Pope Joan (1996): Donna Woolfolk Cross


I’d been keen to read this novel for over a year, so it felt like destiny when I spotted it in my local second-hand bookshop. The shadowy figure of Pope Joan has intrigued me ever since I first heard about her at university: the woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to the highest, most sacred position early medieval Europe could offer, before being unmasked when she gave birth to a child. Cross’s novel, set in the 9th century when Europe was still being forged out of a struggling mass of tiny princedoms and counties, takes in the wild snowy forests of the north, Rome’s faded glory, battles, Viking attacks and a protagonist who had the potential to be one of the most gripping characters I’ve read about for a long time. But unfortunately it never quite gelled into a satisfying whole.

Joan is born in Ingelheim, a little village on the Rhine, the daughter of an English canon sent to do missionary work among the heathen tribes to the East, and a Saxon mother whom he has brought back from one of his travels into those pagan lands. From the beginning she is told that, because she’s a girl, she is inferior to her brothers; prone to sin; destined to a life of hard work and childbearing and serving her husband. However, her lively intelligence refuses to accept this. She learns to read from her older brother Matthew and when, one day, a Greek scholar named Aesculapius comes to visit her father, he is struck by Joan’s quick mind. In defiance of her father’s vigorous objections, Aesculapius resolves to teach her alongside her less gifted younger brother John. When he has to leave, he makes arrangements for her to continue her education at the schola attached to the bishop’s palace at Dorstadt, where she continues to flourish, and where she conceives her first romantic attachments to the count, Gerold, who brings her to live with his family.

Then disaster strikes. When Norse raiders attack Dorstadt, Joan loses everything. But the destruction also offers her the chance of a new start; and so the figure that walks out of the fires of Dorstadt, and joins the monastery at Fulda, is not Joan of Ingelheim, but a young man who calls himself John Anglicus. And it is John Anglicus, with his talent for healing and his intellectual curiosity, whose path will eventually lead him to Rome and the greatest honour of the Catholic world.

It should have been wonderful. Cross has researched the period and the characters very carefully: she writes a thorough note at the back discussing her sources, which of her figures are historically attested, and the minor changes she made to dates for dramatic convenience. But as I’ve said on other occasions, thorough research doesn’t necessarily make for a good novel, and although this was perfectly enjoyable to read, there were several issues that prevented it from striking a spark in my soul. The most immediate problem was Joan herself. A considerable part of the book follows her up until the age of eleven, when she goes to the bishop’s schola, and although I know she’s meant to be intelligent, she is given the kind of logical and debating skills that make her sound as if she’s in her late teens or early twenties when she’s still only meant to be about ten. Her ‘voice’ never sounds appropriately childish.

Moreover, she is not a convincing medieval character. She feels like a 21st-century woman in a medieval world: her attitudes are thoroughly modern. She takes it for granted that, as a woman with a bright, inquiring intellect, she should be able to study. More to the point, she uses logic to challenge the idea of the Resurrection and (implicitly) the very existence of God and divine grace even as a child. For me, this was an intellectual leap that was unconvincing both for her age and the period in which she lived.

More broadly, the characters never really felt fully fleshed out. Cross certainly does make an effort to give them inner struggles and complexities… but it just doesn’t quite come off. There’s a rather one-dimensional division between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, based on their feelings about educated women. The ‘bad’ characters, like Joan’s father, react violently to the very idea; while the ‘good’ characters, like Aesculapius, find it natural that an enquiring intellect should be encouraged, whatever the sex of the body that holds it. While I have no doubt that some people did think this in the 9th century, there’s something about the way they express their views which make them feel a little too modern. Similarly, I was curious as to why Aesculapius would have arranged for Joan to study at the schola. Admittedly the 9th century isn’t my strong point, but wouldn’t there have been more appropriate places? Weren’t there convents or nunneries which might have welcomed a girl who had the potential to become a learned abbess? (Though of course she has to end up disguised as a man, for the purposes of the story.)

Elements of the romance also irritated me. In this story, more than any other, one has to have that strand in the narrative (Joan’s femininity is revealed by giving birth, after all); but I began to grow annoyed with the almost God-given destiny of Joan and Gerold’s encounters. They’re not wholly implausible – it’s made clear that Gerold is a valued official in the emperor’s service and so it’s reasonable for him to come to Rome as part of Lothar’s entourage – but I found myself thinking that 9th-century Europe in Cross’s novel must be a remarkably small place for these two people to keep finding each other with such ease. I’d have found it more believable if Joan had moved on from her childhood crush and somehow found another lover in Rome. (I’m don’t necessarily grumble about implausible love stories – goodness knows I’ve seen enough of them recently – but when the author is clearly trying to write a gritty historical novel, a ‘great love’ of this type weakens the book’s power. Joan and Gerold’s great connection seemed to be dictated more by the rules of the romance genre and less by what might actually have happened.) I can’t help comparing this book to Hild: another novel set in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ with a female protagonist who finds herself challenging the conventions for her sex. The context is somewhat different, but I felt that Hild dealt with the emotional trials of being female but ‘different’ in a way that Pope Joan didn’t manage.

As I said, there is a sizeable author’s note at the end discussing the ‘evidence’ for and against Joan’s existence. The key problem seems to be that, quite bluntly, there isn’t any ‘in favour’, except legend. Although the author refers twice (in the note and the interview following) to ‘five hundred [her emphasis] ancient manuscripts’ which mention Joan’s papacy, one has to take this with a pinch of salt. Here ‘ancient’ means late 14th and 15th century manuscripts: works written half a millennium after Joan’s lifetime, by which point she’d become a legend if she had ever existed at all. Indeed, all the evidence in favour of Joan’s existence – these references; the presence of a late medieval statue alongside other popes; even the 14th century interpolation of her name in the Liber Pontificalis – dates from a period so far removed from her own that it’s like us looking back at the early 15th century. One can argue that it’s all the result of suppression and whitewashing by the Catholic Church, but at what point does one have to start wondering if perhaps it’s simply the result of nothing being there in the first place? There was a legend of a female pope, no doubt, but how much further can we go? It would have been a tempting legend to encourage. It would have been a warning against female education; against allowing women to get above themselves. And not only had a woman become pope (you can imagine deliciously scandalised churchmen saying to one another), she committed the ultimate sacrilege by giving birth while in office!

It’s interesting that one of the pieces of evidence cited in ‘favour’ of Joan’s existence is the famous chair, with a hole cut in its seat, which was used to check a papal nominee’s manhood before consecrating him. This practice existed up until the early 16th century (as anyone who’s seen season 1 of The Borgias will know). Why the need for this, suggests Cross, unless there had been a female pope at some point in history and the Church was determined to prevent such a thing happening ever again? May I make a different suggestion, though? The Church is full of rituals that date from time out of mind and which probably began as adaptations of ancient customs. Isn’t it more likely that the ritual of the chair could have developed from a memory of one of these ancient rites (could it have been some kind of fertility rite?). Perhaps the chair was not the result of a female pope, and instead the legend of a female pope developed as a way to explain why the chair was used? I’ve absolutely no evidence for that whatsoever, of course, but history is full of strange stories which have developed to explain why things are done in certain ways. For me, that’d be a more logical explanation.

As a historical work in favour of Joan’s existence, this wouldn’t persuade me; but it’s a novel, at the end of the day, and although it didn’t always convince me with its characterisation, it does offer an insight into a period of history that still remains comparatively under-represented in the historical fiction field. I enjoyed learning more about the legend and trying to understand how it might have happened, if it ever did; and, since my 9th-century reading has focused more on the wild north and the Vikings (or Byzantium), it was interesting to get a glimpse of what was happening in Rome at the same period. If anyone knows of other books set in Italy or Rome at this date, do let me know.

Oh, and for those who are interested (I am, rather), the novel was made into a film in 2009. How could any director resist such a story?! You can find further information here.

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2 thoughts on “Pope Joan (1996): Donna Woolfolk Cross

  1. dehggial says:

    These stories are always great in theory but quite tricky to pull off. Like you said, you can't have the characters act like contemporary people so you have to research and then try and get inside the minds of those people. For me the most convincing way to tell a story set in medieval times lies somewhere in between Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring or The Seventh Seal and The Name of the Rose.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, I do get quite strict about historical 'authenticity' but I think it's important. So few writers do it well that it's really striking when you come across a good example. I haven't read The Name of the Rose for some years so I don't really remember that, but Hild by Nicola Griffith – which I mentioned above – is a very good example and another, which I keep talking about, is As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann. I don't know if you've read Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels, but that's an extremely good book which shows us a picture of how 'modern' sensibilities might actually have been regarded in early modern Europe. Plus it's beautifully written. 😉 Ah, and I must watch The Seventh Seal again. I haven't seen that since I was at university.

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