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  • Michaela Lawlor

Book Review: POPE JOAN (1996)



4/5 ⭐️


Donna Woolfolk Cross’s debut novel, POPE JOAN, immerses the reader into the dark and desolate landscapes of 9th century Frankland (Germany) and Rome. She paints a beautiful picture of a young Joan who rises through the clergy ranks in disguise as her brother, John, who meets his doom in attack by the Vikings.

Cross hits all the notes of creating a dramatic story based on the real-life legend Pope Joan, or as she would become, John Anglicus. Cross takes us on the hero’s journey – a tale with even pacing through the first three-quarters of the novel. Much of the novel consists of Joan’s backstory – almost to a fault – leading up to her prominence in the Church. It is a bit disappointing that Joan does not become Pope until the last one-hundred pages of the four-hundred-page novel. The whole premise is *Pope* Joan. The last quarter of the book felt a bit rushed, and I found myself wishing the even-pacing of the beginning continued into the end.


Regardless, the story is still interesting, and Joan’s character arc is impressive as the story follows her through three decades of her life. She faces the challenges of being not just a woman, but an incredibly gifted intellectual woman in a time when this was not celebrated, but feared and considered impossible. She is the object of ridicule as she fights for her place in the world. She is an incredibly admirable heroine about whom I thoroughly enjoy reading.


Joan is not without her own personal quandaries, though. Along her path to study, she meets the kind and handsome Gerold, with whose family she takes up residence since she cannot live in the male-only dormitories at the schola. Gerold is married to the conniving and jealous Richild who knows about Gerold’s undeniable romantic interest in Joan. After the Viking attack, much like Joan’s brother, Gerold’s family perishes. Gerold leaves to fight in the Emperor Lothar’s army and he and Joan are separated, until they reunite in Rome fifteen years later.


Gerold learns of Joan’s disguise and tries convincing her to run away so they can live together as husband and wife. Joan is reluctant, as she has become accustomed to the feeling of freedom her disguise has offered her. It is clear they are both in love with each other, but it is inevitable that their fate is tragic.

The quarrels between Joan and Gerold about their feelings for each other is intertwined with Joan’s rise to Pope. This part also feels rushed and redundant, as Joan and Gerold are in a cycle of “I love you but I can’t be with you because I am doing important work,” with the usual rebuttal, “What you are doing is dangerous – come live in safety with me.” This conversation transpires in several different moments in the last quarter of the novel which is distracting. One strong exchange would have sufficed, so the writing could have a greater focus on the conclusion of story – the unveiling of Joan’s true identity because of her premature delivery of Gerold’s child.


Despite these critiques, POPE JOAN is a thrilling read which evokes a rainbow of emotion. Cross’s writing is captivating, and it is evident that she spent many years researching this subject to bring the reader a wonderful, adventurous telling of the legend of Pope Joan.

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