Pope Joan is not an easy read. In fact, it's quite complex with names, beliefs and customs that are more than a thousand years old. The book is historical fiction based on a ninth-century woman who disguised herself as a man to make a better life for herself.
In the 800s, girls and women were not educated. It was considered unnatural for them to learn to read or write. Females were considered inferior in every measure of society. The descriptions of abuse and neglect towards women are disturbing.
Joan defies the odds, and through a series unusual events learns to read and write in Latin and Greek. She is incredibly bright and gifted. To continue her education, she disguises herself as a man...taking on her dead brother's identity after he is killed in battle. Joan (now John) becomes a monk, studies for years as a monastery, expands her knowledge to the field of medicine and is ordained a priest. All the while, she is disillusioned by the corruption she witnesses in the church.
She makes the pilgrimage to Rome, and it short time becomes the personal physician of the Pope. Joan witnesses corruption and scandal in the church, yet remains. She quickly rises up the ranks of the church, despite attempts by power-hungry men to destroy her.
One person knows her true identity as a woman...a man who has been her only love-interest since her youth. They plan to run away from Rome together so they can be become husband and wife. Everything changes when she is unexpectedly elected the new pope, and he becomes her chief protector. She reigns for two years...her trued identity never discovered until her death.
According to the author, Donna Woolfolk Cross, Pope Joan is not a fictional character. Cross's seven years of research on the subject all point to the validity of Joan's rise to the throne of St. Peter. Modern Catholicism does not acknowledge her existence in any realm of the church.
This is a stop-and-make-you-think type of book. The conditions that the poor lived in during the dark ages were deplorable. Women and girls were treated as property, without any rights...or hope that they could make a better life for themselves. Joan's courage is admirable. Not only did she ignore the widely-held belief that women were inferior to men, but she also fought against corruption and ignorance.
I like to think Pope Joan is more than a myth. I want to believe she is a legend.