Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfork Cross

Pope Joan

I read Pope Joan for a book club; it’s not one I would likely have chosen on my own.

This is a biographical novel based on the purported female pope of the ninth century.

Two obvious questions come to mind: Is “Pope Joan” an actual historical figure? and Does it matter to the value of this book?

The author makes her answers clear: Yes, and mostly not.

My answers are: Probably not, and to some extent yes. And my reaction to this book is colored by these answers and how they differ from the author’s position.

A few years ago I read Alain Boureau’s book on the Pope Joan legend, which is apparently the consensus account of academic historians of the period, and though I don’t remember all the details of the argument, I do remember that he came down strongly on the side that there was no female pope, that the legend came about centuries later, I think from satirical Roman street carnivals and such.

Not that that settles it definitively; I’m open to the possibility that he and most mainstream historians are wrong. But in my mind there’s a pretty big presumption in favor of their conclusions, barring a strong refutation. And the remarks I’ve seen from Cross don’t constitute such a refutation. She cites a few pieces of evidence as a lay person, but she doesn’t make a serious case that would hold water in an academic context.

She attributes the notion that Joan is fictitious to a massive conspiracy by the Catholic Church to erase her from history. Certainly when the Catholic hierarchy made the determination that there had been no female pope, they altered their official histories and such to reflect that conclusion, but that’s different from the more implausible claim that they located and destroyed, or altered in an untraceable way, all manuscripts or other contemporary or near contemporary evidence of her existence. (The earliest surviving written references to a female pope are from about four hundred years after the time she supposedly lived.)

More likely, Cross, like I’m sure many people, is engaging in a certain amount of wishful thinking in taking the side she has. Presenting the “Pope Joan” story as factual can be an affirmation of feminism, anti-Catholicism, anti-organized religion, anti-mainstream academia, etc., etc.

Ironically, I’m a feminist, I think religion is mostly both false and harmful, and I tend to be rebellious and distrustful when it comes to recognized authority. But I’m also firmly opposed to basing belief on what would be ideologically useful. I prefer truth. And I’m only selectively cynical. I think as a rule of thumb, collective academic inquiry—at least as it occurs in disciplines that follow a rational, scientific methodology—provides a much better guide to truth than what I, or a lone non-historian author, could come up with on our own.

So I don’t buy the Pope Joan legend. Again, not saying it’s impossible, but my degree of belief in it is probably something like 2% or 5% until I see a lot better evidence in its favor.

But then the other question is, does it matter if she’s fictitious?

On a gut level, my immediate response is of course it does, since truth is always a firmer foundation for learning than falsehood. But the danger there is that that could dismiss all fiction as valueless lies.

So I think you have to distinguish between accounts put forward as history that are accurate, accounts put forward as history that are inaccurate, and fiction presented openly as fiction. It’s really only the second category that I’m concerned with. Does it matter if someone claims something really happened that didn’t?

(And yes, I know the author labels her book a “novel,” but as she makes clear, she means that only in the sense that she admittedly augmented and fictionalized certain aspects of the story to make it more readable, more entertaining. She insists the story is literally true in its major particulars, especially in the actuality of the existence of a female pope.)

Works of fiction can still have value, and in fact can still convey truths. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can teach us certain things about the historical time in which it is set, or about human nature and human psychology, or about moral philosophy, or I’m sure any number of other things. But Mark Twain didn’t pretend Huckleberry Finn was a real person. If he had done so (successfully), maybe people would have drawn different or additional conclusions from the book, but those conclusions would have been invalidly drawn from a phony premise, and if the author were intending people to draw such conclusions, any success he had would be unearned.

I want my fiction to be fiction, and my nonfiction to be nonfiction. Insofar as this book influences people to believe certain things about, say, the desirability or undesirability of ending the gender requirement for popes based on the track record of the one female one from history, I object. Because that track record is (probably) bogus, and it’s wrong to use false claims to get people to believe what you want them to believe.

But let’s say the book were presented even more clearly as fiction. What if the author prefaced it with something like: “The legend of Pope Joan is probably inaccurate, but it got me to thinking how such a thing could have happened and what the consequences might be. So rather than write a work of history, I’ve chosen to address an extended hypothetical”?

That could still be interesting. Like a work of science fiction that puts people in a technologically different situation than the present, and speculates what life in such circumstances might be like.

But even if we imagine Cross having had that aim in writing this book, I don’t know that it’s all that successful. What would be interesting in the case of that kind of historical fiction—but exceedingly difficult if not impossible for such an obscure historical period—would be to recreate the mental world, the attitudes of the people back then, and to try to come up with some way such a world could generate a female pope.

Instead, Cross invents a protagonist who is too modern, and way, way, way too perfect. I don’t know that I would say she’s “saintly” in a literal religious sense (which has connotations of total self-sacrifice and asceticism, and possibly miracles and supernaturalism), but she’s basically a 20th or 21st century feminist ideal.

I mean, what positive trait does she lack? She’s maximally compassionate toward others, and acts on that good will. So she’s highly emotional in a good way in that sense, but at the same time she’s maximally rational and scientific in her belief structure and her choices of means to ends. She’s a genius. She is disciplined and hard working. She’s strong-willed and fiercely independent, especially when it comes to refusing to be dominated by men. She’s highly tolerant and multi-cultural in her appraisal of peoples from other times and places. She’s capable of all the passion and the warmth and the emotional openness of falling in love and connecting with people, but never if it entails being dependent on a man in her life in particular or accepting patriarchy in society in general.

If this book is to be believed, somehow a female commoner of the ninth century was from her early childhood a combination of all the best of St. Francis, Sherlock Holmes, and Eleanor Roosevelt. You’ll find very, very few people remotely as perfect as her today. I’m skeptical you’d find even one back in her time, growing up the way she supposedly did.

And all the sympathetic characters of the book recognize her wonderful qualities and side with her, while the simplistically evil characters of the book of course line up against her.

As I say, ironically I’m on the author’s side as far as (most of) the conclusions, the ideology, she’s espousing. But I also recognize, and disapprove of, the tendentiousness of the presentation. I think the beliefs I share with her can stand on their own merits without needing the deck stacked so blatantly in their favor. I think it’s possible to believe that women are no less entitled than men to be in pope-like positions of authority, and to believe that they do no worse a job when they are, without having to pretend there’s already been a female pope and that she was damn near superhumanly good.

I agree with building up the self-esteem of women and girls and getting them to believe in their potential, but you can do that with truth and with self-admitted fiction; it isn’t necessary to construct wishful thinking versions of history to do it.

(I see this as being very much akin to the “Afrocentric” alternative histories, which their advocates tend to swear up and down are true, until the counter-evidence is so massive that even they can’t deny it, at which point it becomes “But it doesn’t matter if it’s true; it makes oppressed people feel better about themselves. And besides, you lie about us all the time in your history, so it’s just tit for tat.”)

As far as the specifics, yes I’m mostly with her. Like the author, I too hate cruelty, ethnocentrism, religious fundamentalism, political corruption, greed, oppression of women, indifference to the suffering of the poor, abusive parenting, rape, torture, perpetual war, and so on. (The medical bits are a little trickier. Joan becomes a healer—and of course is perfect at it in motive, methodology, and results—but what is the contemporary message? On a gut level it feels like advocacy for “alternative medicine,” since alternative medicine is often based on herbs and such “natural” things, it is more often practiced by women, and it rejects the sort of Establishment consensus of “experts.” But the book’s defense of Joan’s methods is clearly that they are based on evidence and the scientific method, which would put her squarely on the other side of the contemporary debate, since it’s the alternative medicine folks who appeal to tradition and emotion and feel-good spirituality, and who reject (or more often don’t understand) the scientific method.)

But if you’re going to write a tendentious book, far better it be to further laudable messages like these than that it be done in the service of some ugly and oppressive ideology.

So, the book is probably based on a fraudulent premise, and it is simplistic and unrealistic and ideologically-driven in its presentation of the traits and inner lives of its characters. But there are also things I liked about the book (besides the aforementioned point that at least its fudging tends to be in an admirable direction).

Probably the thing I liked best is its putting the reader in such a historically unfamiliar world. Maybe the characters are too contemporary in certain respects, but their world is not. It feels like the author did a great deal of research. I appreciated the way the book captured the social interactions, the diseases, the methods of war, the types of political intrigue, the role of the Church in people’s lives, the judicial proceedings, the dress, the food, travel, the physical infrastructure of the towns, and so on. There is a very nice attention to detail and realism here.

Now, maybe someone more knowledgeable than I could point out various places she got things wrong, but to me it seems like she did a very good job.

I also thought that for the most part it’s a “page-turner” as a story. I mean, gradually I felt myself drifting away as the “romance novel” moments, the unlikely coincidences, and the cliffhanger moments accumulated, but most of the way it held my interest. I wanted to know from chapter to chapter how things would turn out for Joan. Purely on an entertainment level, I’d say Cross is decent as a storyteller. Not great, but not laughably corny. Somewhere in between.

Overall I’d say that though I was moderately interested while reading the book and found it somewhat entertaining, in the end I was slightly more dissatisfied than satisfied by it. So the best I can give it is a mixed review.


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