Donna Woolfolk Cross says that in the early Middle Ages, the legend
of Pope Joan (John VIII) was more popular and widespread than the story
of King Arthur. Hardly a surprise, given the undeniable morbid curiosity
that scandal in high places excites in the masses; just look (or don't)
at the attention an American president's belated admission of adultery
gets. The story of Pope Joan has all the elements of a ripping good
scandal -- sex, lies, and the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
Born of a dourly pious English priest and his beautiful Saxon wife,
Joan of Ingelheim shows an early curiosity and spirit considered
unseemly and unnatural for a female at a time when women's brains
are considered too small for much intelligence.
Joan's oldest brother secretly feeds his sister's hunger for
learning, teaching her to read and write. The girl's father fails (not for lack of trying) to beat and belittle
the thirst for knowledge from her. The encouragement of a Greek churchmen moves Joan to take the first step down a path that will lead her to love, loss, fulfillment and ultimate tragedy. Disguised as a man to gain access to an education, she will defy her father, deny a lover and refute (imperfectly) her womanhood. She will achieve the highest throne in Christendom: the papal chair.
Little information remains on the historical female pope. The Catholic
Church has admittedly expunged all records of her. Cross has taken literary
license with some dates and events for story's sake, but is convinced of
the reality of Joan's papacy. At least two other women are documented
in medieval times as maintaining a male disguise and rising in the ranks
of two separate monasteries. Did Pope Joan actually exist? Quite possibly.
Does her story make a good novel? Definitely.
Read our brief interview with Donna Woolfolk Cross.
To read more about Donna Woolfolk Cross and her writing, visit her home page.