Pope Joan

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!

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12 responses to “Pope Joan

  1. This book drove me up the wall. Perhaps the myth of Pope Joan isn’t well known today because the only non-academic sources of information on her comes from terribly written books like this one.

    For example: Vikings. Crashing a wedding. Fucking Vikings. That’s SERIOUSLY the only way that she could have possibly gotten Joan out of that marriage? Really? I doubt it. I doubt it so much, and was so annoyed, that I made a macro about it.

  2. Darn. My macro image doesn’t work here.

    Or you can click here if you want to see it.

  3. as far as historical fiction goes, i’ve read way better. that being said, i found the book quite enjoyable until i got to the end. i felt that it fell back on to so many stereotypes of women–oh pope joan cares about the poor! pope joan cares about the kids!–and that a man was her downfall. typical. and yet, i found it interesting because i had never read any historical fiction from the “dark ages” and really had no idea about the time period. overall it was a good read, i’d say….3 stars.

  4. oh, and i too had the “what about her voice” “what about her walk” kinds of questions that I never really got answered. and what if she decided to pose as a woman again, they made it seem so doable–but what about her haircut?

  5. Agreeing with Mayhem! So much of what Joan did was so goddamn stereotypical “woman” behavior!! “See how awesome Joan is? Unlike those dirty MEN, she’s nice to people! Unlike mean MEN, she enjoys learning! Unlike cruel MEN, she has a healing touch!”

    The men in this book were either: 1) abusive boobs and dunces and assholes, 2) boring foils to teach her some skills and then die, 3) sex partners (only one of these).

  6. I understand the frustration with the Vikings– but it wasn’t just to get Joan out of that marriage– it was to both give her a way to assume her brother’s identity, and eliminate all the people who have come to know her. (also, i’m sure to add a little drama, blood, guts, and gore, to the story.)

  7. I disagree with the gender stereotyping you describe, Klarenka & Mayhem. I think what the author was intending to portray were the rigid gender roles that all people faced, and while at times reductive, I think it effectively conveyed the restrictive, gendered lifestyle that all people faced unless they were one of the precious, privileged few who were able to attain an education.
    I think that both of you are essentially getting at an important question about the nature of this book and historical fiction in general: how do you write a modern novel, coming from our 20th-21st century-feminist-informed perspective, about a fundamentally sexist era without coming off as too modern/utopian or too prehistoric/me-man, you-woman? i think we want to find perfect feminist stories in our past, but the fact is that they lived in grotesquely sexist environments, and to obliterate that is to obliterate any believability at all.

  8. Just a couple of comments from Mayhem’s mom and “grandmom” Jo. Although we enjoyed the book (anything medieval is grand), the characters were too one dimensional – either “bad” or “good”. Although I appreciated what Joan lived thru to reach her goals (educational, spiritual, leadership, economic, etc.), I felt the author cheated Joan by denying her a feminine side. Imagine how much more powerful Joan could have been portrayed. The author was lazy in her character development overall and her reliance on the “damsel in distress” action lines was nauseating. On the other hand it was an easy read because you didn’t have to think too hard!!

  9. Spitfite – I agree, it’s obviously quite difficult to find a way to accurately portray historical figures – of whom there may not be much written information.

    But. This is a novel. It is a work of FICTION. By making the male AND female characters as one-dimensional and, to my mind, absolutely silly as they are, the author has seriously compromised the quality of her book.

  10. Bah, that was me above.

  11. aww thanks for commenting mom! sorry you weren’t too keen on the book.
    spitfire, i see what you’re saying–it’s hard to write a historical feminist novel for modern readers. how do you accurately portray a historical woman doing things that were at the time radical but to modern readers seems…pedestrian?

  12. mayhem– that’s EXACTLY what i’m getting at. and i think the author did a good job of keeping her characters and their environments realistic.
    well, maybe slightly aspirational?

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