Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Whenever you see a legend, you can be sure, if you go to the very bottom of things, that you will find history.
Vallet de Viriville

Joan Anglicus is a frustrated young girl. The brightest and most scholarly of all her siblings, she is often denied the chance to learn because of her sex. The Dark Ages were a time when womens brains were thought to be smaller than a man’s and only needed for child bearing. Why teach a girl to read and write? Joan cannot accept this. She runs away with her older brother, and after he is killed in a Viking attack, she disguises herself and assumes his identity at a Benedictine monastery. As Brother John Anglicus, she is sought out for her great healing abilities and religious intellect, until eventually she is elevated to the highest throne in the world at the time, the papacy.

The story of Pope Joan, a woman who lived disguised as a man and rose to become pope of the Church in the ninth century, is one of the most fascinating in Western history, and one of the least known. Most that have heard of her regard her story as a legend contrived by Protestant reformers, or so the Catholic Church would have you believe, not at all based on facts. But as Viriville said, legend and history are often one in the same.

Even though much is not known of the Dark Ages, Woolfolk Cross has done her homework here. This book is well-researched and well-written. I was completely sucked in and had a hard time putting it down. I found the history fascinating. These troubled times were especially difficult for women - as they still are today in some countries. They had no property rights, no opportunity for education. They could be beaten and raped by their husbands at will. So it seems completely logical that a woman would chose to disguise herself as a man. She certainly wouldn’t have been the only woman in history to do so.

So why deny she existed at all? Extreme mortification of course, that a woman could deceive so many. History provides many examples of the deliberate falsification of records to suit the masses. But what of the proof? What of the so-called chair exam, where each candidate was examined to prove his manhood as part of the medieval papal conservation ceremony for almost six centuries? What of the “shunned street” in Rome on which Joan reportedly “John Anglicus gave birth to a child…” An interesting article is here, if you're wanting to know more about the legend.

Even with these facts, given the confusion of the ninth century it is impossible to know for sure if she existed. We may never know if there really was a Pope Joan. True or not, I sure had a good time reading about it. An excellent book. 4.5 stars


Amanda said...

This sounds really, really fascinating. I've never heard of the legend of Pope Joan - no doubt they never would have mentioned her in CCD growing up. What I want to know is, and i know you can't give away spoilers, but did they catch her? What happened to her? I know you can't tell me, but I'm going to have to get my hands on this book and hopefully find out!

L said...

Wild dogs couldn't drag it out of me (;P) so I'll just say it's good. The author does a lot of speculating as much is not known about Joan's past, but the surrounding history (Viking attacks, what was going on in Rome at the time, the papacy, etc) is factual. She took what in generally known and ran with it. It is a work of very well written fiction. And that's all I'll say about that. Unless of course you really want to know?

L said...

I just added a link to the post that tells more about her history. Might give away stuff though, but still very interesting.

hamilcar barca said...

although the historical evidence is shaky at best, i personally enjoy this Da Vinci Code type of story. i call it "Cri-Fi" (Crichton Fiction), which covers any work of fiction so well inter-twined with Science, Technology, or History that readers debate whether it's actually true.

regardless of whether Pope Joan ever existed, i think the best thing for the Roman Catholic church today would be a woman Pope. how cool would that be?

L said...

One of her obvious points in the book was how she felt a female pope would be different, more emotional, etc. The cardinals are all astir in that she - or he, Pope John wants to help the poor instead of build more churches, because you know men are a hard bunch of tight asses.

Hey, "Cri-Fi" = clever

Unknown said...

HAving never read the book, the popular folklore was that she had a baby while Pope, thereby giving away her femaleness. STrangely - in essence, I'd argue that it was misogynistic as most middle-age folklore - women might be sneaky enough to make there way to the papacy, the story seems to say, but once there, they won't be able to resist sleeping around. Nothing against the BOOK of course, just the original story always struck me that way.

L said...

True. That is interesting. She explores that angle in the book. If that is indeed true then someone obviously knew she was female. Or was she, by occasionally giving in to physical needs, just like every other pope. But with a woman of course, the outcome is much more obvious.

We can't pee standing up either gosh dang it!

Unknown said...

Did you know this is being adapted into a movie, btw? Mostly German actors, looks like.

Rebecca Reid said...

"The Dark Ages were a time when womens brains were thought to be smaller than a man’s and only needed for child bearing."

Wow, it must be quite painful to bear a child through the brain. Those were Dark Ages indeed!

(Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

This book sounds incredibly fascinating. But I can't tell: is it a novel with some facts or is it a nonfiction book with some unknowns?

L said...

I've heard that. I hope it follows the book closely. And I think John Goodman plays Pope Sergis, which would be a perfect fit. I guess this book was really popular in Germany, maybe because the main character is Frankish. Is that early German? I've no idea.

Amanda said...

Rebecca - Hey, if Zeus can do it, so can we! :D I looked around and apparently this is considered historical fiction. On Goodreads, it says there is an afterword where Cross explains that there simply isn't enough fact to have it be completely nonfiction, so she used what she could find to make a historical fiction setup. Probably like The Other Boleyn Girl, except with even less historical evidence.

L said...

Their minds (= brains) were only needed for the rearing and bearing of children. She says that in the book.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Lula! Hang tough--don't let those wild dogs drag Joan's secret out of you!

I'm Donna Woolfolk Cross, the author of Pope Joan, and I appreciate the kind words about my novel!

As for the "women's brains" issue:
the actual argument used in my novel came directly from the ninth century: namely, that the size of a woman's brain and her uterus were inversely proportional--that is, the more a woman learned, the less likely she would ever bear children! (if only that were true, we wouldn't have to worry about birth control, would we? Don't want to have a baby--read a book!)

For information about my novel and the upcoming movie based on it, go to If you click on the "Update" box, you'll get an email from me about once a month with "insider" info about the movie, my next book, etc.

Thanks again for the recommendation, Lula. I really appreciate it!


L said...

Well gosh, that was really cool! Thanks for stopping by Donna. Nothing like having the author explain it perfectly. No wonder I only have three children, I read too much! Your book is excellent and I'm looking forward to the movie. I shall sign up for your emails straight away.