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Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Pope Joan (original 1996; edition 1997)

by Donna Woolfolk Cross

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2,671982,227 (3.87)114
Title:Pope Joan
Authors:Donna Woolfolk Cross
Info:Ballantine Books (1997), Edition: Later Printing, Paperback, 240 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:historical fiction, women, Catholicism, 9th Century

Work details

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross (1996)

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    A Golden Web by Barbara Quick (Caramellunacy)
    Caramellunacy: Both are stories that weave around the few bare bones facts known about women who allegedly made great contributions while disguised as men. The themes of the importance of education are similar - as is the controversy surrounding whether they actually existed. A Golden Web is about a female anatomist who made a remarkable discovery, Pope Joan about the alleged female pope.… (more)
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This novel caught my eye because when I glanced at it at my favorite used bookstore, I initially read the title as it was, "Pope Joan", and thought I had mis-read it as Pope John. Nope, it really is titled Pope Joan. The synopsis from the back cover seemed interesting, even though I'm not a religious person nor am I particularly interested in religious history. However, this novel is actually a historical fiction account.

Set in the ninth century, Joan is a strong-minded and highly intelligent girl born to a father who automatically loathes her because she is a girl. Eventually, Joan hides her true gender and becomes John. Along the way, she moves up into the church hierarchy and ultimately becomes Pope. Of course, she accomplishes this without her peers finding out that she's really a female. There are a few that do find out the truth but they keep her secret. There's a love interest for Joan as well.

In real life, there are arguments for and against whether there was really a Pope Joan. In an author's note at the end of this book, Donna Woolfolk Cross shares this information and the possible supporting evidence with the reader. The reader is left to decide, and I think that yes there was a Pope Joan. I'd certainly like to think so.

As a woman, it was hard at times for me to read about how misogynistic men were towards women during that era. However, the author doesn't take on a preachy tone toward the mores of the times, or towards religion in general. Overall, a good read, and although it is 422 pages long, I finished it much sooner than I thought I would. ( )
  ValerieAndBooks | Apr 5, 2014 |
What a good book! I love historical fiction that teaches me something because I have to look up the facts while I'm reading it. The best book I've read in a while. The author did an excellent job following history and she wrote an interesting section at the end that includes more information about her research and other things she found out while writing Joan's story. ( )
  CharlaOppenlander | Apr 4, 2014 |
What a good book! I love historical fiction that teaches me something because I have to look up the facts while I'm reading it. The best book I've read in a while. The author did an excellent job following history and she wrote an interesting section at the end that includes more information about her research and other things she found out while writing Joan's story. ( )
  CharlaOppenlander | Apr 4, 2014 |
A clearly well-researched novel about Pope Joan, a supposed ninth-century pope supposed to have been a woman. The author has clearly done her research about the ninth-century and is able to incorporate many, well-documented events into the novel and into the characters' lives. Joan emerges as a very likable character, an unwanted daughter who nevertheless receives an education to match her intellect, and eventually disguises herself as a man, becoming a monk, healer, adviser to Popes, and eventually Pope herself. While even the author admits in the closing notes that Joan's existence is difficult to prove or disprove, this novel does provide a fascinating insight into a period that little is known about. Definitely recommended for historical fiction fans! ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | Mar 30, 2014 |
Formulaic historical fiction with the requisite plucky heroine fighting misogyny, cruelty, and superstition. Characters were black and white with little-to-no character growth. Problems were solved through coincidences. Not an awful book--the author shows her extensive research of an era that we know little about today.

Pope Joan is fabled to have lived in the most obscure of times--that being the 9th century. Scholars (NOT just the Catholic Church) determine that Pope Joan probably did not exist--however, the story is buried so far back in history that I think it's more fun to believe that she was real.

This is a fascinating period of history about which we know so little, and that was my favourite thing about this book. At the end, the author outlines a handful of errors that readers wrote her about from the first edition, and she corrected them for later editions, so I have to give her kudos for doing that. ( )
  Nickelini | Feb 19, 2014 |
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For my father,William Woolfolk
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It was the twenty-eighth day of Wintarmanoth in the year of our Lord 814, the harshest winter in living memory.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0345416260, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:51:37 -0400)

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Set against the turbulent events of the Dark Ages, a fictional account of the controversial figure of historical record profiles a spirited woman who, disguised as a man, rose to rule Christianity as the only woman ever to become pope

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