Pope Joan

Written by Donna Woolfolk Cross
Review by Cindy Vallar

Gifted with a thirst for knowledge and the ability to reason, Joan soon learns these traits are of little use to a young girl of the ninth century. Even so, her father begrudgingly allows a visiting religious scholar to tutor Joan with her brother. Before her teacher leaves, he promises to find a way for her to continue her studies. When that day arrives, her parents convince the messenger he wants John, her brother. Her mother’s betrayal and the beatings her father inflicts drive Joan to run away. Reunited with John, they make their way to Dorstadt where the bishop permits Joan to study at the schola. Neither her teacher nor the boys approve of this departure from tradition. She endures unending teasing and abuse, but finds solace in Gerold, a soldier who welcomes her into his family and home.

When Norsemen attack the town, Joan survives the slaughter and plundering. She finds her brother’s body and assumes his identity. As John Anglicus, she enters a monastery and becomes a healer. Eventually, she makes her way to Rome, where her skill as a physician soon brings her to the pope’s attention. The moment she enters the Patriarchium she follows a path that will eventually lead to her election as Pope John.

Many ancient texts recount Pope Joan’s story, and Cross intricately weaves a stunning and harrowing tale of life in the 800s from those accounts. She vividly portrays the places and times, and her characters come alive to communicate the story of the world’s first and only woman pope, a person the Catholic Church didn’t attempt to eradicate from the historical record until the seventeenth century. Equally informative is the author’s note that answers the question “Was there a Pope Joan?” and explains the changes Cross made to the original edition of the book.