Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Was there a female pope as has been claimed in several historical books about her reign or is Pope Joan merely a hoax perpetrated on the Catholic church for some unknown reason? Donna Woolfolk Cross took what little she could find and turned the information into a novel.

Pope Joan is a historical novel about Joan from Ingelheim, a young girl who hungered for learning and was denied by her father, and the time in which she lived, because she was female. A Greek teacher recognized her intelligence and refused to teach Joan's brother John unless Joan was included, and this pattern continued until fate offered her a chance to change things by assuming her brother's name and gender. John was massacred during a Viking raid on the day of Joan's contracted marriage. Since she was the ward of a local landowner, whose wife was jealous of Joan's relationship with her husband, Joan had to go and in a way that would destroy all her hopes of a different life as an educated woman.

The 9th century was the darkest of the Middle Ages. Few people, even among the clergy, could read or write and women were meant to cook, sew, clean, and bear children, as many children as their bodies would accommodate. Many women, from the age of 14, were given in marriage and were pregnant every year. Many children were stillborn and even more never grew up to become productive citizens. It was believed that a female who could read and write used up all her fertile energy and could not bear children. It is the reverse of the modern joke that men have only enough blood in their bodies to run one brain at a time, except this was no joke, but the way society perceived women as chattel and baby factories.

Donna Woolfolk Cross uses her research skills and her background in writing nonfiction to infuse Pope Joan with as much fast as was available and considerable fictional skills to bring the times and Joan to life. The longing to be able to read and write and knowing the only obstacle in the way is one's gender is one that will resonate with many women even in today's world. To be hampered by biology is unthinkable to someone who hungers for more -- more books, more languages, more learning, and more life as a being with reason and intelligence. In this, Cross has hit all the right notes, even down to the internal war of wanting physical love at the peril of being unmasked as a fraud.

Pope Joan is a novel that encompassed the historical truths while offering a glimpse of the sacrifices made in the name of equality and knowledge. Pope Joan is the story of female empowerment at a time when women had no power and the only way to realize such lofty dreams was to hide what they were in order to choose knowledge and freedom. Many women throughout this period, and in other times in the history of the world, have donned masculine disguise to hide their perceived inadequacies and prove that the only inadequate thing about them is the society in which they live. Although Joan lived more than a thousand years ago, her story is as powerful today as it ever was.

The Catholic church has long denied the existence of a female pope, even while many of the popes who followed her acknowledge her existence and her contributions. I find it most telling that it was not until after Pope Joan's sex was undeniably proven that future popes must be publicly examined in order to prove they are male. There was no need before Pope Joan since no other woman had made it so far.

Cross's historical novel is as wonderful as it is shocking and all the more timely when women's rights and place in society is at peril. How many women in today's world are willing to sacrifice everything to realize their dreams? After reading Pope Joan, they may find the sacrifice worth the prize. With solid historical details and an understanding of the complexities of the human heart, Pope Joan is an outstanding novel for our times.

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