Saturday 27 May 2017

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

    The McBride Library Book Club was supposed to read “fictional Biographies”  for May.  Here is one of the books I read:

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
             It was in the year 1250 that the first written record emerged telling of a female, disguised as a man, who in the 800's became Pope. There is no Pope Joan on the Vatican's official list of popes, but powers often try to erase evidence of individuals they disagree with. A modern example of this is Donald Trump and the Republican Party trying to erase everything with Obama's name on it.  Anyway, there are a lot of documents about Pope Joan, all of which were written hundreds of years after she supposedly lived.  Whether she existed or not has not yet been proven but this novel has been written to show the life and what sort of person Joan might have been. 
        The novel begins with Joan's midwinter birth in a hut outside a village in what is now Germany.   Immediately after her birth we begin to see the prejudice against females in the profound disappointment of her father, a canon in the Church, upon discovering her sex. 
        As a child, she watched her father dote over her two slightly older brothers, educating them and teaching them to read, while Joan, with a superior intellect, is shunted off to help her mother with household chores. Fortunately after some begging, she gets her older brother to secretly teach her to read and write. He is being educated for the church, but then dies young. 
       Joan's other brother is very slow and uninterested in learning, but despite his inabilities, her strict religious father tries unsuccessfully to educate him for the church.  Meanwhile Joan's secret learning and intellect grows.  
       During a visit by a learned Greek church scholar, her father tries to impress the man with his son's learning.   The scholar is not impressed and Joan cannot help but show him her knowledge, much to the displeasure of her father and the amazement of the scholar. 
      So impressed is he, that he offers to tutor Joan for free, but her father refuses the offer, unless her doltish brother is included.  This is agreed to and the Greek visits weekly and Joan's body of knowledge soars.  Her brother remains as sluggish as ever.   
       When the Greek eventually has to move on, he gives Joan a book in Greek of Homer's poetry.  Books were extremely rare during the Dark Ages, and Joan had to hide it from her fundamentalist father and read it secretly at night.  Eventually she is discovered and the father beats her and forces her to destroyed her beloved book saying it was blasphemous.  
       The bishop of the area learned of Joan's abilities through the Greek scholar and sent a soldier to bring her to the Bishop's school. The father was outraged and told the messenger it was Joan's brother John who was wanted.  The messenger leaves with John , and that night, full of contempt and rage, Joan leaves home.  She runs into John, now alone after the messenger was killed by a thief. 
      Both Joan and John travel to the city and they are both sent to the  bishop's school, where again Joan excelled. A Viking attack on the city kills everyone, except Joan, who manages to hide.  Her life experiences has shown her that the world will never allow her to achieve her educational goals as a woman, so she takes the clothes of her brother John, who was killed by the Vikings, and dresses as a man. She also takes his name, and heads off to face the world, this time as a male. 
      There are of course many more adventures before Joan becomes a pope, but you will have to read the book yourself. 
      This book contained a lot of interesting facts about what life was like during the Dark Ages and there was a lot more excitement than I expected in a book about a Pope. There is a section in the back that sets out some of the evidence that exists that suggests that there really was a Pope Joan. 

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