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Review: Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross

This novel tells the fascinating story of Pope Joan, one of two women in history to hold the office of Pope (the other lived in the 14th century).

Very little is known about her life; indeed, contemporaries tried to erase the memory of "Pope John Angelicus" entirely. It has only been recently that interest in this remarkable woman has reemerged. All the major facts in this book (aside from the Viking attack, which didn't occur until few years later) are true.

Joan grew up in northern Germany, to a German mother and an English father (hence the name "Angelicus"). Not much was known about her childhood, but Cross does a wonderful job of trying to piece together the life she might have had. Her brother John was intended for the schola. When Joan, howver, displayed an aptitude and desire to learn, a Greek man was brought in to tutor her. That eventually led to Joan's attendance at the schola, where as the only female student there she was house in the manor of a knight, Gerold. Posing as a man, and calling herself "John," Joan went to the abbey at Fulda, where she lived as a monk for 2 years. As a man, she had greater freedom than she would have as a woman. While at the abbey, she gained knowledge of medicine, something that would hold her in good steed for the rest of her life. After nearly being discovered, Joan went to Rome, where she lived in the schola of the English.

Widely known for her talents in the art of healing, she was called to the bedside of the very sick Pope Sergius, a man well known for his love of food. Joan served him faithfully until his death a few years later. After Sergius, Leo was elected Pope; and upon his death, Joan was elected to the pontifical seat. She served in that position for two years, when she died giving birth to a stillborn child. I have also heard that, upon giving birth, the crown assembled stoned her to death.

Pope Joan is the story of a courageous woman, who was able to do something that no woman would ever dream of doing. This book contains a valuable lesson for all women: that they have the power to think and to reason. Joan learned to defy the mentality of the day: instead of accepting the things she was told, she was taught to think about them instead. In this way, Joan was 600 years ahead of her time.

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