Excerpts from Pope Joan
Thunder sounded, very near, and the child woke. She
moved in the bed, seeking the warmth and comfort of her older brothers'
sleeping forms. Then she remembered. Her brothers were gone.
It was raining, a hard spring downpour that filled the night air with
the sweet-sour smell of newly plowed earth. Rain thudded on the roof of
the canon's cottage, but the thickly woven thatching kept the room dry,
except for one or two small places in the corners where water first pooled
and then trickled in slow fat drops to the beaten earth floor.
The wind rose, and a nearby oak began to tap an uneven rhythm on the
cottage walls. The shadow of its branches spilled into the room. The child
watched, transfixed, as the monstrous dark fingers wriggled at the edges
of the bed. They reached out for her, beckoning, and she shrank back.
Mama, she thought. She opened her mouth to call out, then stopped. If
she made a sound, the menacing hand would pounce. She lay frozen,
watching, unable to will herself to move. Then she set her small chin
resolutely. It had to be done, so she would do it. Moving with exquisite
slowness, never taking her eyes off the enemy, she eased herself off the
bed. Her feet felt the cool surface of the earthen floor; the familiar
sensation was reassuring. Scarcely daring to breathe, she backed toward
the partition behind which her mother lay sleeping. Lightning flashed; the
fingers moved and lengthened, following her. She swallowed a scream, her
throat tightening with the effort. She forced herself to move slowly, not
to break into a run.
She was almost there. Suddenly, a salvo of thunder crashed overhead. At
the same moment something touched her from behind. She yelped, then turned
and fled around the partition, stumbling over the chair she had backed
This part of the house was dark and still, save for her mother's
rhythmic breathing. From the sound, the child could tell she was deeply
asleep; the noise had not wakened her. She went quickly to the bed, lifted
the woolen blanket and slid under it. Her mother lay on her side, lips
slightly parted; her warm breath caressed the child's cheek. She snuggled
close, feeling the softness of her mother's body through her thin linen
Gudrun yawned and shifted position, roused by the movement. Her eyes
opened, and she regarded the child sleepily. Then, waking fully, she
reached out and put her arms around her daughter.
"Joan," she chastised gently, her lips against the child's soft hair.
"Little one, you should be asleep."
Speaking quickly, her voice high and strained from fear, Joan told her
mother about the monster hand.
Gudrun listened, petting and stroking her daughter and murmuring
reassurances. Gently she ran her fingers over the the child's face,
half-seen in the darkness. She was not pretty, Gudrun reflected ruefully.
She looked too much like him, with his thick English neck and wide jaw.
Her small body was already stocky and heavyset, not long and graceful like
Gudrun's people. But the child's eyes were good, large and expressive and
rich-hued, green with dark grey smoke-rings at the center. Gudrun lifted a
strand of Joan's baby hair and caressed it, enjoying the way it shone,
white-gold, even in the darkness. My hair, she thought gloatingly. Not the
coarse black hair of her husband or his cruel dark people. My child. She
wrapped the strand gently around her forefinger and smiled. This one, at
least, is mine.
Soothed by her mother's attentions, Joan relaxed. In playful imitation,
she began to tug at Gudrun's long braid, loosening it till her hair lay
tumbled about her head. Joan marvelled at it, spilling over the dark
woolen coverlet like rich cream. She had never seen her mother's hair
unbound. At the canon's insistence, Gudrun wore it always neatly braided,
hidden under a rough linen cap. A woman's hair, her husband said, was the
net wherein Satan catches a man's soul. And Gudrun's hair was
extraordinarily beautiful, long and soft and pure white-gold, without a
trace of gray, though she was now an old woman of thirty-six winters.
"Why did Matthew and John go away?" Joan asked suddenly. Her mother had
explained this to her several times, but Joan wanted to hear it again.
"You know why. Your father took them with him on his missionary
"Why couldn't I go too?"
Gudrun sighed patiently. The child was always so full of questions.
"Matthew and John are boys; one day they will be priests like your father.
You are a girl, and therefore such matters do not concern you." Seeing
that Joan was not content with that, she added, "Besides, you are much too
Joan was indignant. "I was four in Wintarmanoth!"
Gudrun's eyes lit with amusement as she looked at the pudgy baby face.
"Ah, yes, I forgot, you are a big girl now, aren't you? Four years old!
That does sound very grown up."
Joan lay quietly while her mother stroked her hair. Then she asked,
"What are heathens?" Her father and brothers had spoken a good deal about
heathens before they left. Joan did not understand what heathens were,
exactly, though she gathered it was something very bad.
Gudrun stiffened. The word had conjuring powers. It had been on the
lips of the invading soldiers as they pillaged her home and slaughtered
her friends and family. The dark, cruel soldiers of the Frankish Emperor
Karolus. "Magnus," people called him now that he was dead. "Karolus
Magnus." Charles the Great. Would they name him so, Gudrun wondered, if
they had seen his army tear Saxon babes from their mother's arms, swinging
them round before they dashed their heads against the reddened stones?
Gudrun withdrew her hand from Joan's hair and rolled onto her back.
"That is a question you must ask your father," she said.
Joan did not understand what she had done wrong, but she heard the
strange hardness in her mother's voice and knew that she would be sent
back to her own bed if she didn't think of some way to repair the damage.
Quickly she said, "Tell me again about the Old Ones."
"I cannot. Your father disapproves of the telling of such tales." The
words were half statement, half question.
Joan knew what to do. Placing both hands solemnly over her heart, she
recited The Oath exactly as her mother had taught it to her, promising
eternal secrecy on the sacred name of Thor the Thunderer.
Gudrun laughed and drew Joan close again. "Very well, little quail. I
will tell you the story, since you know so well how to ask."
Her voice was warm again, wistful and melodic as she began to tell of
Woden and Thunor and Freya and the other gods who had peopled her Saxon
childhood before the armies of Karolus brought the Word of Christ with
blood and fire. She spoke liltingly of Asgard, the radiant home of the
gods, a place of golden and silver palaces, which could only be reached by
crossing Bifrost, the mysterious bridge of the rainbow. Guarding the
bridge was Heimdall the Watchman, who never slept, whose ears were so keen
he could even hear the grass grow. In Valhalla, the most beautiful palace
of all, lived Woden, the father-god, on whose shoulders sat the two ravens
Hugin, Thought, and Munin, Memory. On his throne, while the other gods
feasted, Woden contemplated what Thought and Memory told him.
Joan nodded happily. This was her favorite part of the story. "Tell
about the Well of Wisdom," she begged.
"Although he was already very wise," explained her mother, "Woden
always sought greater wisdom. One day he went to the Well of Wisdom,
guarded by Mimir the Wise, and asked for a draught from it. `What price
will you pay?' asked Mimir. Woden replied that Mimir could ask what he
wished. `Wisdom must always be bought with pain,' replied Mimir. `If you
wish a drink of this water you must pay for it with one of your eyes.'"
Eyes bright with excitement, Joan exclaimed, "And Woden did it, Mama,
didn't he? He did it!"
Her mother nodded. "Though it was a hard choice, Woden consented to
lose the eye. He drank the water. Afterward, he passed on to mankind the
wisdom he had gained."
Joan looked up at her mother, her eyes wide and serious. "Would you
have done it, Mama--to be wise, to know about all things?"
"Only gods make such choices." Seeing the child's persistent look of
question, Gudrun confessed, "No. I would have been too afraid."
"So would I," Joan said thoughtfully. "But I would want to do it. I
would want to know what the well could tell me."
Gudrun smiled down at the intent little face. "Perhaps you would not
like what you would learn there. There is a saying among our people. `A
wise man's heart is seldom glad.'"
Joan nodded, though she did not really understand. "Now tell about the
Tree," she said, snuggling close to her mother again.
Gudrun began to describe Irminsul, the wondrous universe tree. It had
stood in the holiest of the Saxon groves at the source of the Lippe river.
Her people had worshipped at it until it was cut down by the armies of
"It was very beautiful," her mother said, "and so tall that no one
could see the top. It--"
She stopped. Suddenly aware of another presence, Joan looked up. Her
father was standing in the doorway.
Her mother sat up in bed. "Husband," she said. "I did not look for your
return for another fortnight."
The canon did not respond. He took a wax taper from the table near the
door and crossed to the hearthfire, where he plunged it into the glowing
embers until it flared.
Gudrun said nervously, "The child was frightened by the thunder. I
thought to comfort her with a harmless story."
"Harmless!" The canon's voice shook with the effort to control his
rage. "You call such blasphemy harmless?" He covered the distance to the
bed in two long strides, set down the taper, and pulled the blanket off,
exposing them. Joan lay with her arms around her mother, half-hidden under
a curtain of white-gold hair.
For a moment the canon stood stupefied with disbelief, looking at
Gudrun's unbound hair. Then his fury overtook him. "How dare you! When I
have expressly forbidden it!" Taking hold of Gudrun, he started to drag
her from the bed. "Heathen witch!"
Joan clung to her mother. The canon's face darkened. "Child, begone!"
he bellowed. Joan hesitated, torn between fear and the desire to somehow
protect her mother.
Gudrun pushed her urgently. "Yes, go. Go quickly."
Releasing her hold, Joan dropped to the floor and ran. At the door, she
turned and saw her father grab her mother roughly by the hair, wrenching
her head back, forcing her to her knees. Joan started back into the room.
Terror stopped her short as she saw her father withdraw his long,
bonehandled hunting knife from his corded belt.
"Forsachistu diabolae?" he asked Gudrun in Saxon, his voice scarcely
more than whisper. When she did not respond, he placed the point of the
knife against her throat. "Say the words," he growled menacingly. "Say
"Ec forsacho allum diaboles," Gudrun responded tearfully, her eyes
blazing defiance, "wuercum and wuordum, thunaer ende woden ende saxnotes
Rooted with fear, Joan watched her father pull up a heavy tress of her
mother's hair and draw the knife across it. There was a ripping sound as
the silken strands parted; a long band of white gold floated to the floor.
Clapping her hand over her mouth to stifle a sob, Joan turned and ran.
In the darkness, she bumped into a shape that reached out for her. She
squealed in fear as it grabbed her. The monster hand! She had forgotten
about it! She struggled, pummelling at it with her tiny fists, resisting
with all her strength, but it was huge, and held her fast.
"Joan! Joan, it's all right. It's me!"
The words penetrated her fear. It was her ten-year-old brother Matthew,
who had returned with her father.
"We've come back. Joan, stop struggling! It's all right. It's me." Joan
reached up, felt the smooth surface of the pectoral cross that Matthew
always wore, then slumped against him in relief.
Together they sat in the dark, listening to the soft splitting sounds
of the knife ripping through their mother's hair. Once they heard Mama cry
out in pain. Matthew cursed aloud. An answering sob came from the bed
where Joan's seven-year-old brother John was hiding under the covers.
At last the ripping sounds stopped. After a brief pause the canon's
voice began to rumble in prayer. Joan felt Matthew relax; it was over. She
threw her arms around his neck and wept. He held her and rocked her
After a time, she looked up at him.
"Father called Mama a heathen."
"She isn't," Joan said hesitantly, "is she?"
"She was." Seeing her look of horrified disbelief, he added, "a long
time ago. Not any more. But those were heathen stories she was telling
Joan stopped crying; this was interesting information.
"You know the first of the Commandments, don't you?"
Joan nodded and recited dutifully, "Thou shalt have no other gods
"Yes. That means that the gods Mama was telling you about are false; it
is sinful to speak of them."
"Is that why Father...?"
"Yes, " Matthew broke in. "Mama had to be punished for the good of her
soul. She was disobedient to her husband, and that also is against the law
"Because it says so in the Holy Book." He began to recite, "`For the
husband is the head of the wife; therefore, let the wives submit
themselves unto their husbands in everything.'"
"Why?" Matthew was taken aback. No one had ever asked him that before.
"Well, I guess because...because women are by nature inferior to men. Men
are bigger, stronger and smarter."
"But--" Joan started to respond but Matthew cut her off.
"Enough questions, little sister. You should be in bed. Come now." He
carried her to the bed and placed her beside John, who was already
Matthew had been kind to her; to return the favor, Joan closed her eyes
and burrowed under the covers as if to sleep.
But she was far too troubled for sleep. She lay in the dark, peering at
John as he slept, his mouth hanging slackly open.
He can't recite from the Psalter and he's seven years old. Joan was
only four but already she knew the first ten psalms by heart.
John wasn't smart. But he was a boy. Yet how could Matthew be wrong? He
knew everything; he was going to be a priest, like father.
She lay awake in the dark, turning the problem over in her mind.
Towards dawn she slept, restlessly, troubled by dreams of mighty wars
between jealous and angry gods. The angel Gabriel himself came from heaven
with a flaming sword to do battle with Thor and Freya. The battle was
terrible and fierce, but in the end the false gods were driven back, and
Gabriel stood triumphant before the gates of paradise. His sword had
disappeared; in his hand gleamed a short, bone-handled knife.
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Pope Joan here.
Word of her extraordinary learning beginning to
spread, 13-year old Joan is brought before the Bishop of Dorstadt, who
commands his schoolmaster Odo to question her before the gathered court.
The excerpt picks up just after Joan has brilliantly answered the last of
Odo’s challenging questions.
The people at the tables began to snap their fingers in
applause. "Litteratissima!" someone shouted across the room.
"Amusing little oddity, isn't she?" a woman's voice
muttered close behind Joan, just a shade too loudly.
"Well, Odo," the Bishop said expansively, "what do you
say? Does the girl have the intelligence for the cathedral school or not?"
Odo looked like a man who has tasted vinegar. "It
appears that the child has some knowledge of orthodox theology.
Nevertheless, this in itself does not prove anything. There is, in some
women, a highly developed imitatative ability, which allows them to
memorize and repeat the words of men, and so give the appearance of
thought. But this imitative skill is not to be confused with true reason,
which is essentially male. For, as is well known," Odo's voice assumed an
authoritative ring, for now he was on familiar ground, "women are innately
inferior to men."
"Why?" The word was out of Joan's mouth before she was
even aware of having spoken.
Odo smiled, his thin lips drawing back unpleasantly. He
had the look of the fox when it knows it has the rabbit cornered. "Your
ignorance, child, is revealed in that question. For St. Paul himself has
asserted this truth, that women are beneath men in conception, in place,
and in will."
"In conception, in place, and in will?" Joan repeated.
"Yes," Odo spoke slowly and distinctly, as if addressing
a half-wit. "In conception, because Adam was created first, and Eve
afterwards; in place, because Eve was created to serve Adam as companion
and mate; in will, because Eve could not resist the Devil's temptation and
ate of the apple."
Among the tables, heads nodded in agreement. The
Bishop's expression was grave. Odo smirked.
Joan felt an intense dislike for this thin-faced man.
For a moment she stood silently, tugging on her nose.
"Why," she said at last, "is woman inferior in
conception? For though she was created second, she was made from Adam's
side, while Adam was made from common clay."
There were several appreciative chuckles from the tables
in the back of the hall.
"In place," the words tumbled out as Joan's thoughts
raced ahead, and she reasoned her way through, "woman should be preferred
to man, because Eve was created inside Paradise, but Adam was created
There was another hum from the crowd. The smile on Odo's
Joan went on, too interested in the line of her argument
to consider what she was doing. "As for will, woman should be considered
superior to man"--this was bold, but there was no going back
now--"for Eve ate of the apple for love of knowledge and learning, but
Adam ate of it merely because she asked him."
There was a shocked silence in the room. Odo's pale lips
pressed together angrily. Joan looked at the Bishop. He was staring at her
as if he could not quite believe what he had just heard.
She had gone too far.
Some ideas are dangerous.
Aesculapius had warned her, but she became so involved
in the debate that she forgot his advice. That man, that Odo, had been so
sure of himself, so bent on humiliating her before the Bishop. She had
ruined her chance for the cathedral school and she knew it, but she would
not give the hateful little man the satisfaction of seeing her dismay. She
stood before the high table with chin lifted, her eyes blazing defiance.
The silence stretched on interminably. All eyes were on
the Bishop, whose gaze remained fixed on Joan assessingly. Then, slowly,
very slowly, a long low rumble of mirth escaped his lips.
The Bishop was laughing.
Then the room erupted with noise. People cheered and
pounded on the table and laughed, laughed so hard that tears coursed down
their faces and they had to wipe them off with their sleeves.
"Come now, Odo," said the Bishop, when at last he could
draw breath, "you must admit it. The girl has outwitted you!"
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Joan’s papal coronation.
Robed in scarlet silk woven with gold and seated on a
white palfrey also clothed and bridled in gold, Joan rode in ceremony
toward her coronation in St. Peter's. From every door and window along the
Via Sacra, streamers and banners fluttered in riotous color; the ground
was strewn with sweet-smelling myrtle. Throngs of cheering people lined
the street, pressing forward to catch a glimpse of the new Lord Pope.
Lost in her own revery, Joan scarcely heard the noise of
the crowd. She was thinking of Matthew, of her old tutor Aesculapius, of
Brother Benjamin. They had all believed in her, encouraged her, but none
could have dreamed of such a day as this. She could scarcely believe it
When she had first disguised herself as a man, when she
had been accepted into the Fulda brotherhood, God had not raised His hand
against her. But would He truly allow a woman to ascend the sacred throne
of St. Peter? The question spun round in her mind.
The long procession wound its way through the streets
toward the Leonine City. The sun was at midpoint in the sky when they they
drew up before the papal cathedral. As Joan dismounted, the cardinals,
bishops and deacons fell into place behind her. Slowly she climbed the
steps and entered the shimmering interior of the great cathedral.
Replete with ancient and elaborate ritual, the ordo
coronationis, or coronation ceremony, took several hours. First two
bishops led Joan to the sacristy, where she was solemnly vested in alb,
dalmatic and paenula before she approached the high altar for the singing
of the Litany and the lengthy ritual of consecration, or anointing. During
the recitation of the vere dignum, Desiderius the archdeacon and
two of the regionary deacons held over her head an open book of the
gospels. Then came the mass itself; this lasted a good deal longer than
usual due to the addition of numerous prayers and formularies befitting
the importance of the occasion.
Throughout it all Joan stood solemn and erect, weighted
down by the heavy sacerdotal robes, as stiff with gold and jewels as that
of any Byzantine Prince. Despite the magnificence of her attire, she felt
very small and inadequate to the enormous responsibility being laid upon
her. She tried to tell herself that those who had stood here before her
must also have trembled and doubted. And somehow they had carried on.
But they had all been men.
Eustathius, the archpriest, began the final invocation:
"Almighty Lord, stretch forth the right hand of Thy blessing upon Thy
servant John Anglicus, and pour over him the gift of Thy mercy..."
Will God bless me now? Joan wondered.
Or will His just wrath strike me down the moment the papal crown is placed
upon my head?
The Bishop of Ostia came forward bearing the tiara on a
cushion of white silk. Joan's breath caught in her throat as he raised the
crown above her. Then the weight of the gold circlet settled upon her
"Life to our illustrious Lord John Anglicus, by God
decreed our chief Bishop and Universal Pope!" Theodicius cried.
The choir chanted laudes as Joan turned to face
Emerging onto the steps of the cathedral, she was
greeted by a thunderous roar of welcome. Thousands of people had been
standing for hours in the blistering sun in order to greet their newly
crowned Pope. It was their will that she should wear the crown. Now they
spoke that will in one great chorus of joyous acclamation: "Pope John!
Pope John! Pope John!"
Joan raised her arms to them, feeling her spirit begin
to soar. The epiphany which only yesterday she had striven in vain to
achieve, now came unlooked for and unbidden. God had allowed this to
happen, so it could not be against His will. All doubt and anxiety were
dispelled, replaced by a glorious, glowing certainty: This is my
destiny, and these my people.
She was hallowed by the love she bore them. She would
serve them in the Lord's name all the days of her life.
And perhaps in the end God would forgive her.
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