Book Review: Donna Woolfolk Cross’ Pope Joan

Mother of The Church

The improbable tale of a 9th-century woman who became head of the Catholic Church has been a legend long told and long believed. Still there is little to go on and no irrefutable evidence to back up the existence of Johanna of Ingelheim, also known as Pope Johannes Anglicus.

Whether true story or myth, however, the life journey of the “Woman Pope” as it might have been lived, serves as the basis for Donna Woolfolk Cross’ fine first novel Pope Joan, a work that demanded seven years of thorough research into the secrets of a century-old papal legacy.

The child Johanna was born to an unforgiving village priest and a loving Saxon mother, considered a heathen, by her husband’s standards. Gifted and curious, she grows up with a desire to explore the world and become a scholar, an opportunity, however, that lies only in the future of her older brothers, Matthew and Johannes.

The story begins in a harsh winter of 814. A midwife, by the name of Hrotrud, tackles the deep snowdrifts on her way to the little hut of the canon’s family. With five deliveries in the last month that resulted in the deaths of all five infants, she is not optimistic. Johanna survives against all odds, and even though dismissed with contempt by her father, her birth marks the beginning of an extraordinary life bound to both faith and rationality.

The legend of Pope Joan challenges all the norms of the established Catholic Church, where women were excluded from any leadership roles. With the life of St. Catherine of Alexandria as a model, a saint who, in Mathew’s words, “was loved for her wisdom and learning,” Johanna sets on an arduous journey to Rome; a journey that eventually grants her the honor of sitting in St. Peter’s Chair.

Her name is mentioned in history for the first time in the 13th-century, in the Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum (The Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors) by Polish Dominican Martin of Troppau. Placed on the list of Popes between Leo IV. (847–855) and Benedict III. (855 – 858), Johanna’s reign has been often discredited, as there is no coinciding time gap where her papacy fits. It was 19th-century church historian Ignaz von Döllinger who definitively dismissed the possibility that a woman could have been head of the Church. Although there is no exact date for the beginning of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, an exchange of letters appears to prove that Benedict succeeded as pope only two months after Leo’s death.

Nevertheless, Cross follows the sequence of events as described in the legend, applying only minor changes, to achieve a solid and credible story. She portrays Johanna’s life from her escape from home and the strict surveillance of her father, to being the only girl at the schola in Dorstadt.

On her way, she falls in love with a knight named Gerold who, even though strongly attached to her, goes to war, leaving her behind; the time when she decides to disguise herself as a man, and pursue a life of scholarship and service in the church.

Pope Joan is a story about vision and self-knowledge, about love and also apathy, about parting and reunion, about faith and rationality. Cross’ novel follows the life journey of a brave woman, devoted to truth, ready to sacrifice her private joys for wisdom and eternal loyalty to God.

But has there ever been a woman pope? The Catholic Church certainly denies her existence, and so does most of history. But in the end, it may not make a difference. The story, as told by Cross, is definitely worth reading. And if it never happened just this way, something very like it probably did.

For a review of the film version of Pope Joan in TVR May 2010, see here.

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