Friday, May 20, 2016

Pope Joan

This week, I’m featuring my review of Pope Joan, the highly acclaimed novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross. I read it before my trip to Rome last year, but only now got around to putting my thoughts to the page. Better late than never, I suppose.


Pope Joan is a fictional account based on the legend of a woman who served as pope under the guise of a man in the mid-ninth century. The book follows Joan’s entire life, from birth until death, and in a way serves as a tour of the early Middle Ages from a distinctly feminist point of view.

The novel begins with Joan as the child in the village of Ingelheim in Thuringia. There, we are introduced to the first of her many misogynistic male adversaries. The worst one of all is her own father, a tyrannical English canon who sets the stage of the medieval view of women that Joan must overcome. Indeed, from the moment of Joan’s birth, he declares his wife’s labor was “all for nothing,” considering the birth of a girl to be a “punishment from God.” When Joan is a little older and wants to learn to read like her brothers, her father tells her, “You are a girl and therefore such matters do not concern you.” It only gets worse from there.

Joan, however, refuses to accept the place her father would have her in life. Her older brother secretly teaches her to read, and when a Greek scholar named Aesculapius shows up in the village, he insists on tutoring Joan, recognizing her intelligence. Through his teachings, Joan develops a keen mind, forged from the writings of Cicero and other classics, which will eventually allow her to outwit many a man. But only if she can escape her father. When he finds her reading a copy of Homer in Greek, he deems it the work of a “godless heathen” and nearly whips her to within an inch of her life. 

A 16th Century Illumination of Pope Joan
Things change, however, when Aesculapius arranges an invitation for Joan to study at a school in Dorstadt. There, she is sent to live with a count named Gerold and his wife. Gerold ultimately becomes Joan’s love interest in this tale, even though it’s creepy to think of a girl with, effectively, her foster father. But at least the author waits until Joan is fourteen (still a bad age for a modern audience, but probably more acceptable in the ninth century) for the affair to develop. Still, the love affair is more of a subplot, than the main plot, which all concerns Joan quest to succeed in the male-dominated medieval society.

After a series of events which I refuse to spoil, Joan decides to pose as a male, taking her brother’s name and calling herself John Anglicus. Disguised as a man, she joins the monastery at Fulda and, relying on her knowledge of Hippocrates, earns a reputation as a skilled healer. Eventually, the story takes her to Rome, where her healing arts bring her into the service of Pope Sergius, a prodigious eater and drinker, and one of my favorite characters in the novel. Sergius has taken ill, leaving his corrupt brother to run Rome, and Joan realizes that the only way to stop the corruption is to quickly heal the pope. 


As good as the novel was during Joan’s childhood in Thuringia and her time with Gerold’s family in Dorstadt, her time in Rome is where the novel shines the brightest. There, she is faced with all the intrigue, politics, and backstabbing that you’d except to find in the papal palace, along with a horde of misogynistic antagonists that Joan must outlast and outwit. The Roman scenes also involve some major historical events, including the Saracen sacking of Rome, the erection of the Leonine Walls around what today is the Vatican, and the battle of Ostia. Rome also brings the return of Gerold, who is in the service of the Frankish emperor, and he is by her side when she’s ultimately elected Pope John. But by then, she’s made a host of dangerous enemies, which propels the novel toward its climax. 

Even though the book is only 434 pages, it seemed overlong at times. Each phase of Joan’s life could have been its own novella, but they were all engaging enough to keep me reading through the end. My one peeve was with the author’s shifting viewpoints. While at times the book seemed written in a third-person limited point-of-view, other times it slipped into a more outdated omniscient point-of-view, often in the middle of scenes. I would have preferred a more personal point-of-view throughout.

That said, I found Pope Joan to be a well-written, thought provoking, and fully engaging novel. An extensive Author’s Note at the end contributes to this by asserting that the legend of Pope Joan was widely accepted as true until the mid-seventeenth century when the Vatican expunged any reference Joan in the papal records. According to the author, the Church’s position on Joan “is that she was an invention of Protestant reformers eager to expose papist corruption.” Nonetheless, the author notes that until the sixteenth century, every pope elected after Joan had to confirm their manhood through genital inspection before they could sit on St. Peter’s Throne, complete with a photo of the toilet-like seat used for the examinations. I found this pretty compelling, but I encourage you to read the book and decide for yourself.

In you’re interested, you can read a preview of the book here.

2 comments:

HelenR said...

Loved this book. It's been a while since I read it but your post has reminded me of some of the reasons I enjoyed the story. Thanks!!

Joseph Finley said...

You're welcome. "Pope Joan" was actually made into a movie with John Goodman as Pope Sergius (perfectly cast!), but I think the movie was filmed in German. Maybe with English subtitles?