Sunday, December 16, 2007

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Brilliant and talented, young Joan rebels against the medieval social strictures forbidding women to learn to read and write. When her older brother is killed during a Viking attack, Joan takes up his cloak and identity, goes to the monastery of Fulda, and is initiated into the brotherhood in his place. As Brother John Anglicus, Joan distinguishes herself as a great Christian scholar. Eventually she is drawn to Rome, where she becomes enmeshed in a dangerous web of love, passion, and politics. Triumphing over appalling odds, she finally attains the highest throne in Christendom. Pope Joan is a sweeping historical drama set against the turbulent events of the ninth century - the Saracen sacking of St. Peter's; the famous fire in the Borgo that destroyed over three quarters of the Vatican; and the Battle of Fontenoy, arguably the bloodiest and most terrible of medieval conflicts. The novel is a fascinating, vivid record of what life was really like during the so-called Dark Ages, a masterwork of suspense and passion that has as its center an unforgettable woman, reminiscent of Dorothea in George Eliot's Middlemarch, Jane Austen's Emma, and other heroines who struggle against restrictions their souls will not accept.

In a bid to try and catch up (which I am pretty sure will never happen now) I had been trying to do one review of a newly completed book, and then a review of a book that I had finished ages ago. As a process this was working fine, until I got to this book....and I stopped! If I knew why I stopped it would be good because I have some idea of what I wanted to say, but just couldn't seem to do so. So, if this review makes no sense, blame my lack of inspiration!

This book is one of those books that I have had on my TBR list for years. Right from when I first heard about it I wanted to read it and I really wanted to love it when I did read it! As a subject it sounded really interesting. Is it possible that during the Dark Ages that there was a female pope? The author certainly puts her case forward with plenty of persuasiveness, convinced that the only reason that we don't know more about Pope Joan is that there has been a cover up within the Vatican to keep this information from the general public. If you look at the time frames suggested there certainly doesn't seem to be much scope for a female Pope, but it certainly wouldn't be that difficult to slightly amend the date of death for one pope and the date of consecration for the next to hide a short gap.

As for the story itself, young Joan shows an early aptitude for scholarly pursuits, much to her father's disgust. He is a church man, an English Canon who despite Church rules forbidding marriage is married to Joan's mother who was a heathen Saxon, and is convinced that his daughter should not be educated. Her eldest brother secretly teaches Joan to begin to read, but when he dies, her father tries to push Joan's other brother into a life of learning but he has no aptitude at all. Joan is saved from a life of subservience by a priest who Joan's father is trying to convince should tutor her brother. The priest agrees, but only so as to be able to teach Joan who shows a remarkable aptitude for learning, thus providing Joan with one of the most nurturing and pivotal relationships in her life.

This early learning provides the basis for the direction that Joan's life goes in. She is sent to a school under the tutelage of the priest where she again excels at learning, but where she is basically a social outcast, considered something of a freak because of her astounding intellect (which is seen only as a male attribute) in a female body. Only in the home of Gerold does she feel at all comfortable, and it isn't long before Joan and Gerold fall in love - which is a bit of a problem for his scheming wife! With Gerold away in service to his liege lord, his village is attacked , with most of the villagers killed or kidnapped, and Gerold returns to find his world destroyed and Joan missing. Joan's brother John is one of those that was murdered and in order to escape Joan takes on his identity as John, and makes her way to Rome where her astounding intellect and knowledge of healing herbs quickly make her one of the papal favourites. Joan leaves her female identity behind and basically lives as a man, and probably would have continued to do so, until a series of remarkable coincidences within the narrative unexpectedly reunite her with Gerold.

With plenty of focus on the scheming maneuvering and somewhat base nature of the political scene in the Vatican, and lots of detail regarding church life in the Dark Ages, this book was obviously a labour of love for the author and was almost a great read. I say almost because there were some issues for me in terms of the plotting. The use of coincidence time and time again to provide turning points was overdone, and the fact that Joan was saved repeatedly throughout the narrative meant that many of the main points throughout the novel were overly melodramatic.

The author certainly presents a sound case for the existence of Joan as a pope. I guess that it is really hard to prove some 1200 years later, especially if all documentation has been hidden or destroyed.

I certainly don't regret reading this work, and for the most part enjoyed it. The writing style was certainly quite flowing considering the detailed use of liturgical practices and herbal knowledge. I have no idea if the author is working on new material or not, but I'd certainly give it a go.

Overall, an interesting read, but not the fantastic read that I was hoping for.

Rating 4/5


  1. Oh I loved this book! I think I may need a reread now!

  2. I've heard a lot about this book, but never picked it up as I am a little leery about reading books centered around religious figures. Still not sure whether I'll read it or not, but thanks for a great review, Marg! :-)