Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Pope Joan
  • Written by Donna Woolfolk Cross
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780307452368
  • Our Price: $16.00
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Pope Joan

Buy now from Random House

  • Pope Joan
  • Written by Donna Woolfolk Cross
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307453198
  • Our Price: $11.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Pope Joan

Pope Joan

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

A Novel

Written by Donna Woolfolk CrossAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Donna Woolfolk Cross

eBook

List Price: $11.99

eBook

On Sale: June 09, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-45319-8
Published by : Broadway Books Crown Trade Group
Pope Joan Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Pope Joan
  • Email this page - Pope Joan
  • Print this page - Pope Joan
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE PRAISE
Tags for this book (powered by Library Thing)
historical fiction (219) fiction (187) religion (86) historical (49) women (44) catholicism (34) history (33) medieval (32) italy (27) novel (26) christianity (23) rome (23) middle ages (21) 9th century (20) feminism (16) pope joan (13) catholic church (12) dark ages (12) popes (9) church (7) pope (6) catholic (6) europe (6) papacy (5) german (5) gender (5) germany (4) historical novel (4) vatican (4) legend (4) romance (4) biography (4)
» see more tags
historical (49) women (44) catholicism (34) history (33) medieval (32) italy (27) novel (26) christianity (23) rome (23) middle ages (21) 9th century (20) feminism (16) pope joan (13) catholic church (12) dark ages (12) popes (9) church (7) pope (6) catholic (6) europe (6) papacy (5) german (5) gender (5) germany (4) historical novel (4) vatican (4) legend (4) romance (4) biography (4)
» hide
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A world-wide bestseller, major motion picture and upcoming "Director's Cut" TV mini-series exclusively for the U.S!

"Pope Joan has all the elements one wants in a historical drama–love, sex, violence, duplicity, and long-buried secrets. Cross has written an engaging book."–Los Angeles Times Book Review

For a thousand years her existence has been denied. She is the legend that will not die–Pope Joan, the ninth-century woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to become the only female ever to sit on the throne of St. Peter. Now in this riveting novel, Donna Woolfolk Cross paints a sweeping portrait of an unforgettable heroine who struggles against restrictions her soul cannot accept.

Brilliant and talented, young Joan rebels against medieval social strictures forbidding women to learn. When her brother is brutally killed during a Viking attack, Joan takes up his cloak–and his identity–and enters the monastery of Fulda. As Brother John Anglicus, Joan distinguishes herself as a great scholar and healer. 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 office in Christendom–wielding a power greater than any woman before or since. But such power always comes at a price . . .

In this international bestseller, Cross brings the Dark Ages to life in all their brutal splendor and shares the dramatic story of a woman whose strength of vision led her to defy the social restrictions of her day.

Excerpt

Ballantine Reader's Circle: Pope Joan (Excerpt)

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, unable to will herself to move. Then she set her small chin resolutely. It had to be done, so she would do it. Moving with exquisite slowness, never taking her eyes off the enemy, she eased herself off the bed. Her feet felt the cool surface of the earthen floor; the familiar sensation was reassuring. Scarcely daring to breathe, she backed toward the partition behind which her mother lay sleeping. Lightning flashed; the fingers moved and lengthened, following her. She swallowed a scream, her throat tightening with the effort. She forced herself to move slowly, not to break into a run.

She was almost there. Suddenly, a salvo of thunder crashed overhead. At the same moment something touched her from behind. She yelped, then turned and fled around the partition, stumbling over the chair she had backed into.

This part of the house was dark and still, save for her mother's rhythmic breathing. From the sound, the child could tell she was deeply asleep; the noise had not wakened her. She went quickly to the bed, lifted the woolen blanket and slid under it. Her mother lay on her side, lips slightly parted; her warm breath caressed the child's cheek. She snuggled close, feeling the softness of her mother's body through her thin linen shift.

Gudrun yawned and shifted position, roused by the movement. Her eyes opened, and she regarded the child sleepily. Then, waking fully, she reached out and put her arms around her daughter.

"Joan," she chastised gently, her lips against the child's soft hair. "Little one, you should be asleep."

Speaking quickly, her voice high and strained from fear, Joan told her mother about the monster hand.

Gudrun listened, petting and stroking her daughter and murmuring reassurances. Gently she ran her fingers over the the child's face, half-seen in the darkness. She was not pretty, Gudrun reflected ruefully. She looked too much like him, with his thick English neck and wide jaw. Her small body was already stocky and heavyset, not long and graceful like Gudrun's people. But the child's eyes were good, large and expressive and rich-hued, green with dark grey smoke-rings at the center. Gudrun lifted a strand of Joan's baby hair and caressed it, enjoying the way it shone, white-gold, even in the darkness. My hair, she thought gloatingly. Not the coarse black hair of her husband or his cruel dark people. My child. She wrapped the strand gently around her forefinger and smiled. This one, at least, is mine.

Soothed by her mother's attentions, Joan relaxed. In playful imitation, she began to tug at Gudrun's long braid, loosening it till her hair lay tumbled about her head. Joan marvelled at it, spilling over the dark woolen coverlet like rich cream. She had never seen her mother's hair unbound. At the canon's insistence, Gudrun wore it always neatly braided, hidden under a rough linen cap. A woman's hair, her husband said, was the net wherein Satan catches a man's soul. And Gudrun's hair was extraordinarily beautiful, long and soft and pure white-gold, without a trace of gray, though she was now an old woman of thirty-six winters.

"Why did Matthew and John go away?" Joan asked suddenly. Her mother had explained this to her several times, but Joan wanted to hear it again.

"You know why. Your father took them with him on his missionary journey."

"Why couldn't I go too?"

Gudrun sighed patiently. The child was always so full of questions. "Matthew and John are boys; one day they will be priests like your father. You are a girl, and therefore such matters do not concern you." Seeing that Joan was not content with that, she added, "Besides, you are much too young."

Joan was indignant. "I was four in Wintarmanoth!"

Gudrun's eyes lit with amusement as she looked at the pudgy baby face. "Ah, yes, I forgot, you are a big girl now, aren't you? Four years old! That does sound very grown up."

Joan lay quietly while her mother stroked her hair. Then she asked, "What are heathens?" Her father and brothers had spoken a good deal about heathens before they left. Joan did not understand what heathens were, exactly, though she gathered it was something very bad.

Gudrun stiffened. The word had conjuring powers. It had been on the lips of the invading soldiers as they pillaged her home and slaughtered her friends and family. The dark, cruel soldiers of the Frankish Emperor Karolus. "Magnus," people called him now that he was dead. "Karolus Magnus." Charles the Great. Would they name him so, Gudrun wondered, if they had seen his army tear Saxon babes from their mother's arms, swinging them round before they dashed their heads against the reddened stones? Gudrun withdrew her hand from Joan's hair and rolled onto her back.

"That is a question you must ask your father," she said.

Joan did not understand what she had done wrong, but she heard the strange hardness in her mother's voice and knew that she would be sent back to her own bed if she didn't think of some way to repair the damage. Quickly she said, "Tell me again about the Old Ones."

"I cannot. Your father disapproves of the telling of such tales." The words were half statement, half question.

Joan knew what to do. Placing both hands solemnly over her heart, she recited The Oath exactly as her mother had taught it to her, promising eternal secrecy on the sacred name of Thor the Thunderer.


Gudrun laughed and drew Joan close again. "Very well, little quail. I will tell you the story, since you know so well how to ask."

Her voice was warm again, wistful and melodic as she began to tell of Woden and Thunor and Freya and the other gods who had peopled her Saxon childhood before the armies of Karolus brought the Word of Christ with blood and fire. She spoke liltingly of Asgard, the radiant home of the gods, a place of golden and silver palaces, which could only be reached by crossing Bifrost, the mysterious bridge of the rainbow. Guarding the bridge was Heimdall the Watchman, who never slept, whose ears were so keen he could even hear the grass grow. In Valhalla, the most beautiful palace of all, lived Woden, the father-god, on whose shoulders sat the two ravens Hugin, Thought, and Munin, Memory. On his throne, while the other gods feasted, Woden contemplated what Thought and Memory told him.

Joan nodded happily. This was her favorite part of the story.

"Tell about the Well of Wisdom," she begged.

"Although he was already very wise," explained her mother, "Woden always sought greater wisdom. One day he went to the Well of Wisdom, guarded by Mimir the Wise, and asked for a draught from it. 'What price will you pay?' asked Mimir. Woden replied that Mimir could ask what he wished. 'Wisdom must always be bought with pain,' replied Mimir. 'If you wish a drink of this water you must pay for it with one of your eyes.'"

Eyes bright with excitement, Joan exclaimed, "And Woden did it, Mama, didn't he? He did it!"

Her mother nodded. "Though it was a hard choice, Woden consented to lose the eye. He drank the water. Afterward, he passed on to mankind the wisdom he had gained."

Joan looked up at her mother, her eyes wide and serious. "Would you have done it, Mama--to be wise, to know about all things?"

"Only gods make such choices." Seeing the child's persistent look of question, Gudrun confessed, "No. I would have been too afraid."

"So would I," Joan said thoughtfully. "But I would want to do it. I would want to know what the well could tell me."

Gudrun smiled down at the intent little face. "Perhaps you would not like what you would learn there. There is a saying among our people. 'A wise man's heart is seldom glad.'"

Joan nodded, though she did not really understand. "Now tell about the Tree," she said, snuggling close to her mother again.

Gudrun began to describe Irminsul, the wondrous universe tree. It had stood in the holiest of the Saxon groves at the source of the Lippe river. Her people had worshipped at it until it was cut down by the armies of Karolus.

"It was very beautiful," her mother said, "and so tall that no one could see the top. It--"

She stopped. Suddenly aware of another presence, Joan looked up. Her father was standing in the doorway.


Her mother sat up in bed. "Husband," she said. "I did not look for your return for another fortnight."

The canon did not respond. He took a wax taper from the table near the door and crossed to the hearthfire, where he plunged it into the glowing embers until it flared.

Gudrun said nervously, "The child was frightened by the thunder. I thought to comfort her with a harmless story."

"Harmless!" The canon's voice shook with the effort to control his rage. "You call such blasphemy harmless?" He covered the distance to the bed in two long strides, set down the taper, and pulled the blanket off, exposing them. Joan lay with her arms around her mother, half-hidden under a curtain of white-gold hair.

For a moment the canon stood stupefied with disbelief, looking at Gudrun's unbound hair. Then his fury overtook him. "How dare you! When I have expressly forbidden it!" Taking hold of Gudrun, he started to drag her from the bed. "Heathen witch!"

Joan clung to her mother. The canon's face darkened. "Child, begone!" he bellowed. Joan hesitated, torn between fear and the desire to somehow protect her mother.

Gudrun pushed her urgently. "Yes, go. Go quickly."

Releasing her hold, Joan dropped to the floor and ran. At the door, she turned and saw her father grab her mother roughly by the hair, wrenching her head back, forcing her to her knees. Joan started back into the room. Terror stopped her short as she saw her father withdraw his long, bonehandled hunting knife from his corded belt.

"Forsachistu diabolae?" he asked Gudrun in Saxon, his voice scarcely more than whisper. When she did not respond, he placed the point of the knife against her throat. "Say the words," he growled menacingly. "Say them!"

"Ec forsacho allum diaboles," Gudrun responded tearfully, her eyes blazing defiance, "wuercum and wuordum, thunaer ende woden ende saxnotes ende allum..."

Rooted with fear, Joan watched her father pull up a heavy tress of her mother's hair and draw the knife across it. There was a ripping sound as the silken strands parted; a long band of white gold floated to the floor.

Clapping her hand over her mouth to stifle a sob, Joan turned and ran.

In the darkness, she bumped into a shape that reached out for her. She squealed in fear as it grabbed her. The monster hand! She had forgotten about it! She struggled, pummelling at it with her tiny fists, resisting with all her strength, but it was huge, and held her fast.

"Joan! Joan, it's all right. It's me!"

The words penetrated her fear. It was her ten-year-old brother Matthew, who had returned with her father.

"We've come back. Joan, stop struggling! It's all right. It's me." Joan reached up, felt the smooth surface of the pectoral cross that Matthew always wore, then slumped against him in relief.

Together they sat in the dark, listening to the soft splitting sounds of the knife ripping through their mother's hair. Once they heard Mama cry out in pain. Matthew cursed aloud. An answering sob came from the bed where Joan's seven-year-old brother John was hiding under the covers.

At last the ripping sounds stopped. After a brief pause the canon's voice began to rumble in prayer. Joan felt Matthew relax; it was over. She threw her arms around his neck and wept. He held her and rocked her gently.

After a time, she looked up at him.

"Father called Mama a heathen."

"Yes."

"She isn't," Joan said hesitantly, "is she?"

"She was." Seeing her look of horrified disbelief, he added, "a long time ago. Not any more. But those were heathen stories she was telling you."

Joan stopped crying; this was interesting information.

"You know the first of the Commandments, don't you?"

Joan nodded and recited dutifully, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

"Yes. That means that the gods Mama was telling you about are false; it is sinful to speak of them."

"Is that why Father...?"

"Yes, " Matthew broke in. "Mama had to be punished for the good of her soul. She was disobedient to her husband, and that also is against the law of God."

"Why?"

"Because it says so in the Holy Book." He began to recite, "'For the husband is the head of the wife; therefore, let the wives submit themselves unto their husbands in everything.'"

"Why?"

"Why?" Matthew was taken aback. No one had ever asked him that before. "Well, I guess because...because women are by nature inferior to men. Men are bigger, stronger and smarter."

"But--" Joan started to respond but Matthew cut her off.

"Enough questions, little sister. You should be in bed. Come now." He carried her to the bed and placed her beside John, who was already sleeping.

Matthew had been kind to her; to return the favor, Joan closed her eyes and burrowed under the covers as if to sleep.

But she was far too troubled for sleep. She lay in the dark, peering at John as he slept, his mouth hanging slackly open.

He can't recite from the Psalter and he's seven years old. Joan was only four but already she knew the first ten psalms by heart.

John wasn't smart. But he was a boy. Yet how could Matthew be wrong? He knew everything; he was going to be a priest, like father.

She lay awake in the dark, turning the problem over in her mind.

Towards dawn she slept, restlessly, troubled by dreams of mighty wars between jealous and angry gods. The angel Gabriel himself came from heaven with a flaming sword to do battle with Thor and Freya. The battle was terrible and fierce, but in the end the false gods were driven back, and Gabriel stood triumphant beforethe gates of paradise. His sword had disappeared; in his hand gleamed a short, bone-handled knife.
Donna Woolfolk Cross|Author Q&A

About Donna Woolfolk Cross

Donna Woolfolk Cross - Pope Joan
DONNA WOOLFOLK CROSS lives in upstate, New York. Visit her online at PopeJoan.com.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Donna Woolfolk Cross, author of POPE JOAN:A Novel

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 typo–“Jeanne” (Joan) for “Jean” (John). But the reference piqued my curiosity, so I checked the Catholic Encyclopedia. To my astonishment, there was an entry on Joan–a woman who lived disguised as a man and rose to become Pope of the Church in the ninth century.

Q. So the Catholic Church officially recognizes 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 Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Platina, famed papal librarian and biographer.

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. The problem with this position is that Joan’s story first appears hundreds of years before Martin Luther was born–before his great-great-grandfather was born! Most of Joan’s chroniclers were Catholics, often highly placed in the church hierarchy, so the question of motive arises: Why would men devoted to the Holy See invent such a story?

Joan’s story was included in official Church biographies of the Popes, as well as in the Church guidebook to Rome used by pilgrims for hundreds of years. 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. A bust of Joan stood for centuries, undisputed, alongside those of other Popes in the Cathedral of Siena until Protestants began to make use of it to discredit the papacy. In 1601, by command of Pope Clement XIII, it suddenly “metamorphosed” into a bust of Pope Zachary. (Arguably the earliest example on record of a sex-change operation!)

Q. So you’re convinced that Joan really existed?

A. One can make a strong case for her actual historical existence–and many scholars have. But 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. If I had to place a bet, however, I would bet that she lived and was Pope for two and a half years.

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, women are very good at male disguise. History is rife with examples of successful female transvestites. More than three hundred women are known to have fought disguised as men in the American Civil War–a difficult feat to pull off in the close quarters of an army camp. In the twelfth century, St. Hildegund, using the name Joseph, became a brother of Schonau Abbey and lived undiscovered among the brethren until her death many years later. In the 18th century, Margaret Ann Bulkley rose to the rank of inspector general in the British army under the name Dr. James Barry; a skilled surgeon (which makes her the first British woman doctor), her sex was again not discovered until her death–after which the British army sealed her records for one hundred years. In 2006, Norah Vincent’s book Self-Made Man described the year she spent in male disguise, during which she spent three months in a monastery with her true identity completely undetected.

Joan’s disguise would have been relatively easy, for in the ninth century clothing was very body-disguising–loose robes, sometimes belted, sometimes not. Personal hygiene was non-existent; most people slept in their clothes and rarely, if ever, bathed. Of course she would have had to deal with menstrual blood, facial hair, and other issues–but so did legions of other successful female cross-dressers. The bottom line? It can be done because it has been done, over and over again, throughout time.

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, 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. Women were not allowed in church for thirty days after they had given birth–for then they were considered “unclean”. The period of “uncleanliness” was increased to sixty days if they birthed a girl. Small wonder, then, that a woman would chose to disguise herself as a man in order to escape so bleak 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. Pope Joan is a perennial pick for book clubs, and you are involved in book group discussions sometimes up to four times a week! What about this novel resonates so well?

A. What is needed for good book group discussion is a subject that leads to lively, engrossing, deeply engaged conversation. Herein lies the appeal of Pope Joan. Joan’s story raises many thought-provoking topics for discussion, for example:

vWhat effect would women priests have on the Church and its liturgy? What effect have they had on the Episcopal Church?
vAre reason and faith incompatible?
vDo you know women who have sacrificed opportunities to exercise mind, heart, and spirit for love of a man? For love of a child? Are such sacrifices justified?

These are open-ended questions with no one right answer. Open-ended questions and complex problems that elicit strong feelings– these are what spark good book group discussion.

Q. There has been a rise in interest in Pope Joan recently, with a forthcoming major motion picture and two different theatrical productions (in L.A. and N.Y.C.). Why is this such an evergreen story?

A. Though Joan’s story is more than a millennium old, it is strangely new–and deeply relevant to the world we live in today. It speaks to the issue of female empowerment through learning. Joan lived in a time when it was widely believed that women could not reason– that it was unnatural, even dangerous, to educate us. One theory of the day was that the size of a woman’s uterus and brain were inversely proportional–that is, the more a woman learned, the less likely she would ever bear children. (If only that were true, birth control would be a snap. You don’t want to have a baby? Read a book!)

Sadly, these ideas are not gone from the world today. Witness the recent statement by the imam of an all-male madrasa (school) in Pakistan that girls are biologically incapable of learning. Or the acid thrown in the faces of teenage girls in Afghanistan, scarring them for life, as punishment for the “crime” of wanting to learn. Facing death threats, these young girls defiantly continue to attend school. The spirit of Pope Joan lives in such brave young women!

Of course, the continuing debate about the ordination of women also keeps Joan’s story evergreen. The same arguments used against the idea of women as priests and ministers a thousand years ago are still employed today. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same.


Praise

Praise

“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. . . . Pope Joan has all the elements one wants: love, sex, violence, duplicity and long-buried secrets. Cross has written an engaging book.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A fascinating and moving account of a woman’s determination to learn, despite the opposition of family and society. Highly recommended.”–Library Journal (starred review)

“Cross makes an excellent, entertaining case that in the Dark Ages, a woman sat on the papal throne. . . . A colorful, richly imagined novel.” –Publishers Weekly

“Pope Joan reveals the harsh realities of the Dark Ages. Violence is rife in the government, church and home; logic and reason are shunned as “dangerous ideas” and women are considered useful only as men’s servants and child bearers. The novel explores the extraordinary life of an independent, intelligent and courageous woman who overcomes oppression and ascends to the highest level of religious power. . . . Cross’ masterful use of anticipation, as well as the sweeping historical landscape of the story, keep Pope Joan intriguing. . . . An exciting journey through history as it’s being made.”–San Francisco Chronicle

“Eloquently written and spellbinding in its account of this legendary figure.” –Arizona Republic

“The life of an intelligent, headstrong woman in 9th-century Europe, the kind of woman who might have dared such an adventure in an era when obedience was a woman’s most admired trait. . . . Cross succeeds admirably, grounding her fast-moving tale in a wealth of rich historical detail.” –Orlando Sentinel

“A story of passion and faith–and a reminder that some things never change, only the stage and players do.”–Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“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.” –Kirkus Reviews

“A page-turner!” –Glamour

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: