I recently read the book Pope Joan (and watched the 2009 movie based on it) by Donna Woolfolk Cross. I rather enjoyed both and planned on writing through the discussion questions at the end of the book. The questions seemed focused on the Catholic Church and the life of Joan compared to other women. But that’s not really what I want to talk about. It’s her father the canon and her lover Gerold, two of the most impacting men in Joan’s life, that need to be4 discussed. And another point: would she really risk all of her gains for a man?
Joan’s father, a country canon of the Church, saw worth only in his sons. He seemed to loathe himself for the “weakness” towards the heathen woman he took as his wife. Perhaps he had better hopes for his sons–that they would overcome what he saw as his weakness and live out his dreams in their own lives. How many parents do this today and forget that their children are autonomous beings? The parent who was a rising athlete or artist only to lose that dream due to an injury and then when they have children push them to live that dream. Perhaps the canon saw Joan linked more closely to her godless mother and a source of men’s weakness and, thus, would hate her regardless of what she would do and could blame her for the death of her brother (though it was the brother that passed on his knowledge to her…yet another example of the wiles of women causing men to fail).
Then Joan and the canon have a last encounter after Joan has assumed her other dead brother’s identity as a monk. If I had never seen any sign of affection or understanding from my father, if I could not in some way see things from his perspective, I’m not sure I could expect any mercy when I completely defied all of his standards and beliefs. Yet the narrator described Joan as “shocked” both times that she contemplated her father’s final reactions of hatred and condemnation towards her.
Onto her lover, Gerold, whom she meets and lives with when she is (openly, as young teenage girl) studying alongside her brother. I think of Gerold as Joan’s lover because, while he responds to her individuality, intelligence, and bravery (characteristics attributed only to men of the age, I might add), he is quite the romantic. In the few scenes where we hear his voice, he is wishing for her after a dalliance and unable to live near her unless he can live with her. Joan is drawn to him but seems somewhat resentful of that fact–like it is part of her femininity that she would be rid of so that she could continue her life. Their bond is such to the point that they don”t need to speak the words to communicate their love to each other. Even though she lived as a man for decades she must have known with her great breadth of medical knowledge that “giving yourself” to a man could result in pregnancy? Yet Joan tries to abort the product of their love and does not tell Gerold of her actions because she believes that even he would not understand. (She also thought of but decided against telliing him of his elder daughter’s horrific fate at the hands of the Vikings, though he himself had seen her carried off on a ship and didn’t try to go after her. After realizing that the bodies of his elder daughter and Joan were missing, he initially pursued the trail but he thought more of saving Joan.) Joan finally begrudgingly agrees to go away with him after she sadly admits her pregnancy to him. Of course, she delays as much as possible because “the people” need her. This delay results in Gerold being ambushed and killed, and Joan dying in the street after miscarrying the baby.
I don’t know a thing about Catholicism but as a protestant Christian, the greatest thing is to gladly and willingly sacrifice the self for others. Like a spouse and parent going to work or taking care of the children and home each day–happily and not begrudgingly–in order to provide for the physical needs of the family. Don’t mistake me for the attitude is something I struggle with many days. Of course, that attitude is a choice whereas in Joan’s day it would have been forced sacrifice for a woman in a traditional woman’s role.
While this fiction book was based on some historical facts, the author used her artistic license to create the characters. I just argued against some of the qualities/actions of the characters but it is a perfectly good book without my comments. And I’m pretty sure I was in grade school when it was written. But, here’s a twist that would provide a different level. What if Joan actually refused Gerold’s advances when they later meet. There is a scene when Gerold and Joan are stranded together after a flood. Joan has warmed the injured Gerold with the only available heat source: herself. After he wakes, he questions her about the scars on her back. She explains about the beating she received from her father.
“…when she refused to destroy Aesculapius’s book.”
[my words here] Then her father’s last hateful glare and his attempt to reveal her, as well as her mother’s terrible death for his sake, flashed forcefully into her thoughts. She pulled away from Gerold before his physical nearness could break her resolve. “Gerold, I buried the Joan you knew the day I buried the canon. She has been struggling to emerge within me since I saw you again. But I cannot allow the dead to dictate my actions. I, John Anglicus, Lord Pope of Rome, Biship of the Roman See, saved you. And I ask you to let Joan rest in peace.” Joan briefly glanced at Gerold’s astonished face before standing to dress. Calling on her name and title strengthened her will. She knew they would search for her and she must be prepared to meet them. Gerold followed suit a short time later. The look of surprise had been replaced by one of deep sadness, as if he were truly mourning Joan in that moment. She knew the bond between them was irreparably rent. He was a good man, perhaps of only a handful, and he deserved more than the memories of a dead girl as a companion.
[rescued and rethroned]
Joan’s mind was bent to find a solution for Gerold while she dutifully carried out the days’ tasks. He had kept his distance since their rescue. She knew Gerold would not willingly leave his post as her guard so she must dismiss him, publicly. She called for her attendant to bring him to the room. He stood before her in seemingly the next instant. Joan looked briefly into his eyes and saw a flicker of hope spring forth. She must be firm with him. Joan kept her gaze on him but looked to the tip of his ear so only he would know she was not looking into his eyes while she spoke.
“Gerold, you have faithfully serve the Pope for the time you have been here in Rome. And you have done a great service in doing all in your power to save us from the flood waters. Now we see, however, that there is another purpose in your life. But this purpose will require greater sacrifice to all parties. We wish for you to resign from your post here. May you find a wife, whom together with, you may teach your children of the glory of service to our Lord.”
Gerold leaves and does whatever. But then how does Joan become pregnant? Simply, she doesn’t. However, she is discovered (maybe by one of her attendants who spies on her for her rival). Then she is quietly removed from her position and executed A group of her enemies makes up the story of her public miscarriage to cast a shadow over all the good works she had done and discredit the thought that women should be educated or allowed in the ranks. And of course do all they could to strike her from the official record (leaving the false tale of her public miscarriage and death haphazardly about) which still would leave room for Arnalda to add Joan back to the record later. Or if the enemy were really devious, they could stage the public scene that would lead to an “pat down” for the Pope and still reveal her secret.