31 reviews

Pope Joan: A Novel
by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Published: 2009-05-29
Kindle Edition : 434 pages
106 members reading this now
95 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 30 of 31 members

"Pope Joan has all the elements one wants in a historical drama – love, sex, violence, duplicity, and long-buried secrets. Cross has written an engaging book."–Los Angeles Times Book Review

In this international bestseller and basis for the 2009 movie of the same name, Donna Woolfolk ...

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"Pope Joan has all the elements one wants in a historical drama – love, sex, violence, duplicity, and long-buried secrets. Cross has written an engaging book."–Los Angeles Times Book Review

In this international bestseller and basis for the 2009 movie of the same name, Donna Woolfolk Cross brings the Dark Ages to life in all their brutal splendor and shares the dramatic story of a woman whose strength of vision led her to defy the social restrictions of her day.

For a thousand years her existence has been denied. She is the legend that will not die–-Pope Joan, the ninth-century woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to become the only female ever to sit on the throne of St. Peter. Now in this riveting novel, Cross paints a sweeping portrait of an unforgettable heroine who struggles against restrictions her soul cannot accept. 

Brilliant and talented, young Joan rebels against medieval social strictures forbidding women to learn. When her brother is brutally killed during a Viking attack, Joan takes up his cloak--and his identity--and enters the monastery of Fulda. As Brother John Anglicus, Joan distinguishes herself as a great scholar and healer. Eventually, she is drawn to Rome, where she becomes enmeshed in a dangerous web of love, passion, and politics. Triumphing over appalling odds, she finally attains the highest office in Christendom--wielding a power greater than any woman before or since. But such power always comes at a price . . . 

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

Editorial Review

One of the most controversial women of history is brought to brilliant life in Donn Woolfolk Cross's tale of Pope Joan, a girl whose origins should have kept her in squalid domesticity. Instead, through her intelligence, indomitability and courage, she ascended to the throne of Rome as Pope John Anglicus.

The time is 814, the place is Ingelheim, a Frankland village. It is the harshest winter in living memory when Joan is born to an English father and a Saxon mother. Her father is a canon, filled with holy zeal and capable of unconscionable cruelty. His piety does not extend to his family members, especially the females. His wife, Gudrun, is a young beauty to whom he was attracted beyond his will--and he hates her for showing him his weakness. Gudrun teaches Joan about her gods, and is repeatedly punished for it by the canon. Joan grows to young womanhood with the combined knowledge of the warlike Saxon gods and the teachings of the Church as her heritage. Both realities inform her life forever.

When her brother John, not a scholarly type, is sent away to school, Joan, who was supposed to be the one sent to school, runs away and joins him in Dorstadt, at Villaris, the home of Gerold, who is central to Joan's story. She falls in love with Gerold and their lives interesect repeatedly even through her Papacy. She is looked upon by all who know that she is a woman as a "lusus naturae," a freak of nature. "She was... male in intellect, female in body, she fit in nowhere; it was as if she belonged to a third amorphous sex." Cross makes the case over and over again that the status of women in the Dark Ages was little better than cattle. They were judged inferior in every way, and necessary evils in the bargain.

After John is killed in a Viking attack, Joan sees her opportunity to escape the fate of all her gender. She cuts her hair, dons her dead brother's clothes and goes into the world as a young boy. Gerold is away from Villaris at the time of the attack and comes home to find his home in ruins, his family killed and Joan among the missing. After the attack, Joan goes to a Benedictine monastery, is accepted as a young man of great learning, and eventually makes her way to Rome.

The author is at pains to tell the reader in an Epilogue that she has written the story as fiction because it is impossible to document Joan's accesion to the Papacy. The Catholic Church has done everything possible to deny this embarrassment. Whether or not one believes in Joan as Pope, this is a compelling story, filled with all kinds of lore: the brutishness of the Dark Ages, Vatican intrigue, politics and favoritism and most of all, the place of women in the Church and in the world. --Valerie Ryan


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Discussion Questions

1. How important is it to this story to believe in its historicity? Are there lessons to be learned from Joan’s story whether it’s legend or fact? What are they?

2. Francis Bacon, the 17th century philosopher, said “People believe what they prefer to be true.” How does this relate to Joan’s story compared to, say, that of King Arthur? What is it about Joan’s story that people might not “prefer to be true”?

3. Are reason and faith incompatible? What do you make of Aesculapius’ argument that lack of faith leads people to fear reason? What about Joan? Does her study of reason in the work of classical authors such as Lucretius diminish her faith?

4. Joan sacrificed much because she loved Gerold. Do you know women who have sacrificed opportunities to exercise mind, heart, and spirit for love of a man? For love of a child? Are such sacrifices justified?

5. What implications does Joan’s story have with regard to the role of women in the Catholic Church? Should nuns play a greater--or different--role? If so, what should that role be? Should women be priests? What effect would women priests have on the Church and its liturgy? What effect have they had on the Episcopal Church?

6. One reviewer wrote: “Pope Joan…is a reminder that some things never change, only the stage and the players do.” Are there any similarities between the way women live in some places of the world today and the way they lived back then?

7. What causes any society to oppress womankind? What are the root causes of misogyny? Are they based in religion or in society? Both? Neither?

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

9. What similarities or differences do you see between Pope Joan and Saint Joan of Arc? Why was one Joan expunged from history books and the other made a saint?

10. If Joan had agreed to leave with Gerold when he first came to Rome, what would her life have been like? Did she make the right choice or not?

11. What causes Joan’s inner conflict between faith and doubt? How do these conflicts affect the decisions she makes? Does she ever resolve these conflicts?

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Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Has any author has ever owed so much to her readers as I? Abandoned by its previous publisher, Pope Joan, labor of my heart, the product of seven years research and writing, should by all rights have had a shelf life somewhere between lettuce and yogurt!

The fact that it's still in print is testimony to the power of grass-roots promotion--to the kindness of reading groups who passed the word (not the book! never the book!) along. Heartfelt thanks to all who supported my poor orphaned novel over the years.

At long last, Pope Joan may have her day. I now have a wonderful new publisher, Three Rivers Press. Together, we have created a whole new edition of Pope Joan.

The new version has:

〈 larger print (no need to squint to read it anymore!)

〈 corrections and additions to the text

〈 updated Author's Note including new information in support of Joan's historical existence

〈 a list of "Best of the Best" reading group questions, gleaned from my many years of chatting by speakerphone with reading and school groups all over the U.S., Canada and Europe (for information on how to set up a chat, go to popejoan.com)

Book sales need to be brisk in August, for this will, in part, determine how widely the movie opens in the U.S. To help encourage summer sales, I've come up with an unusual idea, which will appeal to anyone who has ever dreamed of walking a red carpet.

Join me and my family as we walk the red carpet on the night of the Pope Joan movie premiere!

... Includes two tickets to the movie premiere, plus round trip airfare for two from any location in the continental United States or Canada, and one night hotel accommodation

Want to participate? Buy the Three Rivers Press edition of Pope Joan on or before August 9th and send in the receipt. On August 17th, I'll pick randomly from the pile of receipts to select someone and her guest to join me at the U.S. movie premierel!

Link to the Pope Joan Red Carpet entry information here.

It's an innovative--even quirky-- idea, which is why I believe Joan herself would have liked it. It's also a gesture of appreciation to the wonderful book groups who have done so much for Pope Joan. With your continued support, perhaps this inspirational woman, long forgotten to history, can finally get the recognition she deserves!

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by Ann D. (see profile) 12/08/23

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  "Pope Joan"by Audrey H. (see profile) 02/23/16

Great discussion material.

  "Pope joan"by Gayle K. (see profile) 11/05/15

Never knew this story might be true. Also it was interesting to think about how many women might have masqueraded as men. Very well researched. As a Catholic who remembers pre Vatican II very nice to see... (read more)

by Kate E. (see profile) 11/04/15

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