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Book Clubbing


Pope Joan 
by Donna Woolfolk Cross



Donna Woolfolk Cross

Donna Woolfolk Cross

About the Book

For a thousand years, her existence has been denied. She is the legend that will not die--Pope Joan, a controversial figure of historical record who, disguised as a man, rose to rule Christianity in the 9th century as the first and only woman to sit on the throne of St. Peter. In this riveting novel, Donna Woolfolk Cross paints a sweeping portrait of a heroine whose strength of vision led her to defy the social restrictions of her day. 

Brilliant and talented, young Joan rebels against medieval laws forbidding women to learn. When her older brother is brutally killed during a Viking attack, Joan takes up his identity and enters the monastery of Fulda, where she is initiated into the brotherhood in his place. As Brother John Anglicus, Joan distinguishes herself as a great scholar and healer. Eventually she is drawn to Rome, where she becomes enmeshed in a dangerous web of love, passion, and politics. Triumphing over appalling odds, she finally attains the highest throne in Christendom, wielding a power greater than any woman before or since. 

But such power always comes at a price...

Pope Joan is a sweeping historical drama set against the turbulent events of the 9th century -- the Saracen sack of St. Peter's, the famous fire in the Borgo that destroyed over three-quarters of the Vatican, the Battle of Fontenoy, arguably the bloodiest and most terrible of medieval conflicts. This masterwork of suspense and passion brings the Dark Ages to life in all their brutal splendor and shares the dramatic story of an unforgettable woman who struggles against restrictions her soul cannot accept.

About the Author

Donna Woolfolk Cross graduated cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969 with a B.A. in English. She moved to London, England, after graduation, and worked as an editorial assistant for a small publishing house on Fleet Street, W.H. Allen and Company. Upon her return to the United States, Cross worked at Young and Rubicam, a Madison Avenue advertising firm, before going on to graduate school at UCLA where she earned a master's degree in Literature and Writing in 1972. In 1973, Cross moved with her husband to upstate New York where she began teaching writing in a college English Department. Now writing is her fulltime career. 

She is the author of two books on language, Word Abuse: How the Words We Use Use Us and Mediaspeak: How Television Makes Up Your Mind. She is the coauthor of Speaking of Words and Daddy's Little Girl. The product of seven years of research and writing, Pope Joan is her first novel. She is now at work on a new novel set in 17th century France.

Discussion Questions

  1. Donna Woolfolk Cross wrote the story of Pope Joan as a work of fiction. Do you think there really was a Pope Joan?
  2. How important is it that Pope Joan actually existed? Are there lessons to be learned from this story whether it's true or not? What do you think those lessons are? 
  3. Although the position of women in society has changed dramatically since the middle ages, do you feel there are similarities between the way women live in various societies today and the way they lived in society then? 
  4. According to the author, Joan's story was universally known and accepted until the seventeenth century. Why do you think that changed? 
  5. Why do you think medieval society considered it unnatural and a sin for women to educate themselves or be educated?
  6. Did Joan make the right choice at that moment when she decided to disguise herself as her dead brother following the Viking attack? What would her life have been like had she chosen differently?
  7. What do we learn about medieval medicine, and the logic of the learned medieval mind, in Pope Joan?
  8. What happens to Joan when she tries to improve the lives of women and the poor? Why do you think Church and civic leaders were so resistant to such improvements? 
  9. Discuss the inner conflicts Joan faces--between the pagan beliefs taught by her mother and the Christian beliefs she learns from religious instructors; between her mind and her heart; between faith and doubt. How do these conflicts affect the decisions she makes? Does she ever truly resolve those inner conflicts?
  10. Do you think Joan's secret would ever have been discovered had she not become pregnant or miscarried during the Papal procession?