Saturday, June 27, 2009

Pope Joan: Did She or Didn't She?

There are always two questions in any discussion of Pope Joan:
  1. COULD it have happened?
  2. DID it, in fact, happen?
Donna Woolfolk Cross's delightful "Pope Joan: A Novel" clearly outlines HOW it could have happened, and does so in one of the more unusual historical romances possible:
  • Boy meets girl
  • Boy loses girl
  • Girl pretends to be a boy (it's safer and more fun)
  • This girl is really good at her job, and makes it to the top
  • Boy finds girl again.
So far, it's a plot that has launched a thousand comedies. But this story is a classical tragedy; the lovers violate the fundamental laws of their society, and can escape Fate for only so long.
    Whether one likes the novel qua novel will depend upon taste. It's fast-moving enough, with some romance, some action, some politicking. I enjoyed its range of characters of both genders: some actively like their fate, some dislike it but cannot fight it, and some fight.

    But after the inevitable climax of doom, the reader is left to ponder: DID it in truth happen this way?

    The author provides a helpful appendix, laying out the known facts. However, the most important facts have already been cleverly introduced in the novel. In the European Dark Ages, a woman of intelligence and strength would have a difficult time due to her gender. Some would be highly motivated to seek escape. Do we not see comparable phenomenon in contemporary misogynistic societies today?

    The other big question is whether a woman can pass as a man. Surely this has been resolved in the affirmative many times in our own era. It must have been easier in the uber-Puritanical contaxt of a monastery. (Query: would Joan have necessarily been the first female pope, or merely the first one outed?)

    One must also keep in mind that written records of the time are very few, and that the very notion of history of the time was not the objective recordation of facts, but the promulgation of virtue. The elimination of scandalous facts would be felt a matter of duty to the few people who wrote histories in 584, just as it was to Winston Smith some 1400 years later.

    To my mind, schooled in Roman Catholic seminary and well-acquainted with Church practice, it is quite plausible that all this might happen. Had it happened, it surely would have been covered up. To my mind, the evidence of the hollow-bottom chair is decisive; surely there were enough wood-carvers in the middle ages that the Pope did not need to read his lines while sitting on a toilet.

    However, there is no need to decide the matter. Either way, this is an enjoyable and educational novel. If it has coincidences, so does Shakespeare; if it invents conversations, so does Robert Graves. Unless the very concept of an historical novel is revolting to you, you should enjoy this book.

    P.S. it appears a movie version is underway, with John Goodman as the well-meaning but over-indulgent Pope Sergius. The Joan role should be a plum, except of course that the Roman Catholic Church would react with a fury that would make its rage against The Da Vinci Code look soft.

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