Summary and book reviews of Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Pope Joan
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  • Hardcover: Aug 1996,
    432 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 1997,
    432 pages.

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Book Summary

Brilliant and talented, young Joan rebels against the medieval social strictures forbidding women to learn to read and write. When her older brother is killed during a Viking attack, Joan takes up his cloak and identity, goes to the monastery of Fulda, and is initiated into the brotherhood in his place. As Brother John Anglicus, Joan distinguishes herself as a great Christian scholar. Eventually she is drawn to Rome, where she becomes enmeshed in a dangerous web of love, passion, and politics.

Triumphing over appalling odds, she finally attains the highest throne in Christendom. Pope Joan is a sweeping historical drama set against the turbulent events of the ninth century - the Saracen sacking of St. Peter's; the famous fire in the Borgo that destroyed over three quarters of the Vatican; and the Battle of Fontenoy, arguably the bloodiest and most terrible of medieval conflicts. The novel is a fascinating, vivid record of what life was really like during the so-called Dark Ages, a masterwork of suspense and passion that has as its center an unforgettable woman, reminiscent of Dorothea in George Eliot's Middlemarch, Jane Austen's Emma, and other heroines who struggle against restrictions their souls will not accept.

From Chapter 1

Thunder sounded, very near, and the child woke. She moved in the bed, seeking the warmth and comfort of her older brothers' sleeping forms. Then she remembered. Her brothers were gone.

It was raining, a hard spring downpour that filled the night air with the sweet-sour smell of newly plowed earth. Rain thudded on the roof of the canon's cottage, but the thickly woven thatching kept the room dry, except for one or two small places in the corners where water first pooled and then trickled in slow fat drops to the beaten earth floor.

The wind rose, and a nearby oak began to tap an uneven rhythm on the cottage walls. The shadow of its branches spilled into the room. The child watched, transfixed, as the monstrous dark fingers wriggled at the edges of the bed. They reached out for her, beckoning, and she shrank back.

Mama, she thought. She opened her mouth to call out, then stopped. If she made a sound, the menacing hand would pounce. She lay frozen, watching, ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
FOR DISCUSSION

  1. Donna Woolfolk Cross wrote the story of Pope Joan as a work of fiction. Do you think there really was a Pope Joan?

  2. How important is it that Pope Joan actually existed? Are there lessons to be learned from this story whether it's true or not? What do you think those lessons are?

  3. One reviewer said, "After finishing Donna Cross' novelization of Joan's life, one may want her to be a real person, only because 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." In contrast, a professor of history said, "I think we shouldn't even think about [Pope Joan] at all. It's bunk." Referring to Joan's pregnancy, the...
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Reviews

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

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 ...... 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.

Publishers Weekly

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.

School Library Journal

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.

Library Journal

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.

Los Angeles Times Book Review

No one knows for sure if Pope Joan, or Pope John Anglicus as she called herself, really existed--.After finishing Donna Cross' novelization of Joan's life, one may want her to be a real person, only because 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.

Morning Star Telegram

In her first novel, Donna Woolfolk Cross..illuminates the Dark Ages and its attendant milieu of barbarism, politics, bigotry, and religion. Pope Joan also is a story of passion and faith - and a reminder that something never change, only the stage and the players do.

Glamour

Cross' drama draws predictable conclusions about the way a woman might handle power, but given the certain punishment that awaits Joan should anyone discover her secret, this cross-dressing saga is also a page turner.

Orlando Sentinel

Cross succeeds admirably, grounding her fast-moving tale in a wealth of rich historical detail. If Joan wasn't pope, she should have been.

Reader Reviews
Bobo Loco

Utter Speechlessness
When I think of the book "Pope Joan", written by the amazing writer Donna Cross, I am filled with awe and pride. I myself believe the book's contents to have historical accuracy. After having done some extensive research on the subject of a...   Read More

A Bookshelf Monstrosity

John, meet Joan...
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 ...   Read More

tumblewind

Good history, poor writing
The possibility of an early female Pope is fascinating and well-supported in this well-researched novel. Unfortunately, while Cross provides richly-detailed insight into 9th century European life and Catholic politics, she is very weak in ...   Read More

Anonymous
This story reads as though it could actually have been true.
And it keeps you interested the entire time because the woman
in the story could be any one of us, even now. Her determination
keeps the story on edge since you want to know what happens and ...   Read More

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