Today’s book is the historical fiction novel Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross. It is a fascinating look at the life of a girl named Johanna (Joan) who lived during the 6th century. Joan’s father was a member of the clergy during the period in time when it was common for them to be married and have children. Unfortunately, it was also a time period where families wanted sons to carry on the family name, work the land, and follow in their father’s profession. Or in this case, to become priests and scholars. A daughter was considered almost worthless. Girls were only good for cooking, cleaning, sewing, and bearing children. To marry them off, a dowry needed to be provided, so they were also considered a drain on a family’s meager finances. They were considered less intelligent and incapable of reason. In other words, while Joan was loved by her mother and brothers, she was not truly wanted by her father, who had hoped for another son.
Joan, however, never understood why she was not supposed to learn the things her brothers did. She was very close to her eldest brother who secretly taught her to read and write, risking their father’s wrath in doing so. Joan was actually very smart and soaked up all she could learn from her brother’s teaching. It broke her heart when he became ill and died at a young age. Her eldest brother had been intended to become a scholar priest, and with his death, that destiny became her other brother’s. Unfortunately for him, he had neither the desire nor the aptitude for study that both the elder brother and his sister possessed.
When a scholar passed through the area with the potential to be hired by Joan’s father for her brother, Joan desperately hoped she would be able to learn from him. Like most men from that time, her father felt that education was only for the sons who were destined for the priesthood. The tutor, however, upon realizing that Joan was the more likely of the two children to appreciate and learn from him, only agreed to teach her brother on the condition that she was to also be taught by him. Given no choice if he wished for his son to continue his education, her father reluctantly agreed.
Eventually, the tutor gained a more prestigious position elsewhere. Before he left for good, he promised Joan that he would find a way for her to continue her studies. Where her brother had struggled with his education, she had soaked up the Latin and Greek as well as everything else she could and only wished to learn more. It was a few years before that promise was fulfilled. One day a group of soldiers arrived in the area. They had been sent to bring Johanna to the school to study with the other students. Unfortunately, her brother’s name was John and her parents convinced the soldiers that it was John, who had no desire to become a scholar priest, that they were supposed to retrieve and not Joan.
Unwilling to remain in a household where she was unappreciated and her desire to learn brought her nothing but punishments as her father tried to beat this unnaturalness out of her, she ran away and followed the soldiers. At the school, the amused head of the school allowed her to remain and to study with the boys, though she clearly could not be housed in the school’s dormitory with them. A Knight who was in attendance at the time offered to allow her to stay at his home with his family.
During the time she was at the school, Joan thrived. Her brother John enjoyed the military training he received with the other boys, though he hated the academic studies he was forced to endure. He had only been allowed to remain because of his sister attending the school. It was considered unseemly for her to be there without some sort of family member in attendance as well, so he was allowed to remain even though he was not academically inclined. The main teacher there was one who believed that girls were incapable of reasoning. He hated the fact that he was forced to teach her and would have gladly done anything to be rid of a girl in his classes.
When the knight who was Joan’s protector was away, his wife, who had realized the growing attraction between her husband and Joan, arranged for Joan to be married to a local boy and convinced Joan that it was her husband’s idea. The wedding was to take place before Sir Gerald would return, and there was no way for Joan to avoid it. Being married meant that she would belong to the man who wed her and she would no longer be allowed to study at the school. Her brother, who was only allowed there because of her, was to be sent to join a monastery by their father. He had hoped to become a soldier rather than a priest, but that would no longer be a possibility for him. He would be forced to become a priest and he blamed his sister.
During the wedding ceremony, the town was attacked by Viking raiders. As the whole town was gathered in the church and unarmed, there was no escape. Joan was lucky enough to find a place to hide that was not discovered by the raiders and was apparently the only survivor. As she knew she couldn’t remain there on her own, she changed into her brother’s clothing, cut her hair off, and travelled to the monastery to join the monks in John’s place. To all that had known her, Joan was considered to have been either killed or carried off as a prisoner by the Viking raiders that day.
There is much more to this story, but as usual I do not wish to spoil the whole book for you. It is well worth reading about how a young girl who was considered worth less than nothing one day manages to rise to become the Pope in Rome without having been discovered to be a woman rather than a man. It is a tale I definitely consider worth reading and would gladly recommend to anyone.
While this book is a work of fiction, there is a section at the end of the book where the author describes her research into this project. There is some debate as to whether there really was a female Pope. The author clearly believes there was and that many tried to erase her existence from history. I found her reasoning very compelling and am inclined to agree with her, though others will disagree that Pope Joan ever actually existed. Take a look at this book, read the extra info at the end provided by the author, and decide for yourself what you think.