Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Pope Joan: A NovelFrom the Back Cover:

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, Donna Woolfolk 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...

I'd been wanting to read this book for a long time. The idea of a woman disguising herself as a man and doing such a good job of it that she was eventually elected Pope intrigued me. How could that happen? The existence of Pope Joan is still debated but the author provides eleven pages of notes and sources that offer strong evidence that there may have been a female Pope who was erased from history once her deception was discovered.

The story begins with a young Joan, growing up in a household of fear and fervent devotion to God, ruled by a tyrant father. A Catholic canon, he brought his Saxon wife home to Frankland after a missionary trip and has spent the years of their marriage punishing his wife for making him desire her, and for bearing a female child. Unlike Joan, her two brothers are prized by their father and are getting an education to enter the church. Joan wants to learn, too, but is forbidden. When a scholar comes to examine Joan's brother, he discovers that Joan is the more intelligent. This sets in motion the chain of events that puts Joan on the road to the throne of St. Peter. She attends school, falls in love, faces discrimination and ridicule, survives a Viking attack and flees to a monastery dressed as a young man, and thus begins her illustrious career as a scholar, healer and priest.

I have to say I expected a lot more from this book. I felt like I was reading a light version, like there wasn't as much depth, as much exploration of human nature as there should be in a novel of this scope. Joan is likeable but too perfect, Gerold, her love interest, is too perfect, circumstances fall into place too perfectly. Even the villain, Anastasius, is too perfectly one-dimensional. The descriptions of religious rituals grew monotonous and I found myself skimming some sections. At one point I was pushing myself just to get to the end, but I'm glad I hung in there because it did pick up and it finished strong. It's not a bad read, I just don't think it's all it could have been, but I would recommend it simply for the fact that it's a period of controversial history worth learning about.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars


  1. I often wonder what I missed with this book because a lot of people absolutely loved it, but it was missing something for me too.

  2. I really liked it although I would like to read some non-fiction on the subject as well to delve deeper into the story. I didn't see the ending coming either. I was like whoa what just happened??

  3. I'm just about through with this one, and your review is spot on. For me, though, the church stuff and historical parts are excellent, and make the book worthwhile.


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