Donna Woolfolk Cross
Girl born. Girl works hard. Girl has mentor. Girl meets boy. Girl becomes CEO of biggest company in the world. Girl deposed. “How dry is all that?” it might be asked. Except the girl is masquerading as a boy and becomes pope of the Catholic Church. Evidence points to existence of a female pope in the mid 800s, though the Church denies it. Cross took evidence that is widely, though not universally, accepted and wrote a story of possibility.
The prologue starts the story with Joan’s birth on the twenty-eighth day of Wintarmanoth in 814. While the midwife walks through a winter storm to attend the birth, background of history and place begin and then continues through the birth. By the time the infant is named Joan by her parish minister father minutes after her birth, the obstacles Joan must overcome are established. Church teachings forbid her education, her father considers her a useless, evil female, she is born in the backwoods away from Rome, and her mother is an outsider with blonde hair from Saxony. Then the story opens with Chapter One when she is a small child.
Cross knew her fictionalized history would end with the discovery of Pope John Anglicus’s true gender. She also was familiar with the accepted history of Europe at that time with Charlemagne’s conquests and what was recorded by the Catholic Church. The seventh century is poorly documented and inconsistent on many details, which gave Cross tremendous story freedom. To her credit, she weaves a believable self-contained tale that wraps up all the loose ends.
What was true in 800 about growing up is also true in 2000. For a child from disadvantaged conditions to find a better way in the world, a mentor is essential. Her mother educated her with tales of Nordic gods, but it was mentoring by a local male teacher who versed her in Latin and the Greek traditions of logic and evidence. He ignited her life-long quest for learning that continued until a precipitous event that provided her with an opportunity to sequester herself within the church, disguised as a male.
Oh yes, and about the man in the lady pope’s life. Meet Gerold. Gerold is the dashing, red-haired knight who supports her education and enjoys bantering with the precocious girl child. What else is there to do, but fall in love? Too bad Gerold is married with two daughters and Joan is too honorable to use feminine wiles. Though the beautiful, cold-hearted wife is not too honorable to send Joan away to be married while Gerold is away leading military campaigns for King Lothar, grandson of Charlemagne. But true love cannot be extinguished because of a mere wife, so an infatuation deepens into a life-long attachment with consequences.
I read historical fiction as candy with the medicine. Some of the words on the page are fanciful story and some documented history, but once they are combined they’re difficult to tell apart. Cross managed her story’s intrigue and told it with directness that is easy to read.