Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

As its title reveals, the novel is based on the life of one of the most
fascinating, extraordinary women in Western history--Pope Joan, a controversial figure of historical record who, disguised as a man, rose to rule Christianity in the 9th century as the first and only woman to sit on the throne of St. Peter.
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 9th century -- the Saracen sack of St. Peter's, the famous fire in the Borgo that destroyed over three-quarters of the Vatican, 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, as masterwork of suspense and
passion that has as its center an unforgettable woman, reminiscent of Jean Auel's Ayla, Jane Austen's Emma, and other heroines who struggle against restrictions their souls will not accept.

Pope Joan is a figure I was aware of but knew next to nothing about, her existence is surrounded by mystery and so she seems the ideal figure to write a historical fiction novel about. Author Donna Woolfolk Cross writes an interesting tale about what could have been a young girl's life in that time.

Daughter of a canon who values women little and definitely finds them unworthy of an education her Joan has to struggle from early on to pursue her studies. Luckily she finds a monk willing to help her learn and who eventually will lead to her being accepted at a school. Much brighter and intelligent than her brother, Joan stands out as a student and eventually develops an attachment to Gerolt, the nobleman in whose house she leaves in. But Gerolt leaves and the village is attacked by Norsemen.

To survive Joan disguises herself as her dead brother and becomes John. As a man she is more easily accepted and continues her studies at the Fulda monastery and later travels to Rome where she is known as a dedicated scholar and a celebrated healer. Her fame is such that she is called to attend the Pope and so enters the Vatican's sphere of influence. There she will understand the politics behind the scenes and she will meet Gerolt again.
The story is very easy to read and proceeds at good pace. However I did feel that Joan, as a character, was a bit too perfect to be totally believable. Not only that but some things seem to happen too easily or too coincidentally. I suppose I would have liked to see more of her thought process and she having to work more to get where she ended up. She does have some painful decisions to make regarding her relationship with Gerolt but everything else seemed to fall into place quite easily. I did enjoy learning about the politics behind the throne, the same as in every other kingdom, and was surprised to learn about the power of the people in the election of the Pope.

History is full of possibilities and this was certainly an intriguing story that kept me interested till the end. Thank you so much to the author for sending me the book.

Grade: 4/5


  1. What an amazingly strong woman. I never heard of Pope Joan before either, so I have to read this story. Especially before the movie is released. Great review.

  2. I had heard of Pope Joan earlier this year in my Women's Lit class - a play called Top Girls, she is a character in it and tells her story. I am excited to read this book too - hopefully before the movie comes out!

  3. This wa such a fabulous book, I'm stil raving about it. Great review, thanks:)

  4. I am really glad that you enjoyed the book. I have heard a lot of good things about it, and really want to read it. I hope the coincidences in the plot and the infallibility of the main character don't put me off though. Great and in depth review!

  5. Very nice review. I am keeping this one in mind for later this year.