Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
Whenever you see a legend, you can be sure, if you go to the very bottom of things, that you will find history.
Vallet de Viriville
Joan Anglicus is a frustrated young girl. The brightest and most scholarly of all her siblings, she is often denied the chance to learn because of her sex. The Dark Ages were a time when womens brains were thought to be smaller than a man’s and only needed for child bearing. Why teach a girl to read and write? Joan cannot accept this. She runs away with her older brother, and after he is killed in a Viking attack, she disguises herself and assumes his identity at a Benedictine monastery. As Brother John Anglicus, she is sought out for her great healing abilities and religious intellect, until eventually she is elevated to the highest throne in the world at the time, the papacy.
The story of Pope Joan, a woman who lived disguised as a man and rose to become pope of the Church in the ninth century, is one of the most fascinating in Western history, and one of the least known. Most that have heard of her regard her story as a legend contrived by Protestant reformers, or so the Catholic Church would have you believe, not at all based on facts. But as Viriville said, legend and history are often one in the same.
Even though much is not known of the Dark Ages, Woolfolk Cross has done her homework here. This book is well-researched and well-written. I was completely sucked in and had a hard time putting it down. I found the history fascinating. These troubled times were especially difficult for women - as they still are today in some countries. They had no property rights, no opportunity for education. They could be beaten and raped by their husbands at will. So it seems completely logical that a woman would chose to disguise herself as a man. She certainly wouldn’t have been the only woman in history to do so.
So why deny she existed at all? Extreme mortification of course, that a woman could deceive so many. History provides many examples of the deliberate falsification of records to suit the masses. But what of the proof? What of the so-called chair exam, where each candidate was examined to prove his manhood as part of the medieval papal conservation ceremony for almost six centuries? What of the “shunned street” in Rome on which Joan reportedly “John Anglicus gave birth to a child…” An interesting article about this is here, if you're wanting to know more about the legend.
Even with these facts, given the confusion of the ninth century it is impossible to know for sure if she existed. We may never know if there really was a Pope Joan. True or not, I sure had a good time reading about it. An excellent book. 4.5 stars