Goodreads Summary: One of the most controversial women of history is brought to life in Donna Woolfolk Cross’s tale of Pope Joan, a girl whose origins should have kept her in squalid domesticity. Instead, thru intelligence, indomitability & courage, she ascended to the Roman throne as Pope John Anglicus. The time is 814, the place is Ingelheim, a Frankland village. It’s the harshest winter in living memory when Joan is born to an English father & Saxon mother. Her father is a canon, filled with holy zeal, capable of unconscionable cruelty. His piety doesn’t extend to his family, especially females. His wife, Gudrun, is a young beauty to whom he’s attracted beyond his will. He hates her for showing him his weakness. Gudrun teaches Joan about her gods & is repeatedly punished for it by the canon. Joan grows to young womanhood with the combined knowledge of the warlike Saxon gods & Church teachings as her heritage. When her brother John, not a scholarly type, is sent away to school, Joan, who was supposed to be the one sent to school, runs away & joins him in Dorstadt, at Villaris, the home of Gerold. She falls in love with him. Their lives interesect repeatedly even thru her Papacy. She’s looked upon by all who know that she’s a woman as a “lusus naturae,” a freak of nature. “She was… male in intellect, female in body, she fit in nowhere; it was as if she belonged to a third amorphous sex.” The status of women in the Dark Ages was little better than cattle. They were judged inferior in every way & necessary evils in the bargain. After John is killed in a Viking raid, Joan sees opportunity to escape the fate of her gender. She cuts her hair, dons her dead brother’s clothes & goes into the world as a young boy. Gerold is away from Villaris at the time of the attack & comes home to find his home in ruins, his family killed & Joan missing. After the attack, Joan goes to a Benedictine monastery, is accepted as a man of great learning & eventually makes her way to Rome.
Cross tells in an Epilogue that she wrote the story as fiction because it’s impossible to document Joan’s papal accession. The Catholic Church has done everything possible to deny this embarrassment. Whether or not one believes in Joan as Pope, this is a compelling story, filled with all kinds of lore: the brutishness of the Dark Ages, Vatican intrigue, politics, favoritism & the place of women.
My Thoughts: This book is absolutely amazing! It is really hard to describe why I love it so much because you would have to read it for yourself in order to understand it. It totally reminded me of The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Both novels are written with such extremely great attention to detail that you really get to know the different characters. It feels as if you as the reader are part of the story and as if you know everything about the characters. The book also describes in great detail the kind of life people were living in the 9th century and how influential the church has been at that time.
I can totally understand why this book is considered as controversial and that the catholic church in particular is not fortunate about its existence. The church also does not like that there are certain documents demonstrating that this story might be a true story and that there has been a female pope in the 9th century who was able to deceive everyone.
The story of Joan is truly fascinating. She is an amazingly smart woman and more than once I was afraid that someone or something would blow the cover of her deception. But she always finds a way to help herself out of situations that seem hopeless. I have to admit that I am not a person who believes in the existence of a God. I am not really religious even though I appreciate certain values and norms the christian church is teaching. Thus, pope Joan showed me once more that using our mind and logic is the way to deal with problems and not just hoping that there will be help coming from god. This does not mean that believing in god is wrong. People who believe in God should probably see it the way pope Joan saw it: God gave us our brain for a reason – to use it. “Everything that is old was once new. The new always precedes the old. Is it not foolish to scorn that which precedes and cherish that which follows?”
Several times, pope Joan questions the existence of God because for her it seems unreasonable that God would watch the people on earth suffer from illnesses and injustice without helping them. Her faith in God and her religion always conflicts her rational thinking and medical, philosophical and general knowledge that she accumulates over time through reading texts written by old greek philosophers. Over time, I developed great sympathy towards Joan because of her great mind and great thinking. I admire that she was brave enough to go through this life that was a complete lie and that always through stones in her way. But she overcame all challenges on her way to become pope.
The story is so great because it always seems reasonable and authentic. Even though nobody has proven yet there has been a female pope once, the reader can totally imagine the story to be real. That is why I love this book so much and can totally recommend it to everyone else!
My Rating: ★★★★