Publication Date: May 29, 2009
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross takes place in the ninth century. Young Joan is thirsty for knowledge, which she is denied because of her gender. When Joan’s brother dies, she assumes his identity and heads off to a Benedictine Monastery. As Joan distinguishes herself and rises in the religious ranks, she finds herself heading to Rome. As her star rises, Joan finds herself playing a dangerous and precarious political game.
Pope Joan should have been a fascinating read.
The story is of an enigmatic woman who is brilliantly intelligent and ahead of her time and who rises the religious ranks. Whether a true story or not, it should have been a revelation as an insight into the workings of the 9th century. What the reader is actually faced with is a far-fetched fictionalization of a woman out of time, prone to rants regarding the place of gender in the Medieval Age. The author admits in her notes at the end of the book that she is unsure if Joan existed or not.
Her fictionalized presentation of how things may have happened should a woman have served as Pope for two years falls a bit flat. Joan is written as a bit of a superwoman. She is precocious and demanding in a way that is perhaps unrealistic for a character that comes from such an abusive home (even for the day when children grew up much faster). Packed with contrived twists of fate, Pope Joan is extremely intelligent, extremely skilled and not especially religious for a woman destined to be Pope. While not an expert on the Middle Ages, I found some of what Joan did to be very historically unrealistic and reminiscent of the penny novels that made icons of the Wild West personalities … more fantasy fiction than historical fiction. The person could walk on water, catch a bullet in his teeth and do all of this while riding a horse standing on their head. Joan’s paramour, Gerald, is not especially fleshed out. He’s strong, viral, carries a sword and adds an unnecessary air of romance to the read about a woman with religious aspirations. Gerald is straight out of the pages of a trashy romance novel. Joan and Gerald’s story has an over dramatized and unrealistic soapy vibe that is fitting in some genres but perhaps not in historical fiction.
It took quite a number of pages for this reader to engage with the story. Little Joan lived in a terrible household with a pious and abusive father. Joan’s mother tried to provide her daughter with tenderness but she was a beautiful trophy of war that her husband seems to hate. He views his wife as a witch and worthy of little kindness. Joan’s older brother is a more sympathetic character, willing to help his sister learn to read despite the specific orders of their father. What good is a girl who can read?
When fate brings someone to their door that can change Joan’s life, her father steps in her way leading Joan to run away and start her life away from her family. People come into Joan’s life easily when she needs them but leave just as abruptly in this violent age rife with epidemics. Cross is very good at painting the brutality and hopelessness of the age.
The touches of brilliance in this author’s writing are all related to her portrayal of the time. The ninth century was not a happy place to for anyone, let alone a woman. Despite the eye roll factors, there is really a fascination in Pope Joan for a unique and original topic. Overall, Pope Joan was an interesting read as a look into the ninth century.
If you’re interested in women in historical fiction, be sure to check the novel out.
Read an excerpt and buy Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross on