'Pope Joan' will make you wonder about history, herstory

October 19, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
[ "Pope Joan" is on Elisabeth Sherwin's List of Best Books, the 1997 compilation ]

"Pope Joan" by Donna Woolfolk Cross is a fascinating historical novel (Ballantine, 1996) about a woman in the 9th century who lived disguised as a man for most of her adult life. She was a scholar and a monk who rose to become a priest and the pope.

The obvious question: Is this a true story? Cross gives an emphatic "maybe" as an answer. And that suffices. Believers will find many reasons to support the proposition that a female pope did exist and naysayers will find reasons to back their arguments. I choose to believe that a woman named Joan did rule Christianity for two years beginning in 853 A.D.

Cross says the easiest part of the deception for Joan likely was keeping her physical sex a secret. For in those days most people slept in their clothes and rarely bathed. And the robes worn by monks and priests conveniently shrouded her figure, too.

Examples of women pretending to be men abound throughout history with one remarkable current example: Teresinha Gomez of Lisbon spent 18 years pretending to be a man: a highly decorated soldier, she rose to the rank of general in the Portuguese army and was discovered only in 1994 when she was arrested on charges of financial fraud and forced by the police to undergo a physical exam.

However, the Catholic Church definitely does not recognize the papacy of Pope Joan, calling it unsubstantiated legend.

"But there are more than 500 ancient manuscripts containing accounts of Joan's papacy, including those of such acclaimed authors as Platina, Petrarch and Boccaccio," says Cross.

Decide for yourself whether or not such a person existed by reading "Pope Joan," which is available in paperback. And even if you don't care about her existence apart from the printed page, you will still have enjoyed a good book. It is a book with some minor flaws in terms of the author's writing style (it is Cross's first novel), but the plot carries the reader away.

Cross grew up in New York City and earned her undergraduate degree from University of Pennsylvania in 1969. She earned her master's in English from UCLA in 1972.

"Researching Pope Joan made me wonder for the first time why I majored in English and not history, a fascinating discipline," she said in a recent interview. " Historical research is like detective work, time-consuming and detail-oriented, but so rewarding when one comes upon what one is looking for. I remember reading one ancient manuscript in which the monk who was scribing had scribbled in the margin: 'My hand is so cold I can hardly hold the pen.'A man who lived almost a thousand years ago reached out and spoke to me personally. I still get goosebumps thinking about it," she said.

Cross comes from a writing family. Her mother and father met in the l940s when he was writing Superman comic books and she was writing Lois Lane comics.

"My father, William Woolfolk, went on to write 20 books, several of which made it to the New York Times bestseller list. My mother, Dorothy Woolfolk, wrote a series of detective stories for teens, the Donna Rockford series," she said.

Cross, who grew up on the West Side of Manhattan, now lives in upstate New York. Syracuse, to be precise, where she once thought the earth dropped off and dragons howled.

"My house borders on a farm; in the winter I go cross-country skiing out my back door. My husband, Richard, works at the State University of New York Health Science Center; my daughter, Emily, is a senior at Haverford College, where she is majoring in biology. Having seen my daily struggles with writing, she wants no part of it.

"As for writing habits, I'm with Peter DeVries, who said, 'I write only when inspired...and I see to it that I'm inspired at 9 o'clock every morning.' The only way to get a book done, in my experience, is to keep applying the old rear end to the seat of a chair."

Cross is now at work on another novel, set in 17th century France, about another strong woman from history who manages to defy the social strictures of her day.

"This is the kind of person who fascinates me," she said. "I mean to keep the same kind of structure I did with 'Pope Joan,' which is to write the novel, then put an author's note at the end describing what parts were invented and what parts were real."

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