The speculation goes that, of all the popes that have followed in the steps of Saint Peter, one was a woman. Proof that a Pope Joan existed is mostly inferred from some obscure and polemic sources, but there have been organized efforts by the Catholic Church to deny that a woman was the Bishop of Rome.
Donna Woolfolk Cross assumes the former (and even provides the sources that have been preserved over the years) to develop her novel of a woman who challenged the male-dominated structure of her time, rising to a position of power. In doing so, she expands on the obstacles any woman faces when she strives to break out of the boundaries of “tradition.”
Coming from a family at the lowest end of the religious ranks, Joan is exposed to learning at an early age, but she is regarded as unnatural by nearly everyone who learns of her abilities. When the opportunity comes to shed her female identity, she takes it, adopting the name Brother John Angelicus and becoming a valued scholar and physician in the Benedictine monastery at Fulda. Forced to flee that home, she goes to Rome, where she ministers to the poor.
Her reputation brings her to the attention of the Papal court, and she ministers to the gout-ridden Pope Sergius, then advisor to the reform-minded Leo IV. When Leo died after a short reign, John Angelicus is elected by popular acclaim, and a woman takes the Keys of Saint Peter.
The lot of women at the time was a desperate one: they were accused of being in league with the devil, regarded as property, expected to labor alongside men, manage the household, and endure childbirth and all of its dangers. No wonder that Joan’s mother tells her to never become involved with a man. To her surprise, Joan does fall in love with a man who knows her true identity, and the consequences of their affair will destroy both and add to the legend of the woman Pope.
Whether or not the story is true, Cross immerses us in the world and politics of the ninth century with great authority. From the details of a peasant’s daily life to the the ambition and treachery of the papal elections, she recreates a setting where religion was essential but piety rare, and the high cost of the clash between emperors and popes was usually paid by the poor. She also finds the simplicity of faith in those called to serve God without hope of worldly gain, and the struggle of men and women of conscience to reconcile biblical teachings with the orthodoxy of the Church. It is telling that those struggles, and the subordinate place of women in the Catholic Church hasn’t changed in one thousand years.
Check the WRL catalog for Pope Joan