A friend gave me ‘Pope Joan’ and said: “don’t feel like you have to read it, if you don’t like it,” but it is really really good. My eyes generally light up at a recommendation like that and I always try to read every book I am given, so I sat down two weeks ago to give the book a go. It didn’t disappoint. It saddened me, kept me alert, engaged and outraged all at the same time. It pulled me in; I was a magnet, drawn to the terrible goings-on in the dark ages. Although the book has some flaws and some areas of predictability, it is very well researched and written. There seems to be some denial of Joan’s existence by modern scholars, although some writings from the 13th century prove she really existed. I think it is precisely why the author’s research into her role in history really matters. This is not just a book about a young woman’s battle against convention, expectation and authority, it is about defiance, about fighting the odds and heroism. Her decision to follow her heart and give up everything she loved, sort of destroyed her and yet brought her fame. What a predicament.
In a time when the birth of a boy is heralded as the most amazing blessing in a home, Joan’s one and only crime was that she was a girl, a mere girl- the poor thing- with a thirst for knowledge and education. How was that wrong? oh but it was, read on and see… Her father, an Englishman, was the canon in the tiny village of Ingelheim. Filled with disappointment at the birth of a daughter and harboring strong sentiments about how sinful and unworthy women are, he is always harsh, always malicious and constantly belittling. His one aim is to educate his sons Matthew and John in order to send them to Rome to reach their fullest potential. His daughter he has no care for. His wife Gudrun is of Nordic descent, she is clearly beautiful with the most stunning white blonde hair, which the author keeps alluding as a symbolism of sorts. This pitiful man seems to despise the hair, calling it sinful- another repeat performer in the book ( the word sinful I mean) and never allows her to show her hair, insisting that she ties it up and covers it. I just think he couldn’t accept her beauty and wanted to punish Gudrun in the most sadistic way possible. Whilst her role as a mother is not questioned, she is ordered to never teach the children stories from her childhood which he calls barbaric and pagan. This man is at his despicable best but cuts a sad figure at the same time. He was clearly drawn to Gudrun when they first met, but his presumption that he would reform her from her pagan ways, clearly did not go as planned. They built a family, but somewhere a long the way he lost his heart. He also does not forgive her for giving him a daughter.
When the book begins…
Joan is young, scared of a storm, her father and brothers gone away, she crawls into her mother’s bed to listen to comforting stories about viking mythology and the god Thor – stories from her mother’s childhood, which are banned in the house – her father being away gives them privacy to enjoy the stories that Joan loves, the author is smart here, she sort of lulls you into this warm, fuzzy story telling environment, when before you know it Gudrun sees her husband in the shadows. Knowing fully well what it means, she tries to send Joan away as quickly as possible, but too late she sees what her father is truly capable of. He beats her mother and then cuts off her silk like hair because he finds her laying in bed with her it undone – talk about cruelty.
Joan is closest to her brother Matthew, who is forced to learn, recite and study for many hours of the day, but seeing Joan’s potential and determination, he tries to teach Joan secretly because of her insatiable need to learn. Unbeknownst to their father, he succeeds for the most part, for Joan not only excels in Latin, Greek and scripture, she shows just how smart she is. I was touched when Matthew makes her a carved statue of St. Catherine, a woman who was famous for being educated and intelligent, because he clearly accepts her talent and does not resent her for it. Joan begins to cherish her time with her brother but when Matthew dies suddenly and devastates everyone, Joan has to bear the brunt of her father’s wrath. He blames her for Matthew’s death and for being a girl of course. John, her other brother has no love of learning but is forced to it because their father wants him- the only remaining son to attend the Schola Palatina. Joan, naïvely thinks her father will be impressed by her knowledge when Aesculpius a Greek who is to undertake teaching at the schola recognizes Joan’s talent and offers to educate her, but her father refuses. However, at the teacher’s insistence and defiance, Joan begins her lessons and excels at everything, which John resents. Their’s is sort of a love-hate relationship which never really repairs itself. There is so much detail to this book, and so many characters to remember, that I can’t tell you everything, although I feel like I need to. It goes up and down dragging you along with it.
There is one particular scene that stands out in my mind. It is the time Joan’s father gives her such a beating that it leaves her almost unconscious and grasping at life, breaking not only Joan’s spirit but her precious mother’s as well. That was when I had it with this shameless, cruel man. I was ready for Joan to do something drastic and she does not disappoint. I secretly celebrated Joan’s escape from her childhood home, but felt her pain as she left the warm and comforting love of her mother, knowing she would never see her again. I just knew she was going to face more than she was prepared for, not just from peers but from everyone and anyone who thought a woman’s place was in the kitchen, learning to sew and cook. Oh but I really wanted her to succeed and fight, fight hard for everything she wanted.
She faces so much in her young life, her very ‘being’ struggles against the barriers placed on her as a woman. She quickly begins to outsmart everyone at her school, so much so that her brother resents her and does not help or defend her when other children cruelly pour some sort of glue on to her hair and she has to cut it all off. Joan carries with her, her mother’s beautiful hair you see – I understood then why the author kept mentioning hair so much. I was personally drawn to the description of her beautiful eyes; they were expressive, warm, soulful and enigmatic. As Joan is continuously treated as an outcast for they call her a changeling, her brilliance at school and the fact that she is also rough around the edges, not refined and not considered attractive enough to be married off to someone really goes against her. When she is finally taken to live in a house with wealth, and they treat her well for the most part, puberty strikes and she develops a crush on the count who takes her in out of compassion. She is at her happiest in his company. She doesn’t care who likes her and who doesn’t as long as she is with Gerold. He is clearly drawn to her as well, defends her, laughs with her and their conversations are educated, challenging and stimulating. Joan has not encountered that since her teacher Aesculpius left her life. Gerold seems to have some sort of a relationship with his wife but they are not close, nor are they in- love, and his wife, though she seems obsessed with getting their daughter married off, begins to notice her husband’s closeness with Joan. Not sure what it is, she restrains Joan from joining him outdoors and doing all the things they do together i.e. riding, talking and the thing Joan cherishes the most, which is Gerold’s company. Still, it does not deter her, until she and Gerold come very close to taking their relationship a little further and he leaves. His wife taunts Joan about her childish emotions and arranges a marriage, which devastates her. She then stuns her when she reveals that the marriage will take place in 3 days, too soon for Gerold to come back and save her. Horrible events ensue and Joan loses her brother, John. As it dawns on her that she will never get anywhere as a woman, her brilliant mind and wit sparks her into action and she takes on her brother’s cloak and guise to become ‘Brother John Anglicus.’
The story of her life as Brother John Anglicus unfolds into the best of the book and yes! she does meet her father again. I felt the end was a tad abrupt, a little predictable but it left me satisfied – well… somewhat. I understand there is a film which I would like to see, the thing is, a film very rarely brings me the kind of joy a book would. I will have to see how it goes.