Pope Joan (novel)

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Pope Joan is a 1996 novel by American writer Donna Woolfolk Cross. It is based on the medieval legend of Pope Joan. For the most part this novel is the story of a young woman, whose desire to gain more knowledge compels her to dress up as a man, who (due to events beyond her control) eventually rises to become the pope. The novel has been adapted into a film, Pope Joan, released in 2009.


Joan, the daughter of a priest and his Saxon wife, is born in 814. Ironically, when he discovers that Joan is able to read her father calls her “child of the devil” and blames Matthew's death on her, as a punishment.

At Fulda she becomes a skilled physician is ordained as a priest. Her father visits her in Fulda, believing her to be her brother. When he discovers who she is, he wishes to expose her, but dies of a stroke. When the plague comes to Fulda Joan sickens. Afraid that they will discover that she’s a woman, she fleesand finds refuge with a family she once helped.

After her convalescence she goes to Rome, where she becomes the personal physician to the Pope, Sergius, a weak man easily led by his venal brother Benedict. Joan attempts to guide Sergius so that the papacy becomes a force for good. Benedict resents her influence and attempts to frame her for breaking her vow of chastity. When the Frankish Emperor Lothar marches Rome, Benedict flees with funds intended to try and placate him, and Joan is restored to her former place of authority. Benedict is apprehended by Gerold, now serving Lothar, and executed on Sergius' orders.

Lothar and Anastasius charges Gerold, now commander of the Pope's militia, of corruption. Joan's quick thinking saves Gerold realise they must flee the city before her condition becomes obvious, but she insists on staying until Easter as the people need her. Anastasius plans to seize the throne and realises he needs to remove Gerold before he can attack Joan directly. During a papal procession, Gerold is lured into a trap, stabbed from behind and killed. Already in pain, Joan runs to be with him but then miscarries in public and dies from blood loss.

An epilogue reveals that Anastasius indeed took the papacy but could not hold it. He gained revenge of a sort by obliterating Joan from history, excluding her from his book on the lives of the Popes. However, an archbishop makes restitution by restoring Joan's papacy in a copy of the book he makes himself - for the archbishop is also secretly a woman, the daughter of the peasant family saved by Joan many years earlier.