New Book: Pope Joan

Hellllllloooo readers!
It’s new book time, and we decided to switch gears for the next one. Read on…

Pope Joan is the novel based on the life of one of the most fascinating, extraordinary women in Western history– a controversial figure of historical record who, disguised as a man, rose to rule Christianity in the 9th century as the first and only woman to sit on the throne of St. Peter.

Brilliant and talented, young Joan rebels against the medieval social strictures forbidding women to learn to read and write. When her older brother is killed during a Viking attack, Joan takes up his cloak and identity, goes to the monastery of Fulda, and is initiated into the brotherhood in his place. As Brother John Anglicus, Joan distinguishes herself as a great Christian scholar. 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 throne in Christendom.

Pope Joan is a sweeping historical drama set against the turbulent events of the 9th century — the Saracen sack of St. Peter’s, the famous fire in the Borgo that destroyed over three-quarters of the Vatican, the Battle of Fontenoy, arguably the bloodiest and most terrible of medieval conflicts. The novel is a fascinating vivid record of what life was really like during the so-called Dark Ages, as masterwork of suspense and passion that has as its center an unforgettable woman, reminiscent of Jean Auel’s Ayla, Jane Austen’s Emma, and other heroines who struggle against restrictions their souls will not accept.

Check it out. Read up.
We’ll chat.


5 responses to “New Book: Pope Joan

  1. I loved that book. I had the great pleasure of meeting the author when she came to California ten years ago and did a fundraising event for my chapter of NOW. Looking through my hard drive I found what I wrote back then about the book and so will gladly kick this discussion off with this:

    Donna Woolfolk Cross stumbled upon the legend of Pope Joan by accident. She was reading a book in French and saw a reference to a pope named “Jeanne.” She thought it was only an amusing typographical error in which Jeanne (Joan) was substituted for Jean (John). But she found her curiosity piqued by the mention. The next day she looked in a Catholic encyclopedia and saw an entry for Pope Joan – the woman who disguised herself as a man and became pope during the ninth century.

    This led Woolfolk Cross on a seven year odyssey of reading over 500 ancient manuscripts which contained accounts of Joan’s papacy. The documents did not contain a full history of her life and due to the confusion of the times, the loss of records due to fires and the passage of time – a full accounting may never be known. Due to these limitations, Woolfolk Cross decided to write a novel rather than an historical study.
    Which to me is a much more accessible style of writing for the masses. I enjoy reading both fiction and non-fiction, but know that many more people will read a well-written historical novel over a well written historical treatise complete with footnotes. I am glad that she chose to write in a style that will reach a global audience to spread the knowledge of such an important woman.

    This is her first novel and it has certainly made it mark. Woolfolk Cross has taken the events known and spun a lyrical and engaging tale set against the turbulent events of the 9th century–the Saracen sack of St. Peter’s, the famous fire in the Borgo that destroyed over three-quarters of the Vatican, the Battle of Fontenoy, arguably the bloodiest and most terrible of medieval conflicts.

    The Catholic Church does not officially recognize Joan’s papacy. And yet for eight hundred years–until 1601, when the Church, under concerted attack from rising Protestantism, began to gather and destroy the records of her papacy–Joan’s story was universally known and accepted as truth. In 1276, after ordering a thorough search of the papal records, Pope John XX changed his title to John XXI in official recognition of Joan’s reign as Pope John VIII.

    Joan was a fascinating and intellectually driven woman. I felt a sense of melancholy in reading about Joan’s childhood. It reminded me of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s childhood in which she also was thought of as an oddity: a girl with a desire for knowledge and a razor sharp mind to develop her own conclusions based on logic. To know that women and people of color were denied the access to education because it was thought to be “unnatural” or dangerous for them is one of the most appalling parts of our global history. (And in parts of the world today it is still far too common a belief).

    Life in these troubled times was especially difficult for women. With few exceptions, women were treated as perpetual minors, with no legal or property rights. By law, they could be beaten by their husbands. Rape was treated as a form of minor theft.

    Despite these obstacles, Joan armed herself with the power of knowledge and became the most learned and influential person of her day. Hers is truly an inspirational story of female empowerment, and therefore it makes an especially appropriate topic for women today.

    The light of hope kindled by extraordinary women such as Joan shone only flickeringly in a great darkness, but it was never entirely to go out. Opportunities were available for women strong enough to dream. Pope Joan is the story of one of those dreamers.

    BTW, Donna Cross has spoken to thousands of book groups via speaker phone. This has led to the paperback version of her book being in its eighteenth printing. Anyone interested in scheduling her to call into their book group can leave a message on her website conveniently named:

  2. L.C.–
    i keep hearing good things from the people who’ve read this, so i’m so excited to read this one!

    and does that mean that you were able to meet with the author? if so, did she have any particular insights on the book? or life? i’m always very inspired when i meet, read about, or talk to strong women- did she come off that way?

  3. Esmerelda,

    Yes, I met Donna Cross.

    I not only met her, my husband and I spent the day with her and her husband. We took them to one of our favorite wineries, had a picnic lunch, then I had the honor to introduce her at the book signing/lecture event, then we had a late dinner as well.

    She’s an incredibly intellegent, witty, and warm person.

    We did talk about the writing process and how she took snippets that she found from the historical record and then wove a story from those disparate threads.

    As a writer, I am energized when I hear other writers talk about the creative process and methods that have worked for them.

    In fact, the first blog post I ever wrote highlighted Donna Cross and her relentless marketing of this book.

    I would highly recommend that anyone who reads this book and falls in love with it to find a group (if you don’t already belong to one) and then contact her via her website and schedule a night to have Donna do one of her chats.

    Enjoy and have fun talking with her.


  4. for those of you still considering reading the book or whatever, i just had to add my two cents: i spent the whole weekend reading it and i’m almost done and it’s faaaaabulous. i’m such a nerd for historical fiction!

  5. I’m going to disagree with everyone here and state that my brain is melting from reading this book. The bad fiction – it haunts me. Can’t wait for the discussion!

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