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Pope Joan: A Novel [Paperback]

Donna Woolfolk Cross
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (190 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 19 1997 Ballantine Reader's Circle
"Engaging . . . Pope Joan has all the elements: love, sex, violence, duplicity, and long-buried secrets."
--Los Angeles Times Book Review

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.

"Brings the savage ninth century vividly to life in all its alien richness. An enthralling, scholarly historical novel."
--Rebecca Fraser, Author of The Brontës

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From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

YA-A woman pope? The author's notes document the possibility that there was one for a brief time in the ninth century. The Joan in this novel has all the qualities a woman would need to become pope: superior intelligence, imagination, daring, and the determination that her sex would not keep her illiterate and subservient, as were most women of the period. Joan is an apt pupil at the cathedral school, where she is allowed to study only because her brother cannot master Latin. A Viking raid on her wedding day gives Joan the opportunity to escape an unwanted marriage; she takes her dead brother's clothes, presents herself at a nearby monastery, and becomes Brother John Anglicus. Her skill in healing and her passion for learning attract attention, and she fears discovery. Still disguised as a monk, Joan takes the pilgrim's road to Rome, where her skills as a healer attract the attention of the Pope himself. YAs, especially girls, will follow the adventures of this amazing heroine with fascination, and at the same time will learn much about life in the Middle Ages, and about the history of this tumultuous period just after the death of Charlemagne.
Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A pleasant if not always believable read Oct. 16 2003
Format:Paperback
This was an enjoyable read, but it could have been much more.
The premise that a woman in the 8th century managed to pass herself off as a woman and even to have become Pope is quite intriguing. It's certainly a believable concept. There are several documented cases of women passing themselves off as men throughout history.
Where I have to take issue with the story is that some of the details of Joan's life require just a little too much suspension of disbelief. Joan was born to a minor cleric who was had probably all the hang-ups about women and sex that could possibly be invented by the church at that time. There was the usual; women were the root of all sin, women shouldn't be educated - it's bad for them, women should be kept barefoot and pregnant. It certainly didn't sit well with him that his daughter wanted to learn things other than darning and cooking. The thought of a girl reading Latin just about pushed him over the edge.
But at the same time, her father wanted very badly for his son to be well educated and that gave Joan her break. She got her brother to teach her after father taught him. That part of the story rang plausible. When the older brother dies and a tutor is found for the younger brother, the tutor begins to teach Joan because he finds her so eager and intelligent. I can even believe that. Educators are often liberal and willing to overlook the accepted practices of the day.
When the story breaks down is when Joan runs away with her brother to attend a school that is run by the church. I find it extremely difficult to believe that this was feasible. Large established institutions are not noted (and never have been) for their willingness to be flexible.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars DULL RETELLING OF A CONTROVERSIAL LEGEND Jan. 24 2000
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I, myself, believe Pope Joan was about as real as the Loch Ness monster and the author of this book does admit that she, herself, is of the opinion that a definitive answer can never be found. All that aside, the legend of Pope Joan offers a fascinating premise to an author trained in the art of historical fiction. This book, however, falls far short of its initial promise. What should have been an intriguing look at interesting characters in a setting replete with rich, historic detail comes across as dull, flat and boring. First, it is quite evident that Cross did not thoroughly research the ninth century, as many of her details are patently wrong. Second, she gives us too much backstory (a common error of beginning novelists and this is Cross's first). I kept reading and hoping she'd get to the main event and fill us in on the less interesting details on a need-to-know basis. Third, I found none of the characters at all credible. I couldn't identify with any of them or understand their motivations, even though Cross used multiple point-of-view. None of the characters really "rang true" and because of this I found them all quite unlikeable, Joan in particular. Had Joan actually existed, she would have been an intelligent woman who hungered for some of the advantages men were given. Cross however, ignored the chance to conduct a fascinating look at the soul of a ninth century woman and chooses instead to portray Joan as asexual, possessing neither the soul of a man or a woman. Fourth, Cross's prose is clumsy and the dialogue completely unrealistic. It sounds like the debut novel it is. Reading the book was a chore rather than a delight. The ending, especially, was so abrupt I had to reread it just to make sure I'd gotten it right. The final result was this: What could have been a highly interesting look at a controversial legend became as dull and bland as a pitcher of skimmed milk.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing Oct. 24 1997
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Great idea, but a little clumsy in the execution. Cross fills out the sketchy details of Joan's life nicely, making her an interesting and sympathetic character. However, there were a few too many melodramatic made-for-TV moments -- a character dying suddenly just as he's about to betray Joan, a Viking attack disrupting a wedding just at the crucial moment. Also, most of the supporting characters were one-dimensional and predictable; the "bad guys" (and there were quite a few) had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, which made them much less interesting. I did appreciate the author's afterword discussing the historical evidence supporting the existence of Joan; it's nice when historical fiction states just how historically based it really is. However, I was disappointed overall; the subject of the book really piqued my interest, but the writing was a bit too awkward to make it a truly good read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Popes were not always holy Sept. 2 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Great insight into the times of when women were generally not allowed to get an education and the difficulties one woman faced to rise above the conventions of the day. The power of the church at that time in history is eerily similar to the power of religion in some Islamic countries where women still do not enjoy all the same rights as men. It makes one hopeful to recognize that in the West we were at that stage as well at a few centuries ago, but have come a long way since then.
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4.0 out of 5 stars a good read June 22 2013
By HPM
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Good story. I enjoyed the historical details. I would have rated it higher but I think the ending could use some work. IMHO.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A Hidden Gem
I read this book several years ago and it still stands out as one of my favourites! It is a truly great story - well written and thought-provoking! Read more
Published on Dec 29 2011 by Arlene
5.0 out of 5 stars Great History lesson
I loved this book. It was a page turner for me. Loved the history and research that went into the piece. It was a fast paced story with lots of action and suspense.
Published on Jan. 4 2011 by Tamm E
4.0 out of 5 stars A Captivating Read...
Where do I begin? Besides the fact that I loved this book, I can also say in all honesty that I cannot compare it to anything I've ever read before. Read more
Published on Oct. 20 2009 by Lucy Bertoldi
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read on a Middle Age Legend
Joan is portrayed as a very strong and stubborn character. However because of her stubbornness it takes her farther ahead than any woman could have done during those times, and for... Read more
Published on Sept. 22 2009 by Karoline
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting take on the legend, but has some flaws
I think I'm going to be in the minority here. I found the idea of a woman disguised as a man seated on the papal throne to be an interesting legend and the author did a decent job... Read more
Published on Oct. 5 2007 by Misfit
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good historical fiction
An all-time favorite here, this is great historical fiction built on fact. Keep in mind that it is historical fiction and therefore some small parts of the story that may seem... Read more
Published on March 29 2004 by Patty Philbrook
4.0 out of 5 stars Deeper than I expected; a Medieval feminist tale.
I picked up this book hoping for a tale of a powerful and wily woman ruling the Medieval Christian church...I got something different than I expected, but enjoyed it nonetheless. Read more
Published on March 15 2004 by Kelli Hanson
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good depictions of Medieval Europe & decent scholarship
Unlike one of the previous reviewers, I do find this book to be plausible, given the context. We're not talking about some random village girl who goes and does nothing with her... Read more
Published on Jan. 24 2004 by Constance S. Edwards
5.0 out of 5 stars LOVED IT
Read it a number of years ago and have never gotten the book back because it just keeps being passed around. What a wonderful read of feminine strength and intelligence.
Published on Dec 26 2003 by "cetgibson"
5.0 out of 5 stars Pope Joan by Donna Cross
I thought that this book was very well written. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I also found this inspiring. I would recommend the reading of this book. Fact or fiction? Read more
Published on Dec 22 2003 by Joan Haddad
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