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Pope Joan    by Donna Woolfolk Cross order for
Pope Joan
by Donna Woolfolk Cross
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 1997 (1996)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Pope Joan is an enjoyable historical novel based on the life of an arguably real woman who lived during the darkest of the Dark Ages in Europe and eventually rose to be Pope. Cross, an English professor, has extensively researched Pope Joan's life and fleshed out the bare facts to create a fascinating story of how Joan disguised herself as a man and rose through the Catholic Church as John Anglicus to become the only female Pope. Presently, there is still controversy about her life - Cross presents a strong case for her existence in the afterword.

Joan is born the youngest of three in the poor family of a canon, in what is present day Germany. Through a stroke of good fortune a Greek scholar stays with the canon's family for a time, and Joan is able to secretly learn Latin and Greek from her older brother who is being tutored by the scholar. She proves to be an excellent student and is eventually able to impress the scholar who recommends she be trained at a religious school. This starts her on the pathway that eventually leads to Rome. Times are difficult for all in the Dark Ages, especially for women, and Joan eventually has to disguise herself as a man to escape punishment for aspiring beyond her station as a female. Along the way she learns medical skills from an elderly monk at an abbey where she spends several years as a lowly brother. When Joan reaches Rome, this knowledge is put to good use and allows her to enter the inner circle of papal advisors.

The novel depicts the violence of the times, from Viking raids to battles among rivals for power within the Holy Roman Empire itself. In addition, it reveals the political skirmishes (some of which become very dangerous) among those who would become Pope. Of course, Joan also experiences the requisite romance with the lord of the manor, where she initially lives as a female student. Cross has used her imagination to dramatize the known facts of Joan's life in the context of the times. As is common in this genre, the main characters just happen to be present at many key historical events - the prerogative of a novelist who brings life to the past. Read Pope Joan to learn about a fascinating woman, who might have really lived this little-known corner of history.

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