Review: Pope Joan

TITLE: Pope Joan
AUTHOR: Donna Woolfolk Cross
PUBLICATION: 1996 by Three Rivers Press
FORMAT: Paperback


For a 1000 years her existence has been denied. She’s the legend that will not die-–Pope Joan, the 9th-century woman who disguised herself as a man & rose to become the only female ever to sit on the throne of St. Peter. Now in this riveting novel, Donna Woolfolk Cross paints a sweeping portrait of an unforgettable heroine who struggles against restrictions her soul cannot accept.

Brilliant & 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 & his identity & enters the monastery of Fulda. As Brother John Anglicus, Joan distinguishes herself as a great scholar & healer. Eventually, she is drawn to Rome, where she becomes enmeshed in a dangerous web of love, passion & politics. Triumphing over appalling odds, she finally attains the highest office in Christendom. But such power always comes at a price.


I remember hearing a very obscure reference to Pope Joan on some documentary program a long time ago. I thought she was rather fascinating to be able to do what she did from that small bit of information. I found out about the movie due to a curiosity to see David Wenham (my Faramir crush seems to be taking its toll) and seen the novel on the shelf at one of my favorite little bookshops. So I finally broke down and bought it since I didn’t see any region 1 DVDs of the film available because I’m that kind of person whom would read the book to wait for a chance to see the movie at a later date. I’m kind of surprised that I didn’t know of this book’s existence sooner or I may have picked it up for a perusal before now. *sighs* I guess there are just too many books for one lone bibliophile to keep up with!

The story starts to weave its spell in the first chapter as we are told of Joan’s birth and the years of her young life in the proceeding chapters when she discovers that she has the gift to be a scholar. I like reading books of the women from history who would seek to defy their given role in society just to prove that it could be done. Yes, I like the prose style of this author. It was quite easy to get wrapped up in the novel and I stayed up later at night than I should have because of it! I was in “one more chapter” mode! Once I had an afternoon to myself I accomplished a lot of reading because it was hard to put the book down.

Although if I have any gripe, it’s I need more details to gain a better appreciation. Yes, by now my readers know that I like a vivid picture painted before my eyes of the setting and characters. Again it’s a personal preference. Still the efforts to be true to history with minimal licenses should be commended. It’s rather a fascinating study: did Joan exist or is she just a legend? I for one would like to think that she was real and I couldn’t blame her for choosing to live life as a man when you look at her options in such an abysmal time of history.

Joan comes across many contradictions in her life, but none so much as herself. The daughter to an English clergy and a pagan mother, her mixed upbring of the Christian god and Norse dieties, accepted tradition and dangerous reasoning offer her the chance to see things from new perspectives. Still I found myself gripping the pages and silently cheered her on to give in to her feelings for Gerold as though she were just another romance heroine, heh!

Please add Gerold to my list of book crushes! Although it seems odd that he wouldn’t spend more time lamenting the loss of his daughters instead of merely pining over Joan whom he thought taken captive during a Viking raid. Yet I suppose it would have dampened the romantic aspect of the novel.

I would have liked to own that book of Homer’s Iliad that the Greek gave to Joan!

Overall I found this novel to be quite an enjoyable read and am pleased that a whim purchase turned out to be a wise decision rather than a disaster. If you fancy a good intrigue, but are tired of queens and princesses, why not give Pope Joan a try?



2 thoughts on “Review: Pope Joan

  1. This sounds fascinating. I’ve never heard of Pope Joan before although she seems like the perfect character for a History Channel or PBS special. May be I just missed it. This book won’t be missed though, it’s already on the library reminder list. By the way, there appears to be another book that talks about Joan, “The legend of Pope Joan : in search of the truth” by Peter Stanford, I think it’s non-fiction.

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