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Pope Joan: A Novel [Paperback]

Donna Woolfolk Cross
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (191 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
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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 life but get married and have a passel of babies. An extraordinary life is filled with extraordinary events. Equally fantastic, to my mind, is the life of Princess Clotild, who took over her convent with the aid of her sister nuns, recruited bandits and waged open warfare on the bishopric, and essentially made havoc of the clerical system at the end of the 6th century. Her tale seems outrageous, but is documented. Alas the poor fictional heroine, who does not conform to modern American standards of realism and self-help platitudes.... she will be despised!
Ms. Cross got most of her history down - and where she miffed it, she usually realizes it. That alone makes this a valuable book for the average reader. There are no Victorian carriages or Renaissance barges intruding their way into the story. She crafted a world that most people have no clue about. Her scholarship is reasonably good; she is dealing with an era with little or no documentation. She might have looked into the papstfabeln a bit more, but otherwise, did a good job for a non-historian.
Finally, I like the love story. Most of us will never have to face the choice between career and love; that has been one of the benefits of the feminist movement we forget to count. But until less than a century ago, that was the only option for women who did not want the standard path.... and so it is a glimpse for us to remind us how much we have gained.
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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
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
5.0 out of 5 stars A Papal mystery April 30 2002
By A Customer
I just finished this book and loved it! I was alittle skeptical to continue when I first started it as I am easily upset about references to torture and medieval lifestyles. I am so glad that I continued reading. Unfortunately, the scenes of torture and representations of women as being lowlier than dogs was fact in this era (ninth century) and an important part of the story. They provided the basis for understanding what drove Joan to make the decision to live her life as a man. She was a woman filled with a passion for learning and exploring all that life had to offer the men of her time, but was forbidden for women to know. She was brave in the face of danger, had a keen and intelligent mind, and yet always exhibited an underlying femininity as she nurtured the sick, the poor and the children and when she spoke of her love, Gerold. She not only wanted to better her own life, but was committed to helping those around her as well.
I am not Catholic and was completely unaware of her so-called legend. It is still debated as to whether or not she existed; some believe that the Catholic Church has deliberately removed her from any records of the time to avoid having to deal with the embarrassment of her rise to be Pope (the author spends a short time at the end of the book presenting this debate). I, for one, want to believe she existed. She represents all that is good in people and proves that we can attain our goals if we truly believe in them.
Definitely, recommended reading!
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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
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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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book!
Wonderful work, well written and historically true. Fascinating characters and descriptions.
Published 6 days ago by Mimi
5.0 out of 5 stars Popes were not always holy
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. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Gerlinde Sarkar
4.0 out of 5 stars a good read
Good story. I enjoyed the historical details. I would have rated it higher but I think the ending could use some work. IMHO.
Published 15 months ago by HPM
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
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