A Conversation with Donna Woolfolk Cross, author of POPE JOAN:A Novel
Q. Most people have never heard of Pope Joan. How did you first learn of her existence?
A. I learned about Joan quite by accident. I was reading a book in French and came across a reference to a pope named “Jeanne.” At first I thought this was simply an amusing typo–“Jeanne” (Joan) for “Jean” (John). But the reference piqued my curiosity, so I checked the Catholic Encyclopedia. To my astonishment, there was an entry on Joan–a woman who lived disguised as a man and rose to become Pope of the Church in the ninth century.
Q. So the Catholic Church officially recognizes Joan's papacy?
A. Far from it. The Church position is that Joan’s papacy is nothing more than unsubstantiated legend. But there are more than five hundred ancient manuscripts containing accounts of Joan's papacy, including those of such acclaimed authors as Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Platina, famed papal librarian and biographer.
Q. If Joan’s papacy is so well documented, why is the subject so controversial?
A. The Church position on Joan is that she was a late invention of Protestant reformers eager to expose papist corruption. The problem with this position is that Joan’s story first appears hundreds of years before Martin Luther was born–before his great-great-grandfather was born! Most of Joan’s chroniclers were Catholics, often highly placed in the church hierarchy, so the question of motive arises: Why would men devoted to the Holy See invent such a story?
Joan’s story was included in official Church biographies of the Popes, as well as in the Church guidebook to Rome used by pilgrims for hundreds of years. In 1276, after ordering a thorough search of the papal records, Pope John XX changed his title to John XXI in official recognition of Joan’s reign as Pope John VIII. A bust of Joan stood for centuries, undisputed, alongside those of other Popes in the Cathedral of Siena until Protestants began to make use of it to discredit the papacy. In 1601, by command of Pope Clement XIII, it suddenly “metamorphosed” into a bust of Pope Zachary. (Arguably the earliest example on record of a sex-change operation!)
Q. So you’re convinced that Joan really existed?
A. One can make a strong case for her actual historical existence–and many scholars have. But given the obscurity and confusion of the times, it is impossible to determine with certainty whether Joan existed or not. The truth of what happened in A.D. 855 may never be fully known. If I had to place a bet, however, I would bet that she lived and was Pope for two and a half years.
Q. How would it have been possible for a woman to pass herself off as a man for so long and under such circumstances?
A. Actually, women are very good at male disguise. History is rife with examples of successful female transvestites. More than three hundred women are known to have fought disguised as men in the American Civil War–a difficult feat to pull off in the close quarters of an army camp. In the twelfth century, St. Hildegund, using the name Joseph, became a brother of Schonau Abbey and lived undiscovered among the brethren until her death many years later. In the 18th century, Margaret Ann Bulkley rose to the rank of inspector general in the British army under the name Dr. James Barry; a skilled surgeon (which makes her the first British woman doctor), her sex was again not discovered until her death–after which the British army sealed her records for one hundred years. In 2006, Norah Vincent’s book Self-Made Man described the year she spent in male disguise, during which she spent three months in a monastery with her true identity completely undetected.
Joan’s disguise would have been relatively easy, for in the ninth century clothing was very body-disguising–loose robes, sometimes belted, sometimes not. Personal hygiene was non-existent; most people slept in their clothes and rarely, if ever, bathed. Of course she would have had to deal with menstrual blood, facial hair, and other issues–but so did legions of other successful female cross-dressers. The bottom line? It can be done because it has been done, over and over again, throughout time.
Q. As your novel makes clear, there was considerable hazard in such an imposture. What would drive a woman to take such a risk?
A. Life in the ninth century was especially difficult for women. It was a very misogynistic age. Menstrual blood was believed to turn wine sour, make crops barren, make iron rust, and infect dog bites with an incurable poison. With few exceptions, women were treated as perpetual minors, with no legal or property rights. By law, they could be beaten by their husbands. Rape was treated as a form of minor theft. Women were not allowed in church for thirty days after they had given birth–for then they were considered “unclean”. The period of “uncleanliness” was increased to sixty days if they birthed a girl. Small wonder, then, that a woman would chose to disguise herself as a man in order to escape so bleak an existence. The light of hope kindled by women such as Joan 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.
Q. Pope Joan is a perennial pick for book clubs, and you are involved in book group discussions sometimes up to four times a week! What about this novel resonates so well?
A. What is needed for good book group discussion is a subject that leads to lively, engrossing, deeply engaged conversation. Herein lies the appeal of Pope Joan. Joan’s story raises many thought-provoking topics for discussion, for example:
vWhat effect would women priests have on the Church and its liturgy? What effect have they had on the Episcopal Church?
vAre reason and faith incompatible?
vDo you know women who have sacrificed opportunities to exercise mind, heart, and spirit for love of a man? For love of a child? Are such sacrifices justified?
These are open-ended questions with no one right answer. Open-ended questions and complex problems that elicit strong feelings– these are what spark good book group discussion.
Q. There has been a rise in interest in Pope Joan recently, with a forthcoming major motion picture and two different theatrical productions (in L.A. and N.Y.C.). Why is this such an evergreen story?
A. Though Joan’s story is more than a millennium old, it is strangely new–and deeply relevant to the world we live in today. It speaks to the issue of female empowerment through learning. Joan lived in a time when it was widely believed that women could not reason– that it was unnatural, even dangerous, to educate us. One theory of the day was that the size of a woman’s uterus and brain were inversely proportional–that is, the more a woman learned, the less likely she would ever bear children. (If only that were true, birth control would be a snap. You don’t want to have a baby? Read a book!)
Sadly, these ideas are not gone from the world today. Witness the recent statement by the imam of an all-male madrasa (school) in Pakistan that girls are biologically incapable of learning. Or the acid thrown in the faces of teenage girls in Afghanistan, scarring them for life, as punishment for the “crime” of wanting to learn. Facing death threats, these young girls defiantly continue to attend school. The spirit of Pope Joan lives in such brave young women!
Of course, the continuing debate about the ordination of women also keeps Joan’s story evergreen. The same arguments used against the idea of women as priests and ministers a thousand years ago are still employed today. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same.