Q. Most people have never heard of
Pope Joan. How did you first learn of her existence?
A. I learned about Joan quite by accident. I was reading
a book in French and came across a reference to a pope named "Jeanne." At
first I thought this was simply an amusing typographical error--"Jeanne"
(Joan) for "Jean" (John). But the reference piqued my curiosity, and the
next day I went to the library and checked the Catholic encyclopedia. Sure
enough, there was an entry on Joan--the woman who lived disguised as a man
and rose to become Pope of the Church in the ninth century.
Q. So the Catholic Church
officially recognizes Joan's papacy?
A. Far from it. The Church position is that Joan's
papacy is nothing more than unsubstantiated legend. But there are over
five hundred ancient manuscripts containing accounts of Joan's
papacy, including those of such acclaimed authors as Platina, Petrarch and
Q. So you're convinced that Joan
A. Given the obscurity and confusion of the times, it is
impossible to determine with certainty whether Joan existed or not. The
truth of what happened in A.D. 855 may never be fully known. That is why I
chose to write a novel and not a historical study.
Q. If Joan's papacy is so well
documented, why is the subject so controversial?
A. The Church position on Joan is that she was a late
invention of Protestant reformers eager to expose papist corruption. Yet
Joan's story is first documented hundreds of years before Martin Luther
was born--and most of her chroniclers were Catholics, often highly placed
in the church hierarchy. In 1276, after ordering a thorough search of the
papal records, Pope John XX changed his title to John XXI in official
recognition of Joan's reign as Pope John VIII. Joan's statue stood
undisputed alongside those of other Popes in the Cathedral of Siena until
1601, when, by command of Pope Clement XIII, it suddenly "metamorphosed"
into a bust of Pope Zacharias. Joan's story was included in the official
church guidebook to Rome used by pilgrims for over three hundred years.
Q. But isn't it true that there is
no record of Joan in any contemporary chronicles?
A. Yes, that's true. But that's scarcely surprising,
given the time and energy that the Church has, by its own admission,
devoted to expunging her from them. The fact that Joan lived in the ninth
century, the darkest of the dark ages, would have made the job of
obliterating her papacy easy. The ninth century was a time of widespread
illiteracy, marked by an extraordinary dearth of record keeping. One need
only look to the recent examples of Nicaragua and El Salvador to see how a
determined and well-coordinated state effort can make embarrassing
evidence "disappear." It is only after the distancing effect of time that
the truth, kept alive by unquenchable popular report, gradually begins to
Q. Are you saying there was a
deliberate attempt to conceal Joan's papacy?
A. Certainly the Roman clergymen of the day, appalled by
the great deception visited upon them, would have gone to great lengths to
bury all written report of the embarrassing episode. Indeed, they would
have felt it their duty to do so. Hincmar, Joan's contemporary, frequently
suppressed information damaging to the Church in his letters. Even the
great theologian Alcuin was not above tampering with the truth; in one of
his letters he openly admits destroying a report on Pope Leo III's
adultery and simony. The absence of contemporary documentation is not
proof that Joan did not exist. After all, there is no contemporary record
of Jesus Christ (the first of the Gospels, that of St. Mark, was written
over forty years after Jesus' death), yet he is considered by most people
to be a real historical figure.
Q. How would it have been possible
for a woman to pass herself off as a man for so long and under such
A. Actually, given the extreme modesty and sparse
hygiene of the times (most people slept in their clothes and rarely, if
ever, bathed) as well as the protection provided by body-disguising
clerical robes, it would not have been difficult. There are many examples
of women who successfully managed such an imposture. In the twelfth
century, St. Hildegund, using the name Joseph, became a brother of Schonau
Abbey and lived undiscovered among the brethren until her death many years
later. Mary Reade lived as a pirate in the early eighteenth century;
Loreta Janeta Velasquez fought for the Confederacy at the Battle of Bull
Run under the name Harry Buford. Most recently, Teresinha Gomez of Lisbon
spent eighteen years pretending to be a man; a highly decorated soldier,
she rose to the rank of general in the Portuguese army and was discovered
only in 1994, when she was arrested on charges of financial fraud and
forced by the police to undergo a physical exam.
Q. As your novel makes clear,
there was considerable hazard in such an imposture. What would drive a
woman to take such a risk?
A. Life in the ninth century was especially difficult
for women. It was a very misogynistic age. Menstrual blood was believed to
turn wine sour, make crops barren, take the edge off steel, make iron
rust, and infect dog bites with an incurable poison. With few exceptions,
women were treated as perpetual minors, with no legal or property rights.
By law, they could be beaten by their husbands. Rape was treated as a form
of minor theft. The education of women was discouraged, for a learned
woman was considered not only unnatural, but dangerous. The size of a
woman's brain and her uterus were believed to be inversely proportionate;
the more a woman learned, the less likely she would ever bear children.
Small wonder, then, if a woman chose to disguise herself as a man in order
to escape so restricted an existence. The light of hope kindled by women
such as Joan shone only flickeringly in a great darkness, but it was never
entirely to go out. Opportunities were available for women strong enough
to dream. Pope Joan is the story of one of those dreamers.
Q. Early in the story, during a feast, there is a mention of
"boiled corn." Corn, as we know it, was a crop of the New World -
the Americas. Is it a historical error?
Many readers have
been troubled by the use of the word "corn" in the novel. But I took
the description of this meal right off the pages of a ninth-century
manuscript. Here's where the problem arises: "Corn" is an ancient
word, used generically to mean "grain" or seed". What we call "corn"
is actually "maize"--a New World crop. Over time, the two words have
So it's not a historical error. But it was a poor choice on my part,
for it's never a good idea to create confusion/doubt in the minds of
readers. If I had it to do over, I'd write "boiled barley" instead.
Q. How would a woman be able to hide her
menstrual periods, and the disposal of the evidence of a period, since
they did not have disposable products? From our understanding
women used rags and washed and reused them. There was not enough cloth
available that she could have just thrown them away or burned the rags.
In Pope Joan's situation, how would she have been able to conceal this?
A. Joan didn't
disguise herself as a man until she arrived at the monastery of Fulda.
There, her disguise (and her menstruation) would have been greatly aided
by the fact that in the ninth century, the body was considered a sinful
vessel, a tool of the devil, not something to regard, touch or consider
except for the necessary duty of engendering children. The toilets in
the monastery had partition-dividers so no monk's eyes would "stray" to
As described in
the novel, Joan could have used a "pad" of absorbent leaves to soak up
menstrual blood and dropped them down the very deep-dug holes that
served as toilets, where--not to be too graphic--they would have mixed
indistinguishably with other "effluvia" (this was as time of widespread
disease and dysentery).
More to the point: no matter how difficult or improbable the idea of a
woman passing as a man might seem (there are other issues apart from
menstruation--voice, facial hair, adam's apple, etc), it's obviously
do-able, for history is rife with examples of successful female
cross-dressers. Proof that it can be done lies in the fact it has been
done--often under circumstances even more difficult than those Joan
The interesting question to ask about Joan's life is not "HOW did she do
it?" but "WHY did she do it?" Now that's a novelist's question, and I
answered it in my book. I hope readers find Joan's stirring example of
empowerment through learning as inspirational as I did!
Is there an audio version of Pope
Joan available on CD or DVD?
A. An audio
version of Pope Joan will be available in 2009.
Did you find these answers interesting?
Purchase Pope Joan here.
You may also be interested in some facts about the book:
Did You Know?