Pope Joan: Was the Catholic Church Once Liberal?

Jan 20, 2005 (Updated Jan 20, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:fast-moving and intriguing story

Cons:a few plot contrivances might stretch believability

The Bottom Line: The Bottom Line is a heretic anyway, so who cares what it thinks?


While I am a lapsed Catholic, my parents are still very much involved in the Church themselves. My father, however, is a great lover of Catholic history, myth, and controversies, and loaned me Pope Joan: A Novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross in a swap for The DaVinci Code.

::: The Legend Becomes Fiction :::

Rather than submit another historical evaluation of the available documentation surrounding the legend of a female Pope, Cross takes what little information is available and spins a tale of intrigue and early feminism that is riveting. As the story begins, Joan is the last child of a canon and his Saxon wife. Her mother nearly died in childbirth with her, and Joan's father wasn't pleased with her gender. Her two older brothers are taught to read and write from the family's sole treasure: a copy of the Bible. Joan shows a great deal of intelligence, and her eldest brother Matthew begins to teach her to read and write. Joan soon surpasses the skills of the middle child, John, but has to hide what she has learned.

Her mother, meanwhile, is intent on instilling the polytheistic beliefs of the Saxons in at least her daughter in retaliation for the cruel treatment of her husband. After Matthew's sudden death, Joan impresses a visiting scholar with her knowledge, and he agrees to tutor John so long as Joan will also get an education. When he is forced to stop tutoring her, Joan's education stops, and the book he leaves her with is her only way of continuing to study. Its discovery by her father sets off a chain of events that has Joan and John both going to get an education at a schola, with the position offered to Joan, but the father's substitution of John in her place banding the siblings together.

Joan's education is facilitated by a very liberal bishop, and she is placed with a family while John resides with the other boys. She soon becomes an outcast as her less intelligent and ambitious brother makes friends, and she is also persecuted by the schola's headmaster. A burgeoning crush on the noble who is her caretaker finds his wife arranging a marriage for Joan behind his back, and while he is away, a Viking raid on the village disrupts Joan's wedding and results in everyone, including her brother John, being killed. Joan assumes John's identity and proceeds to his position at a monastery, and so begins her rise through the ranks of the Catholic Church.

A pilgrimage to Rome that is actually undertaken when her identity is nearly discovered at the monastery puts her in close proximity to the reigning Pope, Sergius II, and she gains his trust with her medical skills. Her continued service to his successor, Leo IV places her in position for her eventual election.

Of course, this story wouldn't be complete without an explanation of the baby, and Wood's plot involves a reunion with Gerold, the noble Joan stayed with while studying at the schola. They are able to resist each other until being stranded in a flood, where a one-night encounter results in the pregnancy in the legend.

Wood makes few changes in actual historical events in the course of her storytelling, and her research into clothing, medical treatments, and politics of the time lends an air of credibility to a novel that could have disintegrated into a bodice-ripper set in the Church of the early Middle Ages. Joan becomes, rather than a romantic heroine, a feminist and free-thinker, chosing to turn her back on a chance at true love so that she can retain her freedom and ability to use her mind. From this perspective, it becomes very easy to believe that Joan could have set not only a precedent, but also served as a role model for women to use whatever guise necessary to further their lives by becoming literate.

Wood's writing style also makes this a quick read, and even at almost 450 pages, I burned through this novel in two nights. She provides enough descriptions of places, people, and events to provide the reader with a detailed image, but never gets bogged down in the descriptions at the expense of moving the plot along.

Pope Joan: A Novel is a fascinating read, not only as a fictionalized treatment of a Catholic legend, but also as a compelling story of a woman who wasn't afraid to buck convention to find her own place in the world.

::: The History Behind the Legend :::

Speculation about a female pope has existed for hundreds of years. Legend has it that an educated woman disguised herself originally as a monk, but her education and intelligence so impressed everyone that she met that she moved quickly through the ranks, eventually being elected to the office of Pope. Her rule lasted approximately two years, or so the story goes, and ended when she gave birth on the side of the road and was discovered.

Historical records from the era are sketchy to begin with, and it isn't unthinkable to imagine that the Catholic Church would have wanted to cover this little tidbit up as well as they were able. Cross adds an appendix to Pope Joan: A Novel detailing what little historical information exists, as well as pointing out the few licenses she took with history for the purposes of plot. She does not, however, mention that one key piece of evidence was the addition of the High Priestess in the Major Arcana of The Tarot, a mere 200 years after the story of Pope Joan first surfaces, and its placement in the deck offsets that of the Pope.

(for more information, the nonfiction book The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe is available online in its entirety at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pardos/PopeJoanHome.html)


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