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Although the Vatican consistently denies that any woman can ever hold holy office, a legend has persisted for a thousand years telling that a woman once sat on St. Peter's Throne. Some Tarot decks, in fact, like the  Swiss deck and the Barbara Walker Tarot, have a card called la Papesse. But in most modern decks, this card is called the High Priestess. In her book on the tarot, Walker summarizes the history of "Pope Johannes VIII, femina ex Anglia, Pope John VIII, an Englishwoman."

 

Donna Woolfolk Cross has added scholarship to rumor and legend and written a compelling novel about a girl named Johanna (Joan), who is born in Germany in the year 814, the year of the death of Charlemagne. Europe is still in the throes of the misogynistic, illiterate Dark Ages, however, and Joan's English father is the canon of Ingelheim, a sadistic man who had the misfortune to fall in love with an marry a heathen.

 

Although the canon wants his two sons to follow in his footsteps, it's his daughter who is eager to gain an education. She does so, but at what terrible cost. Her initial learning comes from her mother's stories of Odin and Thor and Freya, but because this is forbidden knowledge, she and her mother are both severely and repeatedly punished. Joan's oldest brother takes a chance and teach­ers her to write, but after he dies of a fever, she all but gives up hope.

 

At age nine, Joan meets the Greek scholar Aesculapius, who is on his way to Mainz to teach at the cathedral school. It is arranged that her second brother, John, attend this school but he would rather be a soldier. Joan longs to go to the school and Aesculapius finds a way to enroll her. Because she can't live at the cathedral, however, she is placed at the home of Gerold, a red-haired knight who lives nearby and becomes the love (albeit chaste) of her life. Although the schoolmaster is hostile, Joan is a better student than most of the boys. When her brother John is killed in a Viking raid, she adopts his identity, travels to the monastery of Fulda and becomes Brother John Anglicus, a distinguished Chris­tian scholar and physician.

 

She survives the plague and even­tually arrives in Rome, forever a hotbed of political intrigue. Brother John be­comes well known as a healer, and cir­cumstances eventually lead "him" to the papal throne. Joan and Gerold, so long in love, have only recently con­summated their love, and when Gerold is murdered during a papal procession, Joan has a miscarriage and dies, having been pope for two years.

 

Pope Joan is not history as told by the standard textbooks. It's a novel that you'll want to stay up all night reading. Cross tells us that she wrote Joan's story as fiction because the Church's position is that Joan was invented by the Protes­tant Reformers and there are no official records of her existence. Nevertheless, over 500 manuscripts exist that tell of Joan's papacy. It was written, for ex­ample, that in 1276 Pope John XX changed his name to John XXI in official recognition of Joan's reign. Her statue stood among other papal statues until 1601, when, by command of Clement VIII, it suddenly "metamorphosed" into Pope Zacharias.

 

"The light of hope kindled by [women like Joan]," Cross writes "shone only flickeringly in a great darkness.... Opportunities were available for women strong enough to dream. Pope Joan is the story of one of those dreamers."

 

~review by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.

Author: Donna Woolfolk Cross

Crown, 1996

$25

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