A Conversation with Donna Woolfolk Cross
Q: Most people have never heard of Pope Joan. How did you first learn of her existence?
A: I learned about Joan quite by accident. I was reading a book in French and came across a reference to a pope named "Jeanne." At first I thought this was simply an amusing typographical error--"Jeanne" (Joan) for "Jean" (John). But the reference piqued my curiosity, and the 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.
Q: Does the Catholic Church officially recognize Joan's papacy?
A: Far from it. The Church position is that Joan's papacy is nothing more than unsubstantiated legend. But there are more than five hundred ancient manuscripts containing accounts of Joan's papacy, including those of such acclaimed authors as Platina, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.
Q: So you're convinced that Joan really existed?
A: Given the obscurity and confusion of the times, it is impossible to determine with certainty whether Joan existed or not. The truth of what happened in a.d. 855 may never be fully known. That is why I chose to write a novel and not a historical study.
Q: How important is it to the reader of your novel to know whether Joan existed or not?
A: Whether you believe the Pope Joan story to be myth or reality really doesn't matter. Her story was the best known of the middle ages, dwarfing even the legend of King Arthur. In fact, there's a lot less evidence for the existence of Arthur than there is for the existence of Joan, yet King Arthur's story is known to every school child. 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 as 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.
Q: If Joan's papacy is so well documented, why is the subject so controversial?
A: The Church position on Joan is that she was a late invention of Protestant reformers eager to expose papist corruption. Yet Joan's story is first documented hundreds of years before Martin Luther was born--and most of her chroniclers were Catholics, often highly placed in the church hierarchy. In 1276, after ordering a thorough search of the papal records, Pope John XX changed his title to John XXI in official recognition of Joan's reign as Pope John VIII. Joan's statue stood undisputed alongside those of the other Popes in the Cathedral of Sienna until 1601, when, by command of Pope Clement VIII, it suddenly "metamorphosed" into a bust of Pope Zacharias. Joan's story was included in the official church guidebook to Rome used by pilgrims for more than three hundred years.
Q: But isn't it true there is no record of Joan in any contemporary chronicles?
A: Yes, that's true. But that's scarcely surprising, given the time and energy that the Church has, by its own admission, devoted to expunging her from them. The fact that Joan lived in the ninth century, the darkest of the dark ages, would have made the job obliterating her papacy easy. The ninth century was a time of widespread illiteracy, marked by an extraordinary dearth of record keeping. One need only look to the recent examples of Nicaragua and El Salvador to see how a determined and well-coordinated state effort can make embarrassing evidence "disappear." It is only after the distancing effect of time that the truth, kept alive by unquenchable popular report, gradually begins to emerge.
Q: Are you saying there was a deliberate attempt to conceal Joan's papacy?
A: Certainly the Roman clergymen of the day, appalled by the great deception visited upon them, would have gone to great lengths to bury all written report of the embarrassing episode. Indeed, they would have felt it their duty to do so. Hincmar, Joan's contemporary, frequently suppressed information damaging to the Church in his letters. Even the great theologian Alcuin was not above tampering with the truth; in one of his letters he openly admits destroying a report on Pope Leo III's adultery and simony. The absence of contemporary documentation is not proof that Joan did not exist. After all, there is no contemporary record of Jesus Christ (the first of the Gospels, that of St. Mark, was written more than forty years after Jesus' death), yet he is considered by most people to be a real historical figure.
Q: How would it have been possible for a woman to pass herself off as a man for so long and under such circumstances?
A: Actually, given the extreme modesty and spare hygiene of the times (most people slept in their clothes and rarely, if ever, bathed) as well as the protection provided by body-disguising clerical robes, it would not have been difficult. There are many examples of women who successfully managed such an imposture. In the twelfth century, St. Hildegund, using the name Joseph, became a brother of Schönau Abbey; Mary Reade lived as a pirate in the early eighteenth century; Loreta Janeta Velasquez fought for the Confederacy at the Battle of Bull Run under the name Harry Buford. Most recently, Teresinha Gomez of Lisbon spent eighteen years pretending to be a man; a highly decorated soldier, she rose to the rank of general in the Portuguese army and was discovered only in 1994, when she was arrested on charges of financial fraud and forced by the police to under a physical exam.
Q: As your novel makes clear, there was considerable hazard in such an imposture. What would drive a woman to take such a risk?
A: Life in the ninth century was especially difficult for women. It was a very misogynistic age. Menstrual blood was believed to turn wine sour, make crops barren, take the edge off steel, make iron rust, and infect dog bites with an incurable poison. With few exceptions, women were treated as perpetual minors, with no legal or property rights. By law, they could be beaten by their husbands. Rape was treated as a form of minor theft. The education of women was discouraged, for a learned woman was considered not only unnatural, but dangerous. The size of a woman's brain and her uterus were believed to be inversely proportionate; the more a woman learned, the less likely she would ever bear children. Small wonder, then, if a woman chose to disguise herself as a man in order to escape so restricted an existence. The light of hope kindled by women such as Joan shone only flickeringly in a great darkness, but it was never entirely to go out. Opportunities were available for women strong enough to dream. Pope Joan is the story of one of those dreamers.
Q: What's the greatest challenge of writing historical fiction?
A: Striking a balance that allows you to add interesting detail without weighing down the story. I researched this book for many years and ended up with a ton of information. A lot of it was interesting, but it was also a digression and I had to cut it down tremendously. Writers of historical fiction walk a delicate tight-rope. You need enough information to provide a sense of reality, time, and place, but not so much as to bring your narrative to a crashing halt. Writing good historical fiction takes a lot of discipline.
Q: What do you consider the most important element of good historical fiction?
A: Many people think the most important things are plot, theme, and character. But I found point of view even more important. The tone for the scene is determined by the point of the view of the person describing that scene. If you look at the structure of this book, you'll see that the story is told from the point of view of three main characters: Joan, Gerold, and Anastasius. This allowed me to paint a broader canvas than I could have if limited to only one point of view. Narrating a scene through Gerold's eyes helped me to show what it was like to be a knight in the ninth century; Anastasius showed what it was like to be a Roman citizen, familiar with the papal politics of that era; and of course Joan provided her own unique woman's perspective.
Q: What do you think will most surprise readers of this book?
A: The big surprise is that this story has so solid a base of historical record behind it. Despite the book's unexpected success, I still run into people who say, "What do you mean there was a female Pope?" That's what's amazing to me. Here's a story that was universally known for hundreds of years and yet it has been all but extinguished. When people get to the end of the book and read the author's note--where I lay out, in detail, the evidence suggesting Joan was real--they realize this story might actually be fact, not fiction.
Q: Some authors say they find writing very easy. Is writing easy for you?
A: It's hard as hell. I want to hit people who say they've never had writer's block. Of course there are times when it all comes together, but I've also written from despair--thinking it's hopeless and will never come together. The trick is to keep on writing through the despair and trust that things will improve. Someone once said, "A professional writer is an amateur that didn't give up." I don't give up. I believe that writing is ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration, but for inspiration to hit you have to be at your desk writing, whether or not you're in the mood.
Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
A: I want readers--particularly women--to understand one basic truth: to empower yourself in this world you must learn. Joan armed herself with the power of knowledge. This knowledge allowed her to rise to the very highest rank of the most powerful institution of her day. Even today, in countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, Algeria, the first priviledge that is taken away from a subservient group such as women is the right to education. The story of Joan speaks to this situation. Joan represents the empowerment of women, the realization of their full potential, by using all their talents--especially the mind.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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