Sunday, January 10, 2010
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
Protagonist: Joan Anglicus
Setting: Ingelheim, Frankland, and Vatican City, Dark Ages
The author takes the sketchiest of legends -- that for two years a woman disguised as a man sat on the papal throne -- and fleshes out a full novel of what it would have been like to have lived such a life. Born in A.D. 814 to an English canon and a Saxon woman, Joan grows up with a desire to study, fueled by an older brother. Although only her brothers are allowed to study, her father grudging consents to letting her brother's tutor also teach Joan. Impressed by her bright mind, the tutor arranges for her to continue at a palace school -- the only girl there. As Joan grows into womanhood, she falls in love with the knight Gerold. But she is soon parted from him after a Viking attack kills most of the villagers. She escapes, disguised as a man, and enters a monastery, where she learns the art of healing. Forced to flee there, as well, before her gender is uncovered, she ends up at the Vatican as the pope's personal physician. It's here that her life intersects again with Gerold -- at the moment that she's offered the papacy herself.
While Cross makes a good argument that a female pope could have existed, she also notes that the work is entirely fictional. In a conversation with our book club, Cross said she wrote Joan not as a woman of great faith, but as a woman who had only one option to fulfill her desire to learn -- to live her life as a man. The book has now been made into a movie, although it is still waiting for a U.S. distributor to pick it up. Whether one believes that a female pope existed or not, this book vividly portrays what life must have been like in the Dark Ages, especially for a woman like Joan.