By now, I hope you’ve had a chance to enjoy our first historical fiction addition to the book club, Pope Joan. I’m a huge fan of any historical fiction that uses strong women as the storyline’s main catalyst, so this book had me at hello.
Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross, follows the life and death of the Vatican’s only female pope [somewhat controversially] known to us today. The author explains her interest in the topic this way:
“I learned about Joan quite by accident. I was reading a book in French and came across a reference to a pope named “Jeanne.”…[T]he next day I went to the library and checked the Catholic Encyclopedia. Sure enough, there was an entry on Joan–the woman who lived disguised as a man and rose to become Pope of the Church in the ninth century.”
Upon further research, Cross discovered that Pope Joan’s position in official Church history was tenuous at best; the Church recognizes that there exists a “legend” of a female Pope named Joan, but, not surprisingly, it refuses to acknowledge that she actually reigned or even existed. My guess is that if the Church officially recognized that a lowly female ascended to the highest position in the Catholic Church, one that is purportedly chosen and upheld by God, the Church would no longer have any excuse for maintaining its entrenched misogyny. This book is fascinating in that regard; it calls out the Church and essentially says that it’s still living in the ninth century today: Joan tried to reform the Church using a combination of logic and faith, but upon her death, the Church reverted to its old ways of blind faith and convention…which is where we remain 12 centuries later.
I digress, back to the truthiness of Pope Joan. Does it really matter if she existed or not? Cross defends her decision to write about Joan by explaining that her story was even better known than King Arthur’s back in the day, but that today, somehow inexplicably, common knowledge only retains the legend of Arthur.
“There’s a lot less evidence for the existence of Arthur than there is evidence for the existence of Joan, yet King Arthur’s story [persists]. It has much to tell us about medieval society, the role of men and women in that era, the responsibilities of knights, the history of Celtic Britain, and much more. Joan’s story is equally rich, and has much to tell us about medieval life, the role of women in the ninth century, the Church, and so on. Like the story of King Arthur, it should be the heritage of every school child. I wrote this book to restore that lost heritage.”
A lofty goal, and I wonder if it’s too late? Has too much time passed, have people gotten used to the status quo, rewriting history–even when our knowledge is incorrect–is never easily accepted or assimilated, and
considering this book came out in 1996 and only makes a splash in gender studies circles…
One thing that I really noticed as I read was the emphasis that was placed on Joan’s education. The extreme shame and hatred that her father felt when she expressed a desire to continue her education; the passion that drove Joan to complete, or at least continue with her education; the puzzlement and anger that an educated female incited. I knew that women weren’t literate, and I knew that women weren’t allowed to receive a formal education, but I don’t think I realized exactly what that meant on the ground. I think I was living in some fairy tale world where women were encouraged to learn, when they could, or that their parents taught them things…I think this book really made me re-examine the way I understand and interpret history– and appreciate my education all the more. Education IS freedom. prosperity. Good ol’ Bacon had it right: knowledge is power.
On the lighter side, what came to mind as you read about Joan shedding the trappings of life as a female and beginning to live as a man? Considering the popularity of stories about women disguising themselves and living as men, it’s almost begun a common thing for me to ponder: how does she hide her breasts? what does she do when she has her period? wouldn’t her voice give her away? does she walk differently? how does she do her hair? what about using the restroom? what about all those million other random things that could potentially give someone away? Granted, times have changed, but some things remain the same. I appreciated that the author addressed some of these issues (breast-binding, using and burying leaves during menstruation), but maybe it’s the reality-tv voyeur in me that craves more information like this… am i alone in this??
As always, we hope you enjoyed the book. Stay tuned for next month’s announcement!