Author:Donna Woolfolk Cross
Read:November 22, 2015
Rated: 2 1/2 out of 5
This is a fictional biography of a female Pope. It starts from her birth around 830-840 in a Frankish town-France or Germany, close enough to the coast to be worried about Norwegian invaders. While her father was Christian and missionary, her mother was a pagan. the home life instilled a great deal of fear and apprehension from the irrationality and brutal nature of her father.
But education comes to the rescue. Joan has an insatiable appetite and curiosity. So she clandestinely has her older brother teacher her reading and writing. Her older brother dies and her younger brother John is expected to take over. But he is not very studious. So when a Greek teacher comes through, he is cajoled to teaching him, but he also teacher Joan. After awhile, he is forced away, and the younger brother is sent off to a school, which Joan runs away to.
While brilliant, Joan is not accepted at the school, being the only female in a male schola. But she meets a man 15 years her senior, Gerold. It is at his house where she stays with him, his wife and two daughters. She excels here despite the harassment. She is emotionally attached to her benefactor and feels loved there. That is until Gerold is sent away on a mission his wife decided that Joan is getting to close to her husband. So she arranges a wedding. The Vikings attack Dorstadt on her wedding day, burning the city, killing almost all, including John. But Joan some how manages to hide.
Because her brother is dead, she assumes her brothers identity and becomes a novice at Fulda monastery. Here she manages both to be in trouble and to become very proficient in the healing arts. Enough so that she attracts the brother who is in charge and he takes her under his wing. She prospers beyond her mentor until one day she too becomes sick. Rather than risk discovery, she runs off and finds herself being cared for by someone she had saved from starvation. She is discovered to be a female, but is not "out'd".
Rome is her next stop. There she is able to practice her healing science and be able to study in obscurity. That is until someone in the Vatican-or what would be the Vatican-hears about her. She comes and heals the Pope. From there he gets more and more access to the Pope. There is palace intrigue and Joan gets thrown into prison because of a made up affair. A new people arises and defends Rome against invaders. But he is murdered and a new Pope is selected. This would be Joan.
Joan, still a man, rules the church justly of course and makes reform. That is until Gerold and her decide to leave Rome when Joan becomes pregnant. But Gerold is murdered during an Easter time parade. When Joan tries to come to his rescue, she gives birth, revealing her secret. She dies a short time later after being removed as Pope.
The final chapter has Joan being dead and one of the power brokers writing the history of the Popes. She is conveniently left out, except for one manuscript which a friend of Joan copies. Joan is placed in the correct biography.
Taught by Aesculapius to appreciate clarity and style, Joan never considered the question of whether Homer's poetry was acceptable in terms of Christian doctrine; God was in it because it was beautiful. (Chp 5) While some follow a strict if it is not in Scripture then it is not from God, I think that CS Lewis had a better view of things. That is all beauty, whether in nature in stone, or in word has its origins in God. Who else could it come from? Sometimes that beauty is disguised or just a faint reflection, tinged with the ugliness of the world, it still is part of Him. Isn't that what God saw when we sent his Son? That faint spark of Himself in us?
At times it seems like Cross likes to show how bad Christians are, or how much Christianity has in debit to pagans. Such as she talks about Thursday really being Thor's Day. Most of these are very minor and are more pin pricks. Just an indication of Cross' attitude towards the things she writes about.
When Joan becomes John, she becomes a male except in body. Cross continues to call Joan her, even though she uses John to identify her. This mixing of genders can be confusing in places, but for the most part it helps keep track of when Cross is talking about Joan and when she is talking about someone else in this male society.
The amount of last minute saves in the book gives it an air of contrived plot. You have the scholar who saves herself from a Viking intrusion, a healer who floats unconscious to the one person who would be sympathetic to her, you have a married man fall in love with her, and the list goes on. But that is no more than most novels which try to force a reader into a direction. But then that raises the question, is Cross trying to write a good story, or a best selling one or forcing a point?
Sometimes we are all caught up in our own self to see how foolish the thought is. Sergius condemned John/Joan to prison because of a supposed affair. But when Sergius found out the Joan was set up, he thought that the hand of God was against him because of this and he was to be annihilated because of this act. Joan points out that there are easier ways for God to take a person out than to destroy a whole city. This is a good thing to remember-God can use a scalpel rather than an axe to remove sin.
Joan calls Pope Leo a true spiritual leader. What made him that? According to Cross it is because he was a man of drive and energy and enormous strength of will. This would be in contrast with the more mystical who seems to think being a spiritual leader is one who is more humble and willing to be a servant to all.
Through out the book there is 20th century values inserted into a 9th century piece. Such as towards the last, Gerold is talking to Joan towards the last of the book. He has realized Joan was not killed or taken away by the Vikings. As he talks, he says things like he was going to divorce his wife so she could remarry. In a brief looking through of things, I suspect this is more of a 20th century talk than a 9th century. Even though there is a mixture of acceptance of divorce among the pagans of the area, it was increasingly difficult to get a divorce through the church.
Or Joan says to Gerold, You always were my protector. I think this is taken more like a friend to a friend. But considering it was given in terms of Joan and Gerold about to run away, it may also be a strong female swooning under the influence of a knight. Seems out of character for someone who has made a whole life out of not being claimed by a man.
Probably the one thing more is that this book could not have been written in a culture where morals mattered. From the start, Joan masquerading as a man, instead of being a woman and excelling? She had an example in St Catherine of a women excelling in the church. Then having an affair while Pope. How does one reconcile that with the moralness the Pope is to exhibit. Isn't that the contrast which Cross was going for? That you had a Pope disguised as a man being on a higher moral plain. But yet, she yields to lust. What kind of Pope does Cross want Joan to be?
I distrust historical fiction and this book is a good example of why. Donna Woolfolk Cross writes about a character in the 9th century which may or may not have existed. Builds up the person as a real person and then inserts all sorts of 20th century values into the the piece. This has the reader thinking in terms of this is how the events happened, how the attitudes were. Even a book group which I am in which consists of many people I respect could not not keep from acting like Cross' portrayal was how it happened.
Having started this with a rant against historical fiction, I will also say that Cross does write enjoyably. She has done a good deal of research on the events of the period and weaves the events fairly accurately into her story-from what I can tell as I have not really studied this era of history. The characters are developed well enough so that I was rooting for Joan throughout the story.
But at the end of reading this story I was stuck between liking how Cross' writing, but having the feeling I was reading a cross between a female Indiana Jones character and a romance novel, albeit an intelligent one. So I was stuck with not really liking this book.
- Lots of Latin, which Cross usually provides a translation. I am assuming it is the correct translation. In any event it is what Cross wants us to understand the translation should be for the purposes of the book.
- First Line: It was the twenty-eight day of Wintarmanoth in the year of our Lord 814, the harshest winter in living memory.
- Last Line: Requiesce in pace, Johanna Bapissa
- Publisher's Web Site for Book
- Author's Web Site
- Barnes and Noble
- Dr Craig M. Rustici web site. Dr Rustici gave a lecture series on the question of Pope Joan which was awarded the Hofstra distinguished facility lecture of 2001
- Fables Respecting the Popes in the Middle Ages: A Contribution to Ecclesiastical History, 1871 by Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger
- The Myth of Pope Joan by Alain Boureau
- History and Women Blog
- Wikipedia on the person Pope Joan
OSHER Book Group questions, probably from LitLovers
1. Donna Woolfolk Cross wrote the story of Pope Joan as a work of fiction. Do you think there really was a Pope Joan?
2. How important is it that Pope Joan actually existed? Are there lessons to be learned from this story whether it's true or not? What do you think those lessons are?
3. One reviewer said, "After finishing Donna Cross' novelization of Joan's life, one may want her to be a real person, only because it is so gratifying to read about those rare heroes whose strength of vision enables them to ignore the almost overpowering messages of their own historical periods." In contrast, a professor of history said, "I think we shouldn't even think about [Pope Joan] at all. It's bunk." Referring to Joan's pregnancy, the professor also said, "The whole point of the story is 'If you let a woman in as pope, she'll goof up.' The story was invented for the purpose of saying, 'Women can't be trusted.'" Which interpretation do you agree with? Why?
4. Many priests and nuns, in recent years, have urged the Vatican to ease restrictions on how far women may advance in the Church hierarchy. Women, they say, should be allowed to be ordained as priests. What are the implications of Pope Joan's story with regard to the limitations placed on women by the Church?
5. One reviewer wrote, "Pope Joan—is a reminder that some things never change, only the stage and the players do." Although the position of women in society haschanged dramatically since the middle ages, do you feel there are similarities between the way women live in various societies today and the way they lived in society then?
6. According to the author, Joan's story was universally known and accepted until the seventeenth century. Why do you think that changed?
7. Why do you think medieval society considered it unnatural and a sin for women to educate themselves or be educated?
8. Why might medieval society have believed so strongly that education hampered a woman's ability to bear children? What purpose might that belief have served?
9. One reviewer wrote, "Joan's ascendancy might not have been unusual in political spheres—many females in ancient and medieval times attained absolute or shared power. Joan earned disapproval because her intelligence and competence challenged prevailing male opinion that women lacked the ability for scholarly or clerical pursuits." Were there other females of ancient or medieval times who challenged this prevailing opinion? Do their stories give you insight into Joan's?
10. What other strong female characters have you encountered in books? What are the similarities and differences between those characters and Joan?
11. Did Joan make the right choice at that moment when she decided to disguise herself as her dead brother following the Viking attack? What would her life have been like had she chosen differently?
12. What do we learn about medieval medicine, and the logic of the learned medieval mind, in Pope Joan?
13. What happens to Joan when she tries to improve the lives of women and the poor? Why do you think Church and civic leaders were so resistant to such improvements?
14. Discuss the inner conflicts Joan faces—between the pagan beliefs taught by her mother and the Christian beliefs she learns from religious instructors; between her mind and her heart; between faith and doubt. How do these conflicts affect the decisions she makes? Does she ever truly resolve those inner conflicts?
15. Do you think Joan's secret would ever have been discovered had she not miscarried during the Papal procession or had she not become pregnant?
16. According to one reviewer, "Joan has the kind of vices—stubbornness and outspokenness, for example—that turn out to be virtues." Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?