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Pope Joan is a 1996 novel by American writer Donna Woolfolk Cross. It is based on the medieval legend of Pope Joan. For the most part this novel is the story of a young woman, whose desire to gain more knowledge compels her to dress up as a man, who (due to events beyond her control) eventually rises to become the pope. The novel has been adapted into a film, Pope Joan, released in 2009.
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Joan, the daughter of a priest and his Saxon wife, is born in 814. Her brother Matthew teaches her how to read, but then he dies of fever. This is a blow for their father, who only has one other son, who is less intelligent than Matthew was. Ironically, when he discovers that Joan is able to read her father calls her “child of the devil” and blames Matthew's death on her, as a punishment.
Then a Greek academic called Aesculapius teaches Joan and her brother John, but he says that John doesn’t have potential. The classes are in Latin, Greek and in classical philosophy. When Aesculapius has to leave, he gives Joan a book in Greek and Latin. At night Joan reads this book and her father discovers it. Her punishment is that she has to destroy the book from Aesculapius. When she refuses, her father beats her almost to death.
Weeks later a man from the Scola near Dorstadt comes to the family and has the duty to pick up Joan to give her the chance to study, at Aesculapius' request. But the father says that John is the intended student, not Joan. So the messenger finally takes John. That same night Joan flees. So Joan and John go to Dorstadt together. The bishop is impressed by Joan’s intelligence. But Joan is a girl and can’t live in the Scola, so she has to live on the property of Margrave Gerold, a local knight. Joan and Gerold develop a deep friendship, which finally turns to love. Gerold's wife discovers this and attempts to force Joan to marry a local peasant while Gerold is away. As a result of Joan leaving the school, her much-less-able brother is also forced to leave, the plan being that he will join the monastery of Fulda. During Joan's wedding the city is attacked by Vikings, and almost everybody is killed, including John. But Joan is able to flee again and, disguising herself as a boy, takes her brother's place at Fulda as “Brother Johannes Anglicus”. On his return Gerold believes her to be dead.
There she stays for many years of years and becomes a skilled physician. Because of her great knowledge, they ordain Joan as a priest. Then her father visits her in Fulda. Believing her to be her brother, he tells her that her mother has died. When he discovers who she is, he attempts to expose her, but the shock brings on a stroke and he dies almost at once. More years pass and when the plague comes to Fulda Joan sickens. She is afraid that they will discover that she’s a woman and flees, finding refuge with a family she previously helped. After her convalescence she goes to Rome.
In Rome she works as a physician again, eventually rising to become personal physician to the Pope, Sergius, a weak man easily led by his venal brother Benedict. Joan attempts to guide Sergius so that the papacy becomes more of a force for good. Her influence over him is resented by Benedict who attempts to frame her for breaking her vow of chastity. When the Frankish Emperor Lothar marches Rome, Benedict flees with funds intended to try and placate him, and Joan is restored to her former place of authority. Benedict is apprehended by Gerold, now serving Lothar, and executed.
Sergius' guilt over ordering Benedict's death causes him to weaken and die. He is replaced by the much younger Pope Leo, much to the anger of Anastasius, an ally of Lothar intent on securing the papal throne. After the city is attacked by Saracens, Joan - a senior priest under Leo - suggests extending the city walls to protect ancient sites just beyond. In an attempt to undermine Leo's popularity Anastasius tries to sabotage the work, causing a serious fire in Rome. He is forced to flee to Lothar's court and is excommunicated.
Anastasius' family has Leo poisoned and he dies. Believing that Anastasius' family will now take the throne, Gerold and Joan plan to flee the city together - but Joan is unexpectedly elected Pope due to her popularity with the Roman public. Her desire to spend money on good works rather than grand churches makes her unpopular within the Church.
After she has been Pope for some time, there is a severe flood in Rome. Leading the rescue efforts, Joan and Gerold become trapped in a half-flooded building. Alone there, they give in to their emotions and finally consummate their relationship. Not long after Joan realises she is pregnant, at a (for the time) dangerously advanced age. She attempts to abort the pregnancy but fails.
Lothar and Anastasius enter Rome again as charges of corruption are brought against Gerold, now commander of the Pope's militia. Joan's quick thinking saves him. They realise they must flee the city before her condition becomes obvious, but she insists on staying until Easter as the people need her. Anastasius plans to seize the throne but realises he needs to remove Gerold before he can attack Joan directly.
During a papal procession, Gerold is lured into a trap, stabbed from behind and killed. Already in pain, Joan runs to be with him but then miscarries in public and dies from blood loss.
An epilogue reveals that Anastasius indeed took the papacy but could not hold it. He gained revenge of a sort by obliterating Joan from history, excluding her from his book on the lives of the Popes. However, an archbishop makes restitution by restoring Joan's papacy in a copy of the book he makes himself - for the archbishop is also secretly a woman, the daughter of a peasant family saved by Joan many years earlier.