Pope Joan

by Donna Woolfolk Cross


Pope Joan is based on medieval legends of Pope John Anglicus, unmasked as a woman when she gave birth during a papal procession. In an author's note, Cross explores the intriguing evidence for and against the existence of a ninth century woman pope while acknowledging the lack of definitive documentation. Her novel is about a woman intelligent, unconventional and big-hearted enough to make the story surprisingly plausible.

Scepticism is the birthright of Cross's Joan, the daughter of a brutal, ill-educated country canon and his mistress, a beautiful blonde Saxon secretly faithful to the ancient gods of her people. Later, Joan finds herself in a Christian Rome built on and amid the ruins of its pagan past: "As Joan knelt before the high altar, she saw that the marble pedestal supporting it bore the unmistakable symbol of the Magna Mater, ancient goddess of earth, worshiped by heathen tribes in a time beyond memory…. The incongruity of the sacred altar and its pagan base seemed to Joan a perfect symbol of herself: a Christian priest, she still dreamed of her mother's heathen gods; a man in the eyes of the world, she was tormented by her secret woman's heart; a seeker of faith, she was torn between her desire to know God and her fear that He might not exist." In a plot full of twists and turns and hair's-breadth escapes, these spiritual and existential questions are the novel's core. 1996, 422 pages.

More info from Powell's Books

Interview with author Donna Woolfolk Cross


Other historical novels with similar subjects and settings:

The Angel and the Sword by Cecelia Holland, about a ninth century French woman who disguises herself as a man and becomes a soldier; based on the legend of Roderick the Beardless More info

The Words of Bernfrieda by Gabriella Brooke, about a woman in eleventh century Italy who learns to write and decides to set down her half-sister's story More info


Nonfiction about the legend of John Anglicus:

The Myth of Pope Joan by Alain Boureau More info

The Legend of Pope Joan (U.K. title: The She-Pope) by Peter Stanford More info


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