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The myth of a female pope has existed for a thousand years. Donna Woolfolk Cross has written an entertaining novel based on this premise, and allows the reader to step into the 9th century.
The Joan of this novel is born of a poor, pious but mean-spirited cleric and his Saxon wife. Joan has a thrist for learning, which is contrary to the teachings of the church at this time. Her thrist leads her into conflict with her father, leaving home to attend school, disguising herself as a man [taking on her brother's identity at his death] and joining a benedictine monaster, going to Rome and serving as the pope's doctor, ultimately becoming a cardinal and then pope.
Cross has done an excellent job of background research. The reader accepts being inthe 9th century, as s/he is soaked in the appropriate atmosphere: we learn of the medical practices, the hierarchy of the church, daily life, the "zeitgeist" of the age.
However, I found the character of Joan too perfect. Joan was portrayed as more intelligent than men, more honest than men, more caring than men. She was so perfect that there was no opportunity for her character to develop. I felt that Cross' underlying purpose was to promote a feminist viewpoint, not to honestly examine the historical evidence of whether or not Joan indeed existed. This bias of our time undermined what could have been a great novel.
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