I was a women’s studies minor in college, and as our final project, we had to write a research paper on… anything to do with being a woman. Pretty broad topic, right? I had just finished reading The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown and I was completely obsessed with the idea that women may have been written out of important roles in the Bible. I set about writing my research paper on the subject. My results were inconclusive and random. It’s a fascinating subject-but it’s unbelievably frustrating to try and research anything to do with the Bible. I don’t even know how old the Old Testament is-several thousand years? There is no way to corroborate facts or compare accounts or even find reliable primary resources from that long ago. My grand dreams of unearthing some previously overlooked tidbit to piece together the absolute truth of religion and humanity ended with a wimper.
There’s a silver lining, though! My women’s studies professor, Dr. Stacey Robertson (who is awesome and writes books and can be found here) presented each graduating senior with a book. Because I had been so enthused about my research project, despite turning up no spectacular insights, she presented me with Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross.
Pope Joan is based on a legend widely accepted during the middle ages that a woman disguised as a man somehow rose through the religious ranks and became Pope. You are taken on Joan’s journey from her poverty stricken childhood to the halls of Rome. At a young age she demonstrates a particular aptitude for learning and is taken under the wing of a rogue tutor in spite of the commonly held belief that girls should not be educated. We follow Joan through school, through a Viking battle (seriously- marauding Vikings!), through her stay in a monastery, and all the way to her work as a priest/physician in Rome.
Joan is eventually elected as Pope, and is only exposed as a woman when she gives birth during a procession through the streets. You read that correctly. She takes a lover, gets pregnant, and OOPS gives birth in the middle of the street. The birth also kills her (so ladies, don’t get any ideas.) It makes for enthralling historical fiction, but could it be true?
The middle ages are nearly as bad as biblical times for digging up reliable resources, so historians mostly dismiss the story of Pope Joan as a legend. What historians agree on, however, is that for centuries the Vatican and much of the population BELIEVED the story to be true. Supposedly, there was even a special chair used during medieval papal coronation proceedings with a keyhole shape in the seat used to check the newly elected Pope’s genitalia. (Lest they suffer another embarrassing birthing episode mid-parade.) If you watch The Borgias on Showtime, you’ll have seen this chair in action. You’ll also have heard Jeremy Irons bellow “LECHERY” a lot, which is awesome.
Personally, I think it would have been entirely possible for a woman to have lived as a man in a monastery. People in the dark ages didn’t exactly bathe often, and bulky brown robes don’t accentuate one’s figure. I think a woman who wanted to learn may have seen a life as a monk as her only option. Convents at this time were hit or miss on allowing the education of their sisters, so taking the male route through religious education would have been a more secure plan. While I have no doubt that there were women who did fly under the radar and join monasteries and the like, I don’t think there ever was ACTUALLY a female Pope. The giving birth during a public procession bit smacks of “cautionary tale.”
But hey- this is historical fiction! That’s what makes it so much fun- taking history and making it pop! I love this book- I feel like it writes women back into a religious tradition that has largely written them out. I know this review sounds kind of controversial, but seriously give this book a chance. You won’t be sorry! What about you, bookworms? Do you think it’s possible that there was ever a female pope? I’m open to theories!