Rumors about the possible existence of a female pope apparently have circulated for hundreds of years. If such a woman served Rome and the Catholic Church in the 9th century, her reign was brief and her tenure obscure. Donna Woolfolk Cross, author of Pope Joan, has thoroughly researched as many archival materials as are available, and reports that she never was able either to prove or to disprove such a woman’s place in history. Papal documents obfuscate the years in question; rumors still abound. So Cross decided to extrapolate from her research. Rather than rely on rumor and hearsay to write about history, she decided to write a fictional version of Pope Joan’s life. The result is a novel I found thoroughly intriguing. I wanted to believe in its truthfulness.
Joan of Ingelheim, daughter of a Catholic priest and his Saxon wife, precociously learns to read both Latin and Greek. When she and her brother, who has no aptitude for book-learning, become students at a nearby monastery, she is determined to master as much knowledge as possible. Joan loves old manuscripts, both sacred and profane. She also loves logic and reasoning, and tacitly questions many of the medieval Christian certitudes. While her nimble mind soon surpasses the talents of her classmates, she also learns that she must keep many of her thoughts secret. No one admires or respects an intelligent girl. In fact, most of her contemporaries believe women are incapable of serious thought and therefore are unworthy of education.
A Viking raid turns out to be fortuitous. It turns her world upside, but it also offers an escape for the confines of her existence. Assuming her brother’s identity, Joan becomes John Anglicus and proceeds to Rome in the guise of a Catholic priest. Because medieval modesty kept personal interaction at a minimum, and because priests wore heavy robes at all times, Joan was easily able to function as a man. Besides, her intelligence was so obvious that no one suspected she might be an “inferior” woman.
Once in Rome, she acquires a reputation for knowing the healing arts. When she saves the life of Pope Sergius, who is suffering from gout, a place at the Vatican is secured. I won’t detail all of the palace intrigue that ensues, but suffice to say that the path to her eventual selection as the pope, in 853 A. D., is not an easy one. There are raids, battles, fires, floods, murders, and even a love interest to complicate Joan’s career. We know in advance that she succeeds, however, because the name of the novel is Pope Joan.
Donna Woolfolk Cross has a dual purpose in writing her book. The first is the obvious exploration of obscure historical fact and fantasy. Cross does a fine job of tiptoeing around and between the truths she can establish and the imagination she brings to her prose. The second purpose is just as important. Cross wants to dispel the myths that women cannot be accomplished scholars, thinkers, leaders, role models. By bringing Joan to the forefront of history, and by making her stand out among a host of mediocre men, Cross communicates a world of possibilities to her readers. In this respect, she belongs in a long line of other women writers who have done the same. – Ann Ronald