pope joanPope Joan—Donna Woolfolk Cross (1996 fiction)

Donna Woolfolk Cross has written a novel rather than a historical study because it is impossible to determine with certainty whether Joan existed or not . . . though . . there are more than 500 ancient manuscripts containing accounts of Joan’s papacy. Cross’s novel is a rich and ribald tale of life in the ninth century. Details are harrowing: no privacy, no plumbing, no electricity. No literacy, magical medicine, blind religious beliefs, appalling injustices, bloody Vikings. Monasteries and convents provided limited education, but at great cost to monks and nuns. Cross traces Joan’s life journey, from country girl to boy Benedictine monk and Roman cleric. Credible characters accompany her—parents, siblings, clergy and Roman officials. Her shining intelligence, her reliance on reason and evidence rather than tradition and authority, and timely alliances with the learned Aesculapius, the nobleman Gerold, and Pope Leo, carry her to the Papal throne. Eventually her irrepresidble womahood asserts itself A lifetime of deceit is revealed and scandal erupts. I enjoyed the biography. It is a worthwhile and enlightening read. But I cannot believe that the Roman Catholic Church could bury the truth of Joan's papacy if it had really occured. She never was.

Reviewed by Martin Waldron