Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review: Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Pope Joan is a thoroughly researched historical novel about the story (history or legend?) of a woman who lived as a man and became pope for 2 years in the mid ninth century A.D. Her true gender is revealed when she gives birth during a procession. Extensive notes about sources in the back support the argument for this being a true story. 

The time is the tail end of the Dark Age. The Carolingian renaissance spurred by Charlemagne has come and gone, the feudal order of the Middle Ages has not quite congealed yet. For history buffs, may I recommend Dan Carlin's audio book  "Thor's Angels" about the end of the Roman empire and the times leading up to Charlemagne. It is still free for the download. Blog on Dan coming soon.

The bottom line is that Pope Joan is a great read. I read it with pleasure and recommend it. Like much historical fiction it offers good sugar coated learning. It even inspired me to dig up the Penguin classic with Two Lives of Charlemagne that was sitting, unread, in my book shelves, and want to search for a refresher course in Latin and read some classics again. 

However....As a novel it suffers from Too-Good-To-Be-True-Heroine Syndrome. This syndrome seems to be an occupational risk of historical fiction. Think of Aya from Jean Auel's prehistorical series, or the too amazing Claire created by Diane Gabaldon. 

Joan shows such promise as a child that a traveling Greek scholar offers to teach her once a week, against the wishes of her tyrannical father, a married canon in the church. Priestly celibacy was not universally proscribed yet. There is no mention of homework or independent study during this time. After two years of this she is fluent enough not only in Latin but has mastered enough Greek to read the Iliad. Really? Not only that, she understands Greek well enough to translate a fragment of technical text that contains instructions on how to build a hyraulic contraption that later is cleverly used to create the appearance of a miracle. Yeah, right. Unlikely escapes from danger keep happening. The supporting characters are cartoonish and lack complexity. As a novel it has more elements of a Harlequin romance than I would wish.

Nevertheless, the vivid portrait of a time, with many historical figures accurately inserted, make this a worthwile read.

1 comment:

troutbirder said...

I read this book some years ago and can't remember all the details but remember thinking... how ironic considering current doctrine...:)