Review: Pope Joan (Doona Woolfolk Cross)

Pope JoanGoodreads 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: ★★★★

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6 Responses to Review: Pope Joan (Doona Woolfolk Cross)

  1. This is Donna Woolfolk Cross, writing to thank you for the great review of my novel, Pope Joan. I’m delighted to learn that you found Joan’s story as inspirational as I did. There is now a movie version of my novel, which should open in the U.S. sometime this year. You can view the movie trailer on the homepage of On the same page, reading group members can also learn about my offer to chat by speakerphone with their group on the night they discuss Pope Joan (no expense to the group; I make the call).

    One thing: the passage that you use to illustrate Joan’s power of reasoning (a good one to pick!) is in quotes, making it appear that it comes directly from my novel, which doesn’t. Could you please edit to use the exact words from the novel: “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?” Among other reasons I don’t like the paraphrase is that it’s less clear–and I sure wouldn’t want readers to think I would put the word “counter-productive” in Joan’s mouth, for the concept was not around in the ninth century!

    Other than that, I found your review very well-written and insightful. I really appreciate it!

    Wishing you all the best of the best,


  2. Dear Donna,

    Thank you very much for your comment! It is an honour for me to read that you enjoyed reading my review. Of course I’ve changed the quote. Since I read the book in German and did not have the English version at hand, I translated the part. Thanks for letting me know the original quote!

    I really hope that you are going to write more excellent novels like this one!!!! It was an absolute pleasure to read it!!!

    Thanks also for letting me know about the movie. I’m not sure if it’s the same but there has been a movie in Germany already I think. Perhaps it was a German production… I am normally afraid of watching movies based on a book I’ve already read because the books are usually better or mor detailed and watching a movie kind of destroys my own imagination. But since you recommended it, I guess I’ll give it a try once it’s released in the UK!

    Thanks again for your comment! It’s always great to receive feedback!

    All the best for you as well!

    • Hi, again!

      Yes, it’s the same movie that was released in Germany. But it was filmed in English–as the presence of John Goodman (American) and David Wenham (Australian) proves. The film was dubbed into German for German audiences.

      Ah! The quote makes sense now that I know you read my novel in its German translation. As Cervantes once said, “Translation is the opposite side of a tapestry”–in other words, the part with all the loose and messy threads. I was surprised, for your review was so well written and yet this quote sounded so awkward. Do you know if there’s a way to edit your review to correct that quote? For though I’m sure it reads well in German (I’m told the German translator was very good), it sounds rather clumsy in English–and I’m afraid others reading it might think I’m not a very good writer and thus be turned off from getting the book.

      Thanks for your kind words and support!


  3. Yes, the German translator did a really good job as far as I can tell. Usually, I read books in English when they are originally written in English but I was in Germany over Christmas and I already had this book in the shelf and thus, read it in German. 🙂

    I have now changed the quote within the post. You are an amazing writer and everyone should know that!

    Thanks again for your feedback! It always helps to get feedback in order to improve my blog and my writing!

    All the best!

  4. michelle says:

    This is on my to-read this year and your great review puts it higher on my list. Interesting to read the comments back and forth between you and the author.

  5. Hey Michelle,

    Thanks for your comment! I can totally recommend to read this amazing book! I just couldn’t put it down! It is extremely worth reading it! Once you’ve read it, let me know what you think about it! Would be really interested to find out!

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