheim in Thuringia. There, we are introduced to the first of her many misogynistic male adversaries. The worst one of all is her own father, a tyrannical English canon who sets the stage of the medieval view of women that Joan must overcome. Indeed, from the moment of Joan’s birth, he declares his wife’s labor was “all for nothing,” considering the birth of a girl to be a “punishment from God.” When Joan is a little older and wants to learn to read like her brothers, her father tells her, “You are a girl and therefore such matters do not concern you.” It only gets worse from there.
Joan, however, refuses to accept the place her father would have her in life. Her older brother secretly teaches her to read, and when a Greek scholar named Aesculapius shows up in the village, he insists on tutoring Joan, recognizing her intelligence. Through his teachings, Joan develops a keen mind, forged from the writings of Cicero and other classics, which will eventually allow her to outwit many a man. But only if she can escape her father. When he finds her reading a copy of Homer in Greek, he deems it the work of a “godless heathen” and nearly whips her to within an inch of her life.
Things change, however, when Aesculapius arranges an invitation for Joan to study at a school in Dorstadt. There, she is sent to live with a count named Gerold and his wife. Gerold ultimately becomes Joan’s love interest in this tale, even though it’s creepy to think of a girl with, effectively, her foster father. But at least the author waits until Joan is fourteen (still a bad age for a modern audience, but probably more acceptable in the ninth century) for the affair to develop. Still, the love affair is more of a subplot, than the main plot, which all concerns Joan quest to succeed in the male-dominated medieval society.
After a series of events which I refuse to spoil, Joan decides to pose as a male, taking her brother’s name and calling herself John Anglicus. Disguised as a man, she joins the monastery at Fulda and, relying on her knowledge of Hippocrates, earns a reputation as a skilled healer. Eventually, the story takes her to Rome, where her healing arts bring her into the service of Pope Sergius, a prodigious eater and drinker, and one of my favorite characters in the novel. Sergius has taken ill, leaving his corrupt brother to run Rome, and Joan realizes that the only way to stop the corruption is to quickly heal the pope.
As good as the novel was during Joan’s childhood in Thuringia and her time with Gerold’s family in Dorstadt, her time in Rome is where the novel shines the brightest. There, she is faced with all the intrigue, politics, and backstabbing that you’d except to find in the papal palace, along with a horde of misogynistic antagonists that Joan must outlast and outwit. The Roman scenes also involve some major historical events, including the Saracen sacking of Rome, the erection of the Leonine Walls around what today is the Vatican, and the battle of Ostia. Rome also brings the return of Gerold, who is in the service of the Frankish emperor, and he is by her side when she’s ultimately elected Pope John. But by then, she’s made a host of dangerous enemies, which propels the novel toward its climax.
Even though the book is only 434 pages, it seemed overlong at times. Each phase of Joan’s life could have been its own novella, but they were all engaging enough to keep me reading through the end. My one peeve was with the author’s shifting viewpoints. While at times the book seemed written in a third-person limited point-of-view, other times it slipped into a more outdated omniscient point-of-view, often in the middle of scenes. I would have preferred a more personal point-of-view throughout.
That said, I found “Pope Joan” to be a well-written, thought provoking, and fully engaging novel. An extensive Author’s Note at the end contributes to this by asserting that the legend of Pope Joan was widely accepted as true until the mid-seventeenth century when the Vatican expunged any reference Joan in the papal records. According to the author, the Church’s position on Joan “is that she was an invention of Protestant reformers eager to expose papist corruption.” Nonetheless, the author notes that until the sixteenth century, every pope elected after Joan had to confirm their manhood through genital inspection before they could sit on St. Peter’s Throne, complete with a photo of the toilet-like seat used for the examinations. I found this pretty compelling, but I encourage you to read the book and decide for yourself.
I really enjoy a good historical novel (not the romancey stuff) and this was a great read, true or no. Highly recommend!
I am better informed about 9th century Europe with its oppressive realities in the church/society regrading the roles assigned to women and other marginalized groups, and the intellectual malaise that created fear of anything new or untested.
I say by all means read this book. Better as an ebook so the dictionary function is available.