OTI Online
Fall 1997

In Search of Pope Joan
An Interview with Donna Woolfolk Cross
by Margaret R. Saraco


The decision to write a novel about a ninth-century woman who cross-dressed for survival was an unlikely choice for a woman who had previously built her career upon writing humorous word books.


While the Pope is a role in which wearing a dress is de rigueur, everyone knows that the Vatican's glass ceiling (not to mention its sticky floor) has always precluded a woman from serving in the position. Or has it? The ninth century found itself in the unusual situation of having a Pope who gave birth to more than just religious understanding. Although we've become accustomed to a long line of Pope Johns, Pope Joan was a woman who, having disguised herself as a man, became a Catholic Pope during the ninth century. In a twist of fate, she died in childbirth while still serving in office.

Unable to find conclusive evidence that a biography on this fascinating figure would require, author Donna Woolfolk Cross instead opted to create a historical novel, Pope Joan (Crown, $25, Ballantine, $12.95), about her. While Cross was originally unconcerned about whether "Pope Joan" was a figure of fact or fiction, over the course of her research she came to believe that Joan did indeed live and serve as Pope. The author provides significant evidence in support of her existence.

The decision to write a novel about a ninth-century woman who cross-dressed for survival was an unlikely choice for a woman who had previously built her career upon writing humorous word books. "My word books did well, especially Word Abuse. I was on Johnny Carson regularly. But humorous books about words reach a narrow audience. My husband said to me after I finished Mediaspeak, 'Why don't you write the kind of book that would appeal to a broader market? Why don't you write something that you'd love to read?' I love to read well-written historical novels -- by writers like Mary Renault, Cecelia Holland and Gore Vidal." Cross describes historical novels as "painless history. "

Shortly after making the decision to head in this direction, Cross, who is fluent in several languages, was struck by a passing reference to "Pope Jeanne" while reading a book in French. "I thought, how interesting, there's a typo in the book." In French, "Jean" means John, but "Jeanne" translates as Joan. Upon discovering that this was no typo at all, Cross found herself setting forth on a seven-year quest to discover Pope Joan's identity and the story behind her unusual achievement.

Consulting the Catholic Encyclopedia, Cross found that Pope Joan was cursorily dismissed as a figure of folklore. But this discovery in no way deterred Cross; if anything, it spurred her on. She explains, "It didn't matter if King Arthur was a legend or not. Our sons and daughters are enriched by his story. When I first read Joan's story . . . I was interested in what her story had to tell us about the role of a woman in the medieval world." As Cross scoured historical records, it became apparent that not only had Joan been overlooked, historians had in fact made a concentrated effort to erase any references to Joan's papacy and her life. "It struck me that she has been obliterated from our myths. And this was astonishing considering that her legend continued for several centuries."

Cross attributes the dearth of existing information about Pope Joan to the fact that the patriarchal papacy has never acknowledged women as acceptable appointments for its highest position. To this day, the Catholic Church continues to deny Pope Joan's existence, crediting the legend as an invention of Protestant reformers. Yet there is significant evidence to the contrary. For starters, she was born hundreds of years prior to the Protestants' break from the Catholic church. For centuries, a statue of Joan stood among those of the other Popes in Siena, until 1601, when it was "metamorphosed" into a bust of Pope Zacharias. And note the church's institution of the so-called chair exam. In the notes accompanying Pope Joan, Cross writes, "Each newly elected Pope after Joan sat on the sella stercoraria (literally, dung seat), pierced in the middle like a toilet, where his genitals were examined to give proof of his manhood." Why would this unusual inspection, implemented immediately after the time of Joan's suspected papacy, be necessary if there had never been any doubt about the gender of the officeholder? Cross's representation of the Catholic Church is not flattering. She is quick to make the careful distinction that her book should not be read as being antifaith, only as anti-organized religion. She explains, "I don't like any institution that organizes humans against humans and makes someone the Other. This is the 'we are right therefore everyone else is wrong' belief.

I believe that goodness and altruism are human traits. Buddhists don't kill anyone because of their beliefs. [Buddhism is] a tolerant religion. Some religions are intolerant. It's identifying a single truth which makes everyone else [either] wrong or worse, bad and dead. This doesn't help us advance as a species."

Ninth-century Europe was a difficult time in which to live, especially for women. Women accused of witchcraft were flung into water; if the suspect sank to the bottom or drowned, she "successfully" proved she was not a witch. Rape and murder almost always went unpunished. Ignorance, religious fear and paranoia contributed to the atmosphere that spawned the senseless and vicious massacres that define the appropriately named Dark Ages.

Cross portrays Joan as one of three children raised during this bloody time by Gudrun, a "heathen" woman and a survivor of the brutal Saxon massacre, and her husband, an overzealous Christian priest. The only female child, Joan is cruelly mistreated by her father for her attempts to utilize her active intelligence. Despite the abuse to which she is subjected, she refuses to take on the role of the submissive wife and mother. After Norsemen savagely attack the village, Joan, the lone survivor, adopts the identity of her younger brother, who had been killed in the attack. She becomes Brother John Anglicus, a healer and learned man ostensibly from Fulda, and travels on to Rome, where she proves herself to be an invaluable asset to the papal regime with her medical skills and wisdom.

Joan's path diverges in a radically different way than that of traditional women in her time. Cross-dressing opens up an entirely new aspect of existence for her, and she refuses to return to her woman's role even after she falls in love with an intelligent and honorable knight, Gerold. Joan realizes that her life's work, which she would never be able to complete were she to reveal herself as a woman, is what matters most.

Cross is witty, optimistic and energetic in discussing her life and work. It is interesting to hear the contrast in her voice when she speaks of the cycles of despair and elation she experienced over the course of the many years of research and writing it took to create her novel. Cross characterizes herself as an imitative reader who is strongly influenced by the style of what she is reading. As such, she read only medieval books for the last year of working on her novel in order to completely immerse herself in a "brutish and cruel" world. Her ability to capture the vernacular of her characters can be credited to her intimate knowledge of the world she portrays.

Reading some of the original medieval documents felt like "reaching across time and touching a human being." She delighted in discovering specific details, such as a monk's journal entry noting that "the cell is so cold my hand can hardly hold the pen." It was these minor but meaningful details that provided insight into the authentic atmosphere of the period. Despite the specific context Cross seeks to convey, she is quick to point out that figures such as Joan supersede any singular situation. "Joan transcends her own age and societal beliefs," says Cross. Joan's unhappiness with her circumscribed role as a woman in a misogynist world and her decision to creatively circumvent her societal boundaries resonates with women today, and her example can inspire and empower us all.

Perhaps the greatest credit to the powerful portrait of Pope Joan that Cross has created is conveyed by the warm response of literary audiences and critics alike. The book has already been translated into 12 languages, and international sales have been excellent; in Germany, it has been tenth on the best-seller list for a year.

Cross herself is achieving international fame with her work, and has been invited to be one of the two headline speakers -- the other being Joyce Carol Oates -- at the prestigious Cologne Book Fair in Germany this fall.

Furthermore, Pope Joan may be coming soon to a theater near you. New Line Cinema purchased the rights, and a screenplay is currently being created. Cross is enthusiastic about the project and optimistic about the cinematic team's ability to effectively convey the book's vision to the screen: The screenwriter, Andrew Davies, wrote the PBS television adaptations for Middlemarch, Emma and Pride and Prejudice, and the producer is Harry Ufland, who produced The Last Temptation of Christ. Cross characterizes these men as "intelligent filmmakers of integrity" who are not afraid to confront controversy.

Her success has this former humor-book writer laughing all the way toward future projects of historical fiction. "I'm drawn to women [in history] who are strong persons, wonderfully defying . . . their cultural norm," says Cross. Cross is awed by individuals who manage to strategically subvert the conventional constraints that would otherwise squelch their passions and pursuits. In the notes that accompany Pope Joan, she denotes a diverse list of women throughout history who had the courage to cross-dress as men in order to lead more exciting or fulfilling lives, or both. Eugenia in the third century, who became an abbot; St. Hildegund, in the twelfth century, who became a brother of Schnau Abbey and lived undiscovered among her "brethren" until she died; Mary Reade, a successful pirate of the seventeenth century; a woman who went by the name James Barry and became full inspector-general of British hospitals in the nineteenth century; and Loreta Janeta Velaquez, who served as a Confederate soldier. A stunningly recent example is Teresinha Gomez, who spent 18 years rising to the rank of general in the Portuguese Army. Her masquerade was only discovered in 1994 when, arrested for fraud, she was forced to undergo a physical exam.

Cross writes in the book, "The light of hope kindled by such women shone only flickeringly in a great darkness, but it was never entirely to go out. Opportunities were available for women strong enough to dream. Pope Joan is the story of one of those dreamers." In writing this book, Cross is giving voice to a lost dreamer and lighting hope in the hearts of voiceless others.


MARGARET R. SARACO writes frequently on books, music and women's issues.


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