Scandalous Interview with Donna Woolfolk Cross

"Engaging . . . Pope Joan has all the elements: love, sex, violence, duplicity, and long-buried secrets."--Los Angeles Times Book Review
For a thousand years men have denied her existence--Pope Joan, the woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to rule Christianity for two years. Now this compelling novel animates the legend with a portrait of an unforgettable woman who struggles against restrictions her soul cannot accept.When her older brother dies in a Viking attack, the brilliant young Joan assumes his identity and enters a Benedictine monastery where, as Brother John Anglicus, she distinguishes herself as a scholar and healer. Eventually drawn to Rome, she soon becomes enmeshed in a dangerous mix of powerful passion and explosive politics that threatens her life even as it elevates her to the highest throne in the Western world.
"Brings the savage ninth century vividly to life in all its alien richness. An enthralling, scholarly historical novel."--Rebecca Fraser, Author of The Brontes
Q. Welcome to Scandalous Women Donna! Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to writing?

I'm the daughter of two writers: my father, William Woolfolk, wrote 20 novels and won an Emmy for his scripts on the the TV show "The Defenders". My mother, Dorothy Woolfolk, wrote the "Donna Rockford" detective series. They met when both were working in the Golden Age of Comics--my father writing "Superman" and my mother writing "Lois Lane". (is that "meet cute" or what?). I saw what they endured to write--the long hours, the "don't-get-out-of-your-pajamas-until-noon" routine, the despair when creation was going badly--and decided that the writing life was definitely not for me!

But after graduating with a degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania, I realized that I was basically unemployable--for everyone already spoke English! I tried a stint at a publishing house in England for a year--but in the end decided that I didn't want to expatriate myself for life. I tried a year at a Madison Avenue advertising agency in NYC--and decided that helping create toilet paper commercials wasn't the way I wanted to spend my life. I taught writing for many years at an Upstate New York College and while there was much that I found enjoyable and rewarding in this occupation, the "paper load" was crushing. In the end, I realized that the best (non-criminal) way for me to earn a living was by writing.

Q. Saint Joan is much better known than your heroine, Pope Joan. Why is that, and what differences do you see between these two women?

Saint Joan, also known as Joan of Arc, was an admirable woman, no doubt about it. But she was a much more typical "woman religious" than my heroine. Joan of Arc was an ignorant peasant, unable even to read or write. She had to mark the documents that consigned her to the flames with an "X", for she couldn't sign her name. She was also a virgin--a very important component of female sainthood (in France, she is called "Jeanne la Pucelle"--Joan the Virgin). She had a mystical connection to God; He spoke to her and told her what to do. This kind of mystical connection with God is very typical of female saints--and it in no way overturns the traditional view of women as the "lesser of the sexes"--for the Bible says that God speaks preferentially to "the least among us".

Pope Joan, in contrast, was a woman of brilliant intellect. All the chronicle accounts describe her as a prodigy of learning--just like Mozart was a prodigy of music. She was, simply put, the smartest person of her day. She was NOT a virgin--as those familiar with her story know. She had no mystical connection with God, nor is she especially known for the purity of her faith. She was a woman who wielded power--real power, secular power (for the papacy back in the ninth century was every bit as much a secular as a religious office)--and she wielded this power with integrity and compassion.

In my view, this makes her a much more "accessible" heroine than Jeanne d'Arc. She was a flawed and very human woman--certainly no saint--but one who affected her world greatly, and who left a wonderful legacy of female empowerment through learning to future generations.

Q. One of the most amazing things about the book is your recreation of 9th century Europe. I felt as if I were really there. How did you go about researching the book?

In a word: painstakingly. The research took over seven years. But one of the things I love when I read historical fiction is a palpable sense of time and place--the feeling that one is actually there, eating that food, drinking that wine, worshiping those gods. So I tried hard to create this in my novel.

Q. How would it have been possible for a woman to pass herself off as a man for so long and under such circumstances? 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?Good questions, Elizabeth--and the first that occurred to me when I learned of Joan's story. "Impossible", I thought. "For a woman to pull off such a disguise--in so public a role--for so long--and go undiscovered? Can't be done."
Those doubts were laid to rest with only two weeks of research. Turns out that we women are SO darn good at male disguise! We've been pulling it off with enormous success throughout history--often in conditions much more difficult than Joan's. Over 400 women are known to have fought in our own Civil War (both sides, North and South). Military uniforms were much more "body-revealing" than the loose robes worn in the ninth century. And these 'male imposter" soldiers had to sleep in tents, or in open fields, right beside men! What, one wonders, did these women do about their menstrual periods? In my novel, I explain how Joan pulled this off in the ninth century--but you have to read the novel to find out!

Proof that women can successfully master this disguise is evidenced by the legions of women who have done it successfully throughout history. In the Author's Note at the end of my novel, I give many examples. Most recently, you might want to check out the book "Self-Made Man"--a book written in 2006 by a woman who disguised herself as a man and entered a monastery for three months--and no one guessed that she was a woman.

So women CAN pull off male disguise because we HAVE done so, over and over again, throughout time. Turns out that the interesting question about Joan's story isn't "How did she do it?", but "Why did she do it?" Which leads nicely into your next question.

Q. As your novel makes clear, there was considerable hazard in such an imposture. What would drive a woman to take such a risk?

The ninth century was a very misogynistic age. From pulpits all over Europe, women were denounced with anti-female diatribes like the following: "And do you not know that you are Eve--the gate of the devil, the traitor of the tree, the first deserter of Divine Law...on account of the death you deserved, even the Son of God had to die." You can see where women might have had a bit of trouble with "self-esteem" in the ninth century!

Women's rights were non-existent; basically they were the "property" of their husbands or fathers. By law, they could be beaten by their men; the only law on the books was one regulating the size of the club that their husband or father could use. Women were not allowed in Church for thirty days after they had given birth, for they were considered to be "unclean". Make that sixty days if the child they birthed was a girl! Above all, learning in women was discouraged, for a learned woman was considered to be "unnatural". One theory of the day was that the size of a woman's brain and of her uterus were inversely proportional--that is, the more a woman learned, the less likely she would ever bear children. (and if only that were true, wouldn't birth control be a snap? You don't want to have a baby--read a book!).

Into this misogynistic world came this brilliant woman--a "prodigy of learning". Such a woman, in such a world, would have had no alternative if she wanted to be anybody, do anything, exercise in any way her formidable qualities of mind, heart and spirit--other than to disguise herself as a man. Make no mistake about it; this is not simply a story of the "bad old days". Women all over the world are STILL fighting the very same battle that Joan did to have access to education--and being opposed by some of the very same arguments. This is why I think Joan's story is inspirational. And this is why I had my own daughter, and future generations of daughters, very much in mind as I wrote this novel.
Thanks Donna! You can purchase Pope Joan at Barnes & Noble, or


Lucy said…
Fantastic interview! The more I read about Pope Joan, the more I'm fascinated. And- I love the personal details interjected into this's always nice to learn a bit about the author's background ( I love the part about how Donna's parents met!). Thanks Elizabeth and Donna:)
the free spirit said…
Hi...I am such a history nut, that I got hooked to your blog easily :-)
I just saw a trailer for the German Movie based on this book. Looks interesting but I am pretty sure it wont get distributed in the US :-(

I will be sure to get hold of the book though.

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