October 30th, 2010

Review: Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Pope Joan

by Donna Woolfolk Cross


The daughter of a church canon and his ‘heathen’ Saxon wife, Joan is both clever and determined.  Her older brother, Matthew, teaches her to read and write, in spite of their tyrannical father’s opposition.   Later, a Greek tutor continues her lessons, which her father permits only if the teacher instructs his younger son, John.  Joan so impresses her teacher that he recommends her to a prestigious school.  Her father forbids Joan to go, sending John in her place, so she runs away.  As the years pass she proves to be an extremely talented scholar, but hated by almost everyone she meets.  Her only friend is Gerold, her guardian, and Joan falls in love with him.  But when Joan’s brother is killed, she makes the radical decision to turn her back on love and take on his identity.  Disguised as a man, Joan learns about healing and medicine, and sets out on a path that will eventually lead her to Rome and the Papal throne.


I have heard snippets of the legend of Pope Joan, but this is the first book I’ve read that delves extensively into her story.  It’s a work of fiction, but it does lay out a plausible scenario that could have led a woman to the Papacy.  My knowledge of the Dark Ages in Europe is pretty weak, and my knowledge of the Catholic Church’s political structure at the time even worse, so I don’t know how accurate the history in the book is.   Oppressed Saxons who were forced to convert to Christianity or be killed, witch burnings, Viking attacks, miserable women leading miserable lives, rampant ignorance and a Papacy concerned less with souls than promoting the welfare of wealthy Roman nobility…unfortunately, the never-ending hardships in the novel seem too likely to be true. 


Joan herself seems just a little too perfect at times.  I mean, she is always so intelligent and so logical and so modern and liberal in her opinions.  I mean, for a woman to become Pope she’d have to be pretty darn exceptional, but that didn’t make Joan any more believable as a woman of her time.  Almost all the men around her are sexist, corrupt, cruel, and gluttonous save for the noble Gerold, her love interest.


In the print version of this book, there’s an afterward in which author Donna Cross discusses some of the evidence for Pope Joan, but I listened to the audio book so unfortunately I missed this useful information.


I enjoyed Pope Joan quite a lot.  I’d very much like to read a non-fiction book about her.


4 out of 5 stars


To read more about Pope Joan, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.