I have a poor grasp of history. It was too much for my attention span when the overworked and underpaid employees of my high school were trying their best to educate me. So it's been a pleasure, and an eye-opening experience as well, to have read a few "historical novels." Neal Stephenson of course comes to mind, although I'm sure many will argue that his genre is more in the realm of historical fantasy I have definitely picked up more accurate history and curiosity about it from his novels than any other source I can recall today. (In youth, a short attention span. In my later years, a poor memory. Hmm.)
Pope Joan is the account of the possible but unconfirmed rise to the Vatican throne of a girl, Joan Anglicus, in the 9th century. Whether or not the story is true, it's a great story, and a great job of painting the picture of what life may have been like in Europe 1200 years ago.
Joan is Joan Anglicus, born to a Frankish priest and his wife, a Saxon captured by the Christian soldiers of the Emperor Karolus. Joan's mother Gudrun is never completely converted to Christianity (small wonder, that conversion by the sword could cause superficiality) and teaches her daughter about the Norse religion and mythology and Saxon language -- although this must be done strictly in secret, for if the canon -- her father, a relentless and cruel religious tyrant -- discovered it, there would be literal Hell to pay.
Joan's life is hard, and her status as a woman is that of a subhuman being. In spite of her circumstances, she is obviously very brilliant and cannot be kept from learning to read and write, and from studying what paltry crumbs of knowledge in the form of books that come her way. She does encounter some wise and kind men who help her to learn and grow intellectually.
When her brother is killed in a Viking massacre, Joan assumes his identity and begins her life as a monk, passing for a man for the rest of her life.
The story of how she goes from the monastery to Rome, and into the Vatican is a well-told tale of intrigue, perseverance, and the triumph of an indomitable spirit. It is humbling to imagine how people lived in 842 with misery and hardship, living only half our normal modern life-span. Disease, cruelty, poverty, and war made it very unusual for people to live long lives in this time.
Although the setting is so very far in the past, the message is clear: many great minds and potential great leaders have been discarded by our culture because of their gender. Women then were no more than property, like animals or slaves. To have been a gifted intelligent female in these years would have been a horrible curse -- indeed, there is no doubt that many such were burned at the stake as punishment for being witches.
Pope Joan is an uplifting tale, a painless history lesson, and a very good read. I would recommend it to anyone.