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One of the most controversial women of history is brought to brilliant life in Donn Woolfolk Cross's tale of Pope Joan, a girl whose origins should have kept her in squalid domesticity. Instead, through her intelligence, indomitability and courage, she ascended to the throne of Rome as Pope John Anglicus.

The time is 814, the place is Ingelheim, a Frankland village. It is the harshest winter in living memory when Joan is born to an English father and a Saxon mother. Her father is a canon, filled with holy zeal and capable of unconscionable cruelty. His piety does not extend to his family members, especially the females. His wife, Gudrun, is a young beauty to whom he was attracted beyond his will--and he hates her for showing him his weakness. Gudrun teaches Joan about her gods, and is repeatedly punished for it by the canon. Joan grows to young womanhood with the combined knowledge of the warlike Saxon gods and the teachings of the Church as her heritage. Both realities inform her life forever.

When her brother John, not a scholarly type, is sent away to school, Joan, who was supposed to be the one sent to school, runs away and joins him in Dorstadt, at Villaris, the home of Gerold, who is central to Joan's story. She falls in love with Gerold and their lives interesect repeatedly even through her Papacy. She is looked upon by all who know that she is a woman as a "lusus naturae," a freak of nature. "She was... male in intellect, female in body, she fit in nowhere; it was as if she belonged to a third amorphous sex." Cross makes the case over and over again that the status of women in the Dark Ages was little better than cattle. They were judged inferior in every way, and necessary evils in the bargain.

After John is killed in a Viking attack, Joan sees her opportunity to escape the fate of all her gender. She cuts her hair, dons her dead brother's clothes and goes into the world as a young boy. Gerold is away from Villaris at the time of the attack and comes home to find his home in ruins, his family killed and Joan among the missing. After the attack, Joan goes to a Benedictine monastery, is accepted as a young man of great learning, and eventually makes her way to Rome.

The author is at pains to tell the reader in an Epilogue that she has written the story as fiction because it is impossible to document Joan's accesion to the Papacy. The Catholic Church has done everything possible to deny this embarrassment. Whether or not one believes in Joan as Pope, this is a compelling story, filled with all kinds of lore: the brutishness of the Dark Ages, Vatican intrigue, politics and favoritism and most of all, the place of women in the Church and in the world. --Valerie Ryan

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ISBN-10:  0345416260
ISBN-13:  978-0345416261
Author:  Donna Woolfolk Cross
Publisher:  Ballantine Books
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review by . July 22, 2006
The author relates a series of tribulations in the life of the  character Joan. Her father was abusive and controlling. She was raised in a period of history, the Dark Ages, where women weren't   held in high esteem. The author sets forth 6 evidences which are  conditions precedent to governance. These are:    - the who  - the what  - the how  - the where  - the when and why    At the appropriate …
review by . May 14, 2006
I thoroughly enjoyed Cross's depiction of such a controversial figure. I am not enough of a historian to know if Pope Joan did or did not exist, but the possibility is a fascinating place to explore. I thought it was perpelxing that Cross's version of Joan rose to the high ranks of the Catholic church without being portrayed as particularly interested in spirituality. Her obvious preocupation was intellectual. It struck me that she seemed more likely to make her way into a medical education than …
review by . August 16, 2001
I first found this novel after seeing a documentary on the myth or truth of Pope Joan, and found that I wanted to know more of this amazing story. What I found was a well crafted and entertaining historical novel, and if I am none the wiser as to whether the story is truth or fiction, I am still well satisfied with the adventure and the characters.It is a richly detailed story of medieval life, and a story of a strong young woman with formidable intellectual abilities, stifled by her womanhood in …
review by . May 18, 2000
The first and most important thing to remember when reading this book is this: It is a work of fiction, which incorporates historical elements. It is not historical.It is fictional.Any good historian, whether Protestant or Catholic, knows this, and can easily demonstrate it.Keep this in mind.
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