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Pope Joan (Cross)

Pope Joan 
Donna Woolfolk Cross, 1996
Crown Publishing
448 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307452368


Summary 
For a thousand years men have denied her existence—Pope Joan, the woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to rule Christianity for two years. Now this compelling novel animates the legend with a portrait of an unforgettable woman who struggles against  restrictions her soul cannot accept.

When her older brother dies in a Viking attack, the brilliant young Joan assumes his identity and enters a Benedictine monastery where, as  Brother John Anglicus, she distinguishes herself as a scholar and healer.

Eventually drawn to Rome, she soon becomes enmeshed in a dangerous mix of powerful passion and explosive politics that threatens her life even as it elevates her to the highest throne in the Western world. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—1947 
Where—N/A
 Education—B.A., University of Pennsylvania; M.A., University
   of California, Los Angeles
Currently—N/A


Donna Woolfolk Cross graduated cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969 with a B.A. in English. She moved to London, England, after graduation and worked as an editorial assistant for a small publishing house on Fleet Street, W.H. Allen and Company. Upon her return to the United States, Cross worked at Young and Rubicam, a Madison Avenue advertising firm, before going on to graduate school at UCLA where she earned a master's degree in Literature and Writing in 1972. (From the publisher.)

See interesting New York Times article, 5/28/2001, about how Cross has been reaching out to book clubs on her own (bypassing publishers) to talk about Pope Joan. Also see her Pope Joan website.



Book Reviews 
Engaging.... Pope Joan has all the elements: love, sex, violence, duplicity, and long-buried secrets.
Los Angeles Times Book Review


Cross makes an excellent, entertaining case in her work of historical fiction that, in the Dark Ages, a woman sat on the papal throne for two years. Born in Ingelheim in A.D. 814 to a tyrannical English canon and the once-heathen Saxon he made his wife, Joan shows intelligence and persistence from an early age. One of her two older brothers teaches her to read and write, and her education is furthered by a Greek scholar who instructs her in languages and the classics. Her mother, however, sings her the songs of her pagan gods, creating a dichotomy within her daughter that will last throughout her life. The Greek scholar arranges for the continuation of her education at the palace school of the Lord Bishop of Dorstadt, where she meets the red-haired knight Gerold, who is to become the love of her life. After a savage attack by Norsemen destroys the village, Joan adopts the identity of her older brother, slain in the raid, and makes her way to Fulda, to become the learned scholar and healer Brother John Anglicus. After surviving the plague, Joan goes to Rome, where her wisdom and medical skills gain her entrance into papal circles. Lavishly plotted, the book brims with fairs, weddings and stupendous banquets, famine, plague and brutal battles. Joan is always central to the vivid action as she wars with the two sides of herself, "mind and heart, faith and doubt, will and desire." Ultimately, though she leads a man's life, Joan dies a woman's death, losing her life in childbirth. In this colorful, richly imagined novel, Cross ably inspires a suspension of disbelief, pulling off the improbable feat of writing a romance starring a pregnant pope.
Publishers Weekly


Cross's first novel, based on the life of the controversial historical figure Pope Joan, is a fascinating and moving account of a woman's determination to learn despite the opposition of family and society. Born in 9th-century Frankland, Joan demonstrates her brilliance early but must hide her learning from her missionary father, who considers the education of women sacrilegious and dangerous. Tutored first by her older brother and then a Greek scholar, Joan eventually secures a place at the schola in Dorstadt. To protect herself after a Viking raid, Joan dons her dead brother's clothing and assumes a man's identity. Suddenly the intelligence that once brought her ridicule and punishment results in respect and authority. From the monastery in Fulda to Vatican politics in Rome, Joan eventually secures the church's highest office. Cross vividly creates the 9th-century world, fraught with dangers from Vikings and Saracens, bloody warfare between brothers for political power, and palace intrigue for political favors. Above all, she brings to life a brilliant, compassionate woman who has to deny her gender to satisfy her desire for learning. Highly recommended. —Kathy Piehl, Mankato State Univ., Minn.
Library Journal


A longstanding tradition has insisted that there was a female Pope in the ninth century. The author's version of that story imagines Joan as the daughter of a village canon. Singled out for tutoring by a wise Greek, she learns quickly, but her father sees her knowledge as an abomination and blocks further progress. She runs away to join her brother at school, but is reviled by fellow students and her schoolmaster alike, even though she has the support of Gerold, the local count. Gerold falls in love with her, so his wife plots to marry her off while he is away; a Viking raid intervenes, however, leaving Joan the sole survivor. Determined never again to be betrayed by being female, she dresses as a man and enters a Benedictine monastery, where her aptitude for learning and healing propels her rapidly into the priesthood. Years pass; Joan makes a remarkable recovery from the plague and decides to go to Rome. There, she saves the life of Pope Sergius, and in her new role as papal physician again meets Gerold, rekindling the spark between them. When Sergius dies, and intrigue leads to the poisoning of his successor, Joan is elected Pope as the people's choice. Together, she and Gerold work to help the poor, but when a flood gives them the opportunity to be truly alone, passion reasserts itself. Joan learns that she is pregnant just as plotters act against her, leaving a bloody finale to be played out on the streets of Rome. No lack of action here, but also not much food for thought. Still, what seems a too facile rendering of a complex story might certainly appeal as light summer reading.
School Library Journal  



Discussion Questions 
1. Donna Woolfolk Cross wrote the story of Pope Joan as a work of fiction. Do you think there really was a Pope Joan?

2. How important is it that Pope Joan actually existed? Are there lessons to be learned from this story whether it's true or not? What do you think those lessons are?

3. One reviewer said, "After finishing Donna Cross' novelization of Joan's life, one may want her to be a real person, only because it is so gratifying to read about those rare heroes whose strength of vision enables them to ignore the almost overpowering messages of their own historical periods." In contrast, a professor of history said, "I think we shouldn't even think about [Pope Joan] at all. It's bunk." Referring to Joan's pregnancy, the professor also said, "The whole point of the story is 'If you let a woman in as pope, she'll goof up.' The story was invented for the purpose of saying, 'Women can't be trusted.'" Which interpretation do you agree with? Why?

4. Many priests and nuns, in recent years, have urged the Vatican to ease restrictions on how far women may advance in the Church hierarchy. Women, they say, should be allowed to be ordained as priests. What are the implications of Pope Joan's story with regard to the limitations placed on women by the Church?

5. One reviewer wrote, "Pope Joan—is a reminder that some things never change, only the stage and the players do." Although the position of women in society haschanged dramatically since the middle ages, do you feel there are similarities between the way women live in various societies today and the way they lived in society then?

6. According to the author, Joan's story was universally known and accepted until the seventeenth century. Why do you think that changed?

7. Why do you think medieval society considered it unnatural and a sin for women to educate themselves or be educated?

8. Why might medieval society have believed so strongly that education hampered a woman's ability to bear children? What purpose might that belief have served?

9. One reviewer wrote, "Joan's ascendancy might not have been unusual in political spheres—many females in ancient and medieval times attained absolute or shared power. Joan earned disapproval because her intelligence and competence challenged prevailing male opinion that women lacked the ability for scholarly or clerical pursuits." Were there other females of ancient or medieval times who challenged this prevailing opinion? Do their stories give you insight into Joan's?

10. What other strong female characters have you encountered in books? What are the similarities and differences between those characters and Joan?

11. Did Joan make the right choice at that moment when she decided to disguise herself as her dead brother following the Viking attack? What would her life have been like had she chosen differently?

12. What do we learn about medieval medicine, and the logic of the learned medieval mind, in Pope Joan?

13. What happens to Joan when she tries to improve the lives of women and the poor? Why do you think Church and civic leaders were so resistant to such improvements?

14. Discuss the inner conflicts Joan faces—between the pagan beliefs taught by her mother and the Christian beliefs she learns from religious instructors; between her mind and her heart; between faith and doubt. How do these conflicts affect the decisions she makes? Does she ever truly resolve those inner conflicts?

15. Do you think Joan's secret would ever have been discovered had she not miscarried during the Papal procession or had she not become pregnant?

16. According to one reviewer, "Joan has the kind of vices—stubbornness and outspokenness, for example—that turn out to be virtues." Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?
(Questions issued by publishers.)

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