Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pope Joan

I read this book because it looked interesting to me. I admit, I do judge books by their cover. I had never heard of a woman being Pope, so of course I was intrigued. Those who read my post know I love independent, strong-willed and adventurous woman. Those who pave their own path and make a story for them self.

This book delves into the Dark Ages, where Vikings were constantly attacking, where woman could not be educated, and where woman were the weaker sex and subject to their husband's whim. Joan was born the third child to a beautiful woman, a "heathen" that had been saved by her husband, a canon. They had two sons, and then Joan. She was a big disappointment to her father because she was a woman. She had her mother's white blond hair and was very smart. From a young age, she demanded her oldest brother to teach her to read and write. After his death, she was able to be taught for two years by a tutor. Her father frequently beat her for trying to read books in Latin, and for just wanting to learn. The woman's place was to cook and care for the children. Her mother tried to protect her but couldn't always. When her tutor had to leave, he promised to send her to the schola in Dorstadt. When they came for her a time later, they took her brother instead. They didn't believe that a little girl was to be educated.

Joan escaped that night, and found her brother. Together they traveled there, and were accepted. Joan was easily the smartest, and was punished by the teacher for being a girl. She lived with Gerold and his wife Richild and their two daughters. Gerold was kind to her, and encouraged her to learn. Richild, his wife, watched the two of them and became jealous. While Gerold was away, she arranged for Joan to marry a boy in the village. On the day of the wedding, a bunch of Norsemen attacked the town and killed everyone-but Joan and Gisla. They took Gisla, raped her and took her away. Joan was hidden and escaped later that day. Her brother was dead, so she decided to disguise herself as him-John Anglicus. She found her way to an abbey at Fulda, and eventually lived there for 12 years. They believed her to be a man, and she continued in her learning as well as the healing arts. One day she got very sick, and feared being discovered as a woman, so she escaped.

She found her way to Rome after her recovery, and was soon in the service of the Pope. She was known for her healing arts as she didn't bleed patients, but used different medicines to help cure them. She worked with Pope Serguis and also Pope Leo. The people came to know and admire her for her ability to heal people. Gerold found her 12 years later, as he was a general in the army. They worked together everyday, but she would not marry him. After being a "man" for so long she didn't want to give up her powers. Because as a woman, she would probably either be shunned or killed. After Pope Leo's death, she became Pope. She served for about two years; she made a school for woman, she had the aqueducts repaired so the poor and starving could have clean water. Many of her ideas were unorthodox and almost heretical. Anastasius, a ruthless and cunning man, prepared to take the throne by storm. During this time Joan had become pregnant, probably by Gerold. On progress one day, she miscarried the baby and died. The people of course then discovered she was a woman.

Many of the church records don't have a Pope Joan in them. The author, Donna Woolfolk Cross, argues that of course it was easy enough to erase someone from the records because it was just paper. In history there are several other woman of note that disguised themselves as men so they could have the same rights. Her arguments are persuasive that there probably was a Pope Joan, or John Anglicus. I admire her spirit, her intellect and strong will. She was kind to the poor and starving, and promoted the learning of woman. Many Popes were corrupt and believed in decorating the churches and abbeys with beautiful artifacts, than in feeding the hungry. Gerold was a fictional character, but obviously she got pregnant by someone. It is unfortunate to me that this happened, because she could probably have done much good if she had stayed Pope. You probably wonder who she got away with being a man; she was not very feminine and had strong features for a girl. They also wore big loose robes for clothing and kept their hair short. So it was relatively easy to pass off as a man.

Ratings: if it was a movie, R because of the war scenes, beatings and execution scene.

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