When Pope Joan by Diana Woolfolk Cross was chosen for discussion in the book club I attend, I knew it would be my kind of book. I have a soft spot for the Middle Ages, which often get glossed over between the height of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Surprisingly (to me) I had never heard the legend of Pope Joan. Since learning the story of Catalina de Erauso during a semester abroad in Spain, I’ve been surprised by how many stories there are of women dressing as men to escape the confined existence offered them. (And then I’m surprised at myself for being surprised. If it happened a few famous times, it undoubtedly went undetected or unannounced many more times.)
Pope Joan tells a fictionalized imagining of the life of a potentially real woman who, having taken the life of a man, rose through the ranks of the priesthood to become Pope. While I was reading the book, it didn’t really matter to me whether or not this actually happened. The combination of pretty solid historical setting and the fact that I could imagine it happening was enough. At the end of the book, the author includes her research and thought process. By the time I finished the story, I was eager to read her description of what was factual, what was legend, and what was entirely fictional. Historically, one of the questions about Pope Joan’s existence is that she was only included on one version (as a later addition in different handwriting, no less) of Liber Pontificalis, a compilation of Papal histories written by a contemporary of the supposed Pope Joan. I loved that the novel included a scene of how she might have been excluded and how she might have been added back in. It’s all speculation and legend, of course, but I appreciate the nod to current research.
Another thing that I was worried about was how faith and religion would be portrayed in the book. As a person of faith myself, I grow tired of books that portray all believers as lechers faking it for personal gain or simpletons. While history has certainly given us plenty of both, those are not the only two types of faith that exist. Especially when dealing with the Catholic church in the Middle Ages, a lot of fiction paints all priests and cardinals in one corrupt stroke. I was pleased to see good, kind, and honest men of the cloth represented along with the conniving and two-faced ones. On the other hand, I have very little patience for most Christian literature. I find the faith in many popular Christian lit. books to be simplified. Life (and faith) is not often neat and tidy. One of my favorite parts of the book was this depiction of Joan in prayer: “…a seeker of faith, she was torn between her desire to know God and her fear He might not exist. Mind and heart, faith and doubt, will and desire. Would the painful contradictions of her nature ever be reconciled?” Isn’t that exactly how it goes for most? We hope and believe and we move forward on that belief, but there is often fear or doubt too.
All in all, Pope Joan was an enjoyable read. I did skim through some of the longer historical descriptions, but I didn’t find them overly cumbersome or frequent. Now all that’s left is to wait (im)patiently for the book group discussion.
I would recommend this to: a reader interested in the middle ages or historical fiction that examines what may have been the background of an existing legend.