My Junior and Senior year of college I lived in a student co-op: 50 college kids in two old Victorian houses, yellow with red trim. It was a dump, like most student housing is, but it was home because of the people and the attachments you made within those walls. Camaraderie and interesting conversation were some of the many benefits of living there. I remember one dinner table discussion: What would you have been if you had been born in a different time? (Or maybe it was a past life kind of conversation…I’m not sure, it was a long time ago.) My roommate (who is still one of my very best friends umpteen years later) said “a medieval beer wench.” We all laughed. One of the other women, whose name I don’t remember, but whose small, delicate face and pin straight blond hair are still vivid in my mind, said “With the lack of options available to most women, I’m sure I would have been a prostitute.” Discussion ensued and I don’t remember the rest, but that comment stayed with me. It made me so thankful to live now, in a time and place where I have options.
Plenty of people in the world still don’t have the options I have had. I know how fortunate I am. Not to trivialize that thought, but one of the many benefits to living here and now is that I get to read fabulous books which drive that point home. Pope Joan by Donna Wolfolk Cross is one of those books. A friend recommended it to me, knowing that I like historical dramas; it was one of her favorites. It is based on the story/legend/rumor/(fact?) that a woman (may have) sat on the papal throne in the 9th century. Cross crafts a great story around this idea and then at the end, she gives us the details of all her research, both the things that point toward this conclusion and away from it. Apparently there are more than 500 references in historical documents that this actually could have happened. And yet the historical record during this time is so patchy, and this is the kind of thing the church would have wanted to bury, so it’s anyone’s guess if it happened or not. So we begin with this mystery---was there a female pope? Cross’s book makes you want to believe she was real.
To sum up the plot, Joan is a very intelligent little girl, in a time when girls were not educated and when women had almost no power or control over their own lives. She has to go to great lengths to learn to read, in secret, with fears of even being killed for her attempt at knowledge since current religious understanding was that an educated woman was unnatural and therefore against God’s law. During a barbarian raid, her brother and everyone they know are murdered by invaders. With so few options before her, Joan assumes his name, his clothes and his life. She enters a monastery. As a boy, all the hardships she had faced as a girl, being persecuted and ridiculed for her wit, disappear. In the monastery, she quickly earns the respect of her peers and is able to continue to study, learn, and use her knowledge openly. Turns of fate bring her to Rome and her reputation as a skilled physician enables her to work closely with the current pope. Her popularity among the Roman people is widespread and amidst political upheaval, they elect her the new Pope upon her predecessor’s death.
The biggest surprise for me in this book, however, was a love story thread that weaves through almost the entire novel. As a teenager, Joan meets Gerold, a wealthy, intelligent and educated man. He becomes her benefactor of sorts, her protector, and her friend, which quickly turns into something more. He’s the only person with whom she can truly be herself and let her knowledge and intelligence shine. (It was disruptions in this storyline that made me skip ahead---Will they ever get back together?-----I MUST know!!!!) This part of Joan’s life is what brought the question of option and choice into the forefront. Gerold appreciates her knowledge and intelligence, and wants to share his life with her, but it comes to a point where she has to choose: Stay with Gerold and be (to all others) an “unnatural” woman who has no power or influence and can’t speak her mind in public, or hide her gender to continue her education and live a life where her intellect and education are encouraged and appreciated openly.
Another theme in the book that I found particularly fascinating was the question of true faith or forced submission. The only avenues for education for anyone in that time came via the church. Naturally that is where Joan goes to quench her thirst for knowledge; yet the author never explicitly says that Joan believes in Christianity. Joan has a deep, personal understanding that many people of the day only pretended to believe in the church’s teachings to escape starvation, poverty, torture and/or death. The author brings this idea up several times throughout the book, with several different characters. Joan’s pagan mother was one of them, only marrying a priest for food and protection. Outwardly she complied with expectations, but inwardly, she never gave up her pagan Gods. To Joan, her mother represents love and tenderness. Her Christian father is the complete opposite: hateful, oppressive, and abusive. His harsh understanding and interpretation of his faith directly correlate to the pain and misery Joan feels in her situation. As an adult, Joan preaches Christianity because it is only within the church structure that she is able to learn, speak her mind, and be a productive, helpful member of society. Yet she resents that same institution for not allowing her to be herself and for forcing her to give up life as a woman with the people she loves. So perhaps she was also one of the many who pretended to believe only to serve their purpose. How ironic that she should rise to the highest level of the church if we never know for sure that she’s a believer?
All in all, I really loved this book. Joan’s struggles and triumphs, hopes and heartaches become your own as you travel with her from birth to death. It’s got it all: politics, religion, drama, family dynamics, love, hate, sex, betrayal, romance, medicine, war, murder and more.
Here are my ratings. I got a little feedback that my rating system was hard to understand. There is a Rating System Key page to explain it, but I figured I’d do a little more explanation for each category in this and probably future reviews.
CF (Crack Factor)---10 I really couldn’t put this book down. I consumed 200 pages and stayed up past midnight the day I cracked the binding. You will get hooked.
EF (Enrichment Factor)—8 I definitely learned new stuff in this book, especially with the author’s description of her research at the end of the story.
PF-People Factor-9 Joan & Gerold are really great characters, so are Joan’s parents and teachers and the popes and several of the other minor characters, but since it is a book mainly about one person, all the minor characters aren’t as richly drawn as they maybe could have been.
TSF (Tears Shed Factor)—7 There are some heart wrenching parts; it will get to you.
WSF-Writing Skills Factor—10—She’s good. Really good.
STF-Story Telling Factor-10—The author has a gift for storytelling. She takes a blip in the historical record and creates a story that is hard to forget. (I’m just realizing that maybe this factor is redundant as it would be hard to rate this one lower if the Crack Factor is high…Oh well, it’s here now.)
BABF (Bad Ass Babe Factor)—9 Joan is cool. She’s a really smart, compassionate heroine.
HTAF (To be explained soon Factor)--8 This is the only rating factor not yet explained in my Rating System Key because I have a whole post in the works about this one. Basically this is the hot guy factor. Gerold ranks pretty high on this scale. He’s an all-around good man, smart, incredibly attractive, very loyal to Joan, and a tough guy to boot. He doesn’t get a 9 because I did find him a little puppy dog-ish toward the end. Joan jerks him around for years and while he gets a point for sticking with her, he gets two taken away for putting up with that crap. I guess I found it just a tad unbelievable that he would have stayed with her so long, and yet the romantic in me loved that he did.
Average/Total rating: 8.875