Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross

There’s a lot to like and also a lot to critique in this historical novel, which came out in the 90s but has been re-released in the last few years. It’s great that somebody wrote a novel about the Pope Joan story (in her Afterword, Cross discusses the historical evidence for and against the story being true). If you’ve never heard of Pope Joan, the story is that sometime back in the 9th century a woman disguised as a man rose through the ranks of church hierarchy to become Pope, but the deception was exposed after a couple of years when she gave birth to a stillborn child during a procession, and subsequently died in childbirth.

Cross’s novel creates a relatively plausible backstory for how such an unlikely career path might have unfolded, and does a really good job of taking the reader into the atmosphere of ninth-century Europe. You really get a sense of the chaos, ignorance, and superstition that dominated life for the average peasant. Things that seem obvious to us today — like that when a person is accused of a crime, evidence should be brought to determine whether they did it or not — were unknown in that world, and I found that including those kind of details Cross really did a great job of bringing me into the world of the story and putting me into the heads of characters from that time.

However, the book’s weakness lies in the fact that its main character, Joan, is not a woman of her time. Of course, if you’re working with a story like the Pope Joan story, you’d have to concede from the outset that a woman would have to be quite extraordinary and very much of a rebel to disguise herself as a man and go into the Church. But she should still be a strong-willed, rebellious woman of her time, and it seemed to me as I read the novel that Cross’s Joan was a modern woman in a ninth-century body. She looks at the world in modern ways, sees through all the prejudices of her own time, introduces and suggests so many modern innovations that it boggles the mind. She seems to understand the germ theory of how disease is spread! And of course she’s brilliant and good at everything. She’s a Medieval Mary Sue.

Then there’s the love story. Admittedly, if you’re going with the familiar legend in which a pregnancy gave away Joan’s game, you’d have to concede that there must have been at least one man who knew she was a woman and didn’t expose the truth. There are a lot of ways you could have that play out, but Cross chooses the most romantic and sentimental possibility, creating a romance for Joan so sweet that it made me gag a little. And yes, I have one more quibble: this is a novel about a woman who rose to the highest possible position in the Roman Catholic Church, yet as Cross portrays Joan, she’s much more drawn to her mother’s pagan (Saxon) beliefs than to her father’s Christian faith. While there were plenty of practicing pagans around at the time and it’s entirely possible Joan’s mother could have been a closet pagan, the whole thing smacks a little too much of the author wanting to have her cake and eat it too — wanting Joan to be a monk and a scholar and powerful in the church, yet not wanting her to actually believe all that unfashionable Christianity nonsense — so much cooler if deep down she’s really pagan, because being pagan is trendy and smart!

Sorry, I’m being more sarcastic about this book than I should given the fact that I really did enjoy reading it and found it a great page-turner. It’s just that it’s such a good story, with so much solid research behind it, that I wanted it to be better than it was — to avoid the easy cliches of historical fiction and give us a more complex and potentially historically accurate Pope Joan. Whether or not she really existed, I wanted to come away from the novel convinced that she did, and this Joan was just too modern to be true.

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