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Pope Joan

Pope Joan

4.3 190
by Donna Woolfolk Cross

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"Engaging . . . Pope Joan has all the elements: love, sex, violence, duplicity, and long-buried secrets."
—Los Angeles Times Book Review

For a thousand years men have denied her existence—Pope Joan, the woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to rule Christianity for two years. Now this compelling novel animates the legend with a


"Engaging . . . Pope Joan has all the elements: love, sex, violence, duplicity, and long-buried secrets."
—Los Angeles Times Book Review

For a thousand years men have denied her existence—Pope Joan, the woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to rule Christianity for two years. Now this compelling novel animates the legend with a portrait of an unforgettable woman who struggles against restrictions her soul cannot accept.

When her older brother dies in a Viking attack, the brilliant young Joan assumes his identity and enters a Benedictine monastery where, as Brother John Anglicus, she distinguishes herself as a scholar and healer. Eventually drawn to Rome, she soon becomes enmeshed in a dangerous mix of powerful passion and explosive politics that threatens her life even as it elevates her to the highest throne in the Western world.

"Brings the savage ninth century vividly to life in all its alien richness. An enthralling, scholarly historical novel."
—Rebecca Fraser, Author of The Brontës

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Cross makes an excellent, entertaining case in her work of historical fiction that, in the Dark Ages, a woman sat on the papal throne for two years. Born in Ingelheim in A.D. 814 to a tyrannical English canon and the once-heathen Saxon he made his wife, Joan shows intelligence and persistence from an early age. One of her two older brothers teaches her to read and write, and her education is furthered by a Greek scholar who instructs her in languages and the classics. Her mother, however, sings her the songs of her pagan gods, creating a dichotomy within her daughter that will last throughout her life. The Greek scholar arranges for the continuation of her education at the palace school of the Lord Bishop of Dorstadt, where she meets the red-haired knight Gerold, who is to become the love of her life. After a savage attack by Norsemen destroys the village, Joan adopts the identity of her older brother, slain in the raid, and makes her way to Fulda, to become the learned scholar and healer Brother John Anglicus. After surviving the plague, Joan goes to Rome, where her wisdom and medical skills gain her entrance into papal circles. Lavishly plotted, the book brims with fairs, weddings and stupendous banquets, famine, plague and brutal battles. Joan is always central to the vivid action as she wars with the two sides of herself, "mind and heart, faith and doubt, will and desire." Ultimately, though she leads a man's life, Joan dies a woman's death, losing her life in childbirth. In this colorful, richly imagined novel, Cross ably inspires a suspension of disbelief, pulling off the improbable feat of writing a romance starring a pregnant pope. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Cross's first novel, based on the life of the controversial historical figure Pope Joan, is a fascinating and moving account of a woman's determination to learn despite the opposition of family and society. Born in 9th-century Frankland, Joan demonstrates her brilliance early but must hide her learning from her missionary father, who considers the education of women sacrilegious and dangerous. Tutored first by her older brother and then a Greek scholar, Joan eventually secures a place at the schola in Dorstadt. To protect herself after a Viking raid, Joan dons her dead brother's clothing and assumes a man's identity. Suddenly the intelligence that once brought her ridicule and punishment results in respect and authority. From the monastery in Fulda to Vatican politics in Rome, Joan eventually secures the church's highest office. Cross vividly creates the 9th-century world, fraught with dangers from Vikings and Saracens, bloody warfare between brothers for political power, and palace intrigue for political favors. Above all, she brings to life a brilliant, compassionate woman who has to deny her gender to satisfy her desire for learning. Highly recommended.Kathy Piehl, Mankato State Univ., Minn.
School Library Journal
YA-A woman pope? The author's notes document the possibility that there was one for a brief time in the ninth century. The Joan in this novel has all the qualities a woman would need to become pope: superior intelligence, imagination, daring, and the determination that her sex would not keep her illiterate and subservient, as were most women of the period. Joan is an apt pupil at the cathedral school, where she is allowed to study only because her brother cannot master Latin. A Viking raid on her wedding day gives Joan the opportunity to escape an unwanted marriage; she takes her dead brother's clothes, presents herself at a nearby monastery, and becomes Brother John Anglicus. Her skill in healing and her passion for learning attract attention, and she fears discovery. Still disguised as a monk, Joan takes the pilgrim's road to Rome, where her skills as a healer attract the attention of the Pope himself. YAs, especially girls, will follow the adventures of this amazing heroine with fascination, and at the same time will learn much about life in the Middle Ages, and about the history of this tumultuous period just after the death of Charlemagne.-Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA
Kirkus Reviews
A remarkable woman uses her considerable intellect—and more than a little luck—to rise from humble origins to become the only female Pope, in this breakneck adventure from newcomer Cross.

A longstanding tradition has insisted that there was a female Pope in the ninth century. The author's version of that story imagines Joan as the daughter of a village canon. Singled out for tutoring by a wise Greek, she learns quickly, but her father sees her knowledge as an abomination and blocks further progress. She runs away to join her brother at school, but is reviled by fellow students and her schoolmaster alike, even though she has the support of Gerold, the local count. Gerold falls in love with her, so his wife plots to marry her off while he is away; a Viking raid intervenes, however, leaving Joan the sole survivor. Determined never again to be betrayed by being female, she dresses as a man and enters a Benedictine monastery, where her aptitude for learning and healing propels her rapidly into the priesthood. Years pass; Joan makes a remarkable recovery from the plague and decides to go to Rome. There, she saves the life of Pope Sergius, and in her new role as papal physician again meets Gerold, rekindling the spark between them. When Sergius dies, and intrigue leads to the poisoning of his successor, Joan is elected Pope as the people's choice. Together, she and Gerold work to help the poor, but when a flood gives them the opportunity to be truly alone, passion reasserts itself. Joan learns that she is pregnant just as plotters act against her, leaving a bloody finale to be played out on the streets of Rome.

No lack of action here, but also not much food for thought. Still, what seems a too facile rendering of a complex story might certainly appeal as light summer reading.

From the Publisher
“It is so gratifying to read about those rare heroes whose strength of vision enables them to ignore the almost overpowering messages of their own historical periods. . . . Pope Joan has all the elements one wants: love, sex, violence, duplicity and long-buried secrets. Cross has written an engaging book.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A fascinating and moving account of a woman’s determination to learn, despite the opposition of family and society. Highly recommended.”–Library Journal (starred review)

“Cross makes an excellent, entertaining case that in the Dark Ages, a woman sat on the papal throne. . . . A colorful, richly imagined novel.” –Publishers Weekly

“Pope Joan reveals the harsh realities of the Dark Ages. Violence is rife in the government, church and home; logic and reason are shunned as “dangerous ideas” and women are considered useful only as men’s servants and child bearers. The novel explores the extraordinary life of an independent, intelligent and courageous woman who overcomes oppression and ascends to the highest level of religious power. . . . Cross’ masterful use of anticipation, as well as the sweeping historical landscape of the story, keep Pope Joan intriguing. . . . An exciting journey through history as it’s being made.”–San Francisco Chronicle

“Eloquently written and spellbinding in its account of this legendary figure.” –Arizona Republic

“The life of an intelligent, headstrong woman in 9th-century Europe, the kind of woman who might have dared such an adventure in an era when obedience was a woman’s most admired trait. . . . Cross succeeds admirably, grounding her fast-moving tale in a wealth of rich historical detail.” –Orlando Sentinel

“A story of passion and faith–and a reminder that some things never change, only the stage and players do.”–Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“A remarkable woman uses her considerable intellect–and more than a little luck–to rise from humble origins to become the only female Pope, in this breakneck adventure.” –Kirkus Reviews

“A page-turner!” –Glamour

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.47(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt

Her mother sat up in bed. "Husband," she said. "I did not look for your return for another fortnight."

The canon did not respond. He took a wax taper from the table near the door and crossed to the hearthfire, where he plunged it into the glowing embers until it flared.

Gudrun said nervously, "The child was frightened by the thunder. I thought to comfort her with a harmless story."

"Harmless!" The canon's voice shook with the effort to control his rage. "You call such blasphemy harmless?" He covered the distance to the bed in two long strides, set down the taper, and pulled the blanket off, exposing them. Joan lay with her arms around her mother, half-hidden under a curtain of white-gold hair.

For a moment the canon stood stupefied with disbelief, looking at Gudrun's unbound hair. Then his fury overtook him. "How dare you! When I have expressly forbidden it!" Taking hold of Gudrun, he started to drag her from the bed. "Heathen witch!"

Joan clung to her mother. The canon's face darkened. "Child, begone!" he bellowed. Joan hesitated, torn between fear and the desire to somehow protect her mother.

Gudrun pushed her urgently. "Yes, go. Go quickly."

Releasing her hold, Joan dropped to the floor and ran. At the door, she turned and saw her father grab her mother roughly by the hair, wrenching her head back, forcing her to her knees. Joan started back into the room. Terror stopped her short as she saw her father withdraw his long, bonehandled hunting knife from his corded belt.

"Forsachistu diabolae?" he asked Gudrun in Saxon, his voice scarcely more than whisper. When she did not respond, he placed the point of the knife against herthroat. "Say the words," he growled menacingly. "Say them!"

"Ec forsacho allum diaboles," Gudrun responded tearfully, her eyes blazing defiance, "wuercum and wuordum, thunaer ende woden ende saxnotes ende allum..."

Rooted with fear, Joan watched her father pull up a heavy tress of her mother's hair and draw the knife across it. There was a ripping sound as the silken strands parted; a long band of white gold floated to the floor.

Clapping her hand over her mouth to stifle a sob, Joan turned and ran.

In the darkness, she bumped into a shape that reached out for her. She squealed in fear as it grabbed her. The monster hand! She had forgotten about it! She struggled, pummelling at it with her tiny fists, resisting with all her strength, but it was huge, and held her fast.

"Joan! Joan, it's all right. It's me!"

The words penetrated her fear. It was her ten-year-old brother Matthew, who had returned with her father.

"We've come back. Joan, stop struggling! It's all right. It's me." Joan reached up, felt the smooth surface of the pectoral cross that Matthew always wore, then slumped against him in relief.

Together they sat in the dark, listening to the soft splitting sounds of the knife ripping through their mother's hair. Once they heard Mama cry out in pain. Matthew cursed aloud. An answering sob came from the bed where Joan's seven-year-old brother John was hiding under the covers.

At last the ripping sounds stopped. After a brief pause the canon's voice began to rumble in prayer. Joan felt Matthew relax; it was over. She threw her arms around his neck and wept. He held her and rocked her gently.

After a time, she looked up at him.

"Father called Mama a heathen."


"She isn't," Joan said hesitantly, "is she?"

"She was." Seeing her look of horrified disbelief, he added, "a long time ago. Not any more. But those were heathen stories she was telling you."

Joan stopped crying; this was interesting information.

"You know the first of the Commandments, don't you?"

Joan nodded and recited dutifully, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

"Yes. That means that the gods Mama was telling you about are false; it is sinful to speak of them."

"Is that why Father...?"

"Yes, " Matthew broke in. "Mama had to be punished for the good of her soul. She was disobedient to her husband, and that also is against the law of God."


"Because it says so in the Holy Book." He began to recite, "'For the husband is the head of the wife; therefore, let the wives submit themselves unto their husbands in everything.'"


"Why?" Matthew was taken aback. No one had ever asked him that before. "Well, I guess because...because women are by nature inferior to men. Men are bigger, stronger and smarter."

"But--" Joan started to respond but Matthew cut her off.

"Enough questions, little sister. You should be in bed. Come now." He carried her to the bed and placed her beside John, who was already sleeping.

Matthew had been kind to her; to return the favor, Joan closed her eyes and burrowed under the covers as if to sleep.

But she was far too troubled for sleep. She lay in the dark, peering at John as he slept, his mouth hanging slackly open.

He can't recite from the Psalter and he's seven years old. Joan was only four but already she knew the first ten psalms by heart.

John wasn't smart. But he was a boy. Yet how could Matthew be wrong? He knew everything; he was going to be a priest, like father.

She lay awake in the dark, turning the problem over in her mind.

Towards dawn she slept, restlessly, troubled by dreams of mighty wars between jealous and angry gods. The angel Gabriel himself came from heaven with a flaming sword to do battle with Thor and Freya. The battle was terrible and fierce, but in the end the false gods were driven back, and Gabriel stood triumphant beforethe gates of paradise. His sword had disappeared; in his hand gleamed a short, bone-handled knife.

Meet the Author

Donna Woolfolk Cross graduated cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969 with a B.A. in English. She moved to London, England, after graduation and worked as an editorial assistant for a small publishing house on Fleet Street, W.H. Allen and Company. Upon her return to the United States, Cross worked at Young and Rubicam, a Madison Avenue advertising firm, before going on to graduate school at UCLA where she earned a master's degree in Literature and Writing in 1972.

In 1973, Cross moved to Syracuse, New York, with her husband and began teaching in the English department at an upstate New York college. She is the author of two books on language, Word Abuse and Mediaspeak, and coauthor of Speaking of Words. The product of seven years of research and writing, Pope Joan is her first novel. Cross is at work on a new novel set in 17th century France.

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Pope Joan 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 190 reviews.
Fluteymama More than 1 year ago
My husband and I both read this and found it very interesting. I enjoy historical books, and found this to have some good information, especially regarding the herbalism/healing of the time period. The theory is a unique one. I did read the author's notes prior to beginning the book, and that helped keep things in perspective while reading. Excellent discussion ideas, although you may not want to bring this up with your staunchly Catholic friends! The book was a quick read and I have recommended it to others. Take it as a theory, or straight fiction, the choice is yours, but it does give some thought-provoking material.
KrisPA More than 1 year ago
Considering that the novel was based on thorough research of a provocative idea--a female pope--I had expected the book to be more interesting. It is compelling reading with lots of action, but the main character, Joan, isn't all that interesting of a person. The side love story is rather boring and predictable. What I found most irritating was the lack of complex characters. People were either all bad or all good and the plot proceeded in an entirely predictable pattern: Joan was very intelligent, etc., etc., outshone her opponents, they got mad, they tried to get even and (usually) Joan and Gerold came out on top. The end seemed rushed to me and entirely anticlimatic. I finished the book and thought, that's it? That's the end? The author's note about the Catholic Church's subsequent cover up of Pope Joan and the evidence that remains that supports the idea of a female pope was much more interesting and intriguing than the novel itself. If you liked Pope Joan with its fast action and simplistic characters, you will love Ken Follett's two books based in the Middle-Ages.
fitz12383 More than 1 year ago
I've always been a big fan of historical fiction and Pope Joan definitely delivers. I mean, a story about a female pope who might have existed? Bring it on! Joan is a very strong character. She is brave and educated in an age that saw an educated woman as unnatural and sinful. She also has a vast knowledge of medieval medicine which comes in handy later in the novel. The plot is action-filled; this is a book that sucks you in and can't be put down until it is done. Author notes in the back of the book are very informative about the Dark Ages and the church in Joan's time. I became so interested in the period while reading this book that I found myself researching the legend of Pope Joan...researching for fun! What is that? One of the themes of the book is the idea of inner conflict, especially in regards to religious upbringing. Joan is the child of a pagan mother and a strict Christian father. She constantly struggles between faith and doubt and between her mind and heart. The novel raises plenty of questions about women in the church both in the Dark Ages and today and whether Pope Joan even existed in the first place. I highly recommend this book for all historical fiction fans and those who enjoy a novel with a strong female protagonist.
regina77004 More than 1 year ago
Based on the legend that a female served as Pope between Leo IV and Benedict the III, Cross explores the woman that may have been and how she came to sit on the throne. What Cross does an excellent job of doing is using historical fact, characters, and events to construct a plausible story for the reality of Joan. I also really enjoyed her presentation of the arguments for and against the existence of the female Pope. What kept me from giving the book a five is that the story drags a little in the middle and I was unable to emotionally connect to Joan after she heads to Fulda. I loved the child of Joan, however. I was completely unaware of this "event" and enjoyed learning about the possibility.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoy reading historical fiction especially during a period in history that we only can surmise some things. Learning about the herbalist and how they were thought to be witches was amazing. Women during the dark ages were only thought to be good at one thing...making men happy and having sons.
lv4dsgnrch More than 1 year ago
If you are at all interested in history, I would highly recommend this book! I read it in just a couple of days - couldn't put it down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a very well written book. The author made you believe this really could have happened.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful way to learn about history. Specifically, womens history. To see how they lived and what they went through. Love her writing style. Grabbed me from the first page.
KAV87 More than 1 year ago
The first few chapters were a bit tough to get through since she is constantly being battered, but stick with it and it becomes super interesting. The initial chapters prepared the reader for women's life in the dark ages. It is difficult to determine if it is a true story or not, the author suggests any papal history referring to a female pope was destroyed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couldn't put this great book down. I really enjoy strong intelligent characters whether fiction or reality --- but I really hope it's reality!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best historical fiction books I've ever read! Must read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an interesting book that I read rather quickly. Truly a "page turner"! The time period in the book is always an interesting read so settling into it was easy. I read every word and enjoyed both the writer’s style and the content.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a wonderfully written novel suggested to me by a co worker who also loved the red tent as I did. There are some slow moving parts as the conclusion is painfully predictable. However, the concept and mystery surrounding the story itself over shadows any slight misteps.
rae4129 More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book! And Donna Woolfolk Cross is amazing! This is just another reason why I distrust the whole organized religion system. Wiping away traces of the amazing women in history is unforgivable. Thank you, Donna, for bringing Pope Joan's story back! I can't wait to see the movie when it shows in Minneapolis!
Mermaid7seas More than 1 year ago
Donna Woolfolk Cross has researched and written a wonderful book, "Pope Joan", about the potentially true, and amazing legend of the one woman who became Pope of Rome in the 9th century. Disguised as a boy, this highly intelligent and determined young girl was given an education, impossible for any girls in those dark times, and went on, disguised as a man, to take the throne of St. Peter. This historical adventure/romance, written in an immensely readable style, and with marvelously descriptive images of medieval life and times, will entertain and inspire the reader, and will encourage girls and women to strive to attain and realize their true potential. Buy 2; one for you & one for someone else who may need to be inspired! This grand novel is a keeper! POPE JOAN is now an epic feature film, co-starring John Goodman and David Wenham! Adapted from the internationally best-selling novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross, the film is a sweeping historical drama based on the incredible life story of one of the most fascinating, extraordinary women in Western history--Pope Joan, a controversial figure of historical record who, boldly 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. The film will be featured at the 2010 Moondance International Film Festival, September 25, in Boulder, Colorado, and Ms. Cross will be in attendance to give a book-signing and a workshop on adapting the novel to the screen.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Truly a great historical novel about the first woman pope. Characters are well developed and the action is nonstop. It is also a very good movie. Don't miss this one!
Lindsey Mohar More than 1 year ago
Loved it
Mirella More than 1 year ago
Pope Joan is one of those remarkable novels that evokes images of a spectacular time and period. Pope Joan's achievements, in the face of social oppression against women punishable by death, are remarkable, even in today's world. How a impoverished child, abused, ignored, and trod upon, achieved the greatest throne in Christendom is truly a marvel. But that is not the only reason why this story is so endearing. It is the impeccable research and details into the Dark Ages that makes this novel resound with vibrancy. The novel is rich with intrigue, murderous plots, deadly secrets, adversity, religious zealots, and power mongers. Add to this, a secondary plot of love and loss, and you have a tale that is truly riveting. It is no wonder the novel will soon be made into a major motion picture.
Sensitivemuse More than 1 year ago
Joan is portrayed as a very strong and stubborn character. However because of her stubbornness it takes her farther ahead than any woman could have done during those times, and for that, I think it's a very admirable trait in her. It's because of this, she was able to overcome anything to do what she wanted to do the most; which was to learn. This is one of the most strongest female characters I have ever read so far and although she does have faults, she quickly overcomes them and does not relent. Even when she's tempted to leave with Gerold (her romance interest) she still remains steadfast to her duties to the the people in Rome. Although I found it frustrating at times, especially when things start to take a turn for the worst, it's still an admirable trait in the face of adversity. It's hard to feel any sympathy for any male characters in this novel. Although Gerold might be different but not as much as it all comes to the bottom line: the men in this novel prefer the women pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen. Their ignorance is so blatant you wanted to grind your teeth to stop yourself from wanting to jump in to wring their necks for thinking that way about women. However, it's a very realistic account, for I have no doubt that's how they thought that way (unfortunately some still do to this day). The plot in this book flowed perfectly and had it's good amount of climaxes and action. I was immediately sucked into the story from the beginning. I really did enjoy reading the parts on how Joan went through her journey to eventually becoming Pope. It was indeed a very nice story to read and I'd have to say it was like watching a very exciting adventure because you were always in fear of what would happen if she were to be discovered a woman. I really liked the inner politics within the Papal ranks. They're twice as devious and conniving than the royal courts I've read in previous books. The writing in this book is historically accurate in my opinion, as it gives you a good look and feel as to how it felt like to live back then in this time period. The only criticism I have is there are a lot of latin religious terminology (especially areas of the religious buildings and ranks of the papacy in Rome) which were hard to get through. I found myself looking a lot of the words up as to what this certain word referred to, and as to what was this rank in the papacy. A glossary would have helped as I had no prior knowledge in this aspect in history. The Author's Note however, was indeed informative and a very interesting read. Overall a great novel about a strong woman who faced the odds to do what she loved to do: read and learn. I recommend this book, it's a wonderful read. You may even be tempted to read some background information on Pope Joan as I did (I went straight for Wikipedia the moment I finished the book)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very interesting, historical and compelling book. I looked forward to every moment I could read it. Great for book clubs or to circulate amongst family and friends. I think it added to the books appeal that it is fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
so i basically had to read this book for sophomore english honors, and at first i thought this book was going to be boring and pointless. But once i read on into it, it was fascinating. this book moved me because i'm a lady, and it just gives me more confidence in myself from joan and her hunger for what she wants :D
tmccabe More than 1 year ago
This is now my new favorite book. This book has romance, adventure, mystery, historical aspects and the story is fascinating! The story of Joan was very empowering for me as a woman, it touched me more deeply than written words can express. I can't wait to read it again and go see the upcoming movie premiering this October/November. Absolutely a 5 star read!
nke More than 1 year ago
Pope Joan is a wonderful story that is thought provoking and a page turner. Once you get to a mid way point in the story, it is difficult to stop reading. The characters were wonderful and it was sad to leave them at the end of the book. Totally enjoyable.
GigiAM More than 1 year ago
This is not a book I would have ever picked up. Our book club chose to read it and I loved it. We gave it an overall 5 stars. Was it true? We had mixed reviews on this, but we all said it could have been. A definite keeper for my library. I would highly recommend it.
jazzboss More than 1 year ago
I found the story of the only female pope facinating. I have been Catholic all of my life , and was not aware of this remarkable story. I could not put the book dowwn once I started it. The historical research was very understandable. The story was written in a novel type of dialouge. Over all I would highly recomend this book.