Saturday, December 3, 2011

Pope Joan: the legend, the novel and the mini-series from REELZ channel









I started this post a year ago, and its drafting suffered from a case of analysis paralysis. It was thus confined to the oubliette known as the drafts folder. However, with the recent news that the movie Pope Joan, based on the internationally bestselling novel of the same name by Donna Woolfolk Cross, is going to be televised in the United States by REELZ Channel, I became inspired to finish this post.

The movie will be broadcast as a miniseries on December 18th and 19th starting at 8pm EST.

It will be the director's cut and include 25 more minutes than was included in the theatrical release as well as an interview with author Donna Woolfolk Cross.

Theatrical release is kind of a misnomer for the US market as it was never released here. The movie was released in Europe, but was only shown in a few premieres and film festivals in the United States. Why? I can only speculate. Other movies of merit have also had difficulty in being distributed while numerous clunkers open every week to thousands of screens nationwide.

That's the risk of getting excited when talking about "show business." Many times there isn't any logic applied.

Marquee from the Castro Theatre for the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival. Yes, I am aware of the irony provided by the film title above that of Pope Joan.

I am one of the one of the few privileged people in the U.S who has seen this film because I attended a film festival in San Francisco in October 2010. I wanted to share with the medievalist blogosphere my feedback on this movie as there is now an opportunity for others to see it now that it will be televised.

I loved the movie and am eager to watch the miniseries, burn it onto my private DVR at home so that I can watch it again whenever I like, since it is still not available yet on DVD in the U.S.

The Legend

Before I discuss the merits of the movie, I would like to first address the legend.

Pope Joan is a legendary figure whose very existence is debated by historians and theologians.

According to legend, a woman disguised herself as a man using the name John Anglicus and rose in the ranks of the Catholic Church to become Pope John VIII during the ninth century.

The official position of the Catholic Church is that this is a falsehood and that there has never been a female pope.

I feel that just because the Catholic Church denies her existence and there is no consensus by historians, this should not dissuade people from enjoying the novel or the movie.

Historians argue over whether or not there was an historical figure that the legendary King Arthur was based upon, and - if he existed - the time period of his reign and where Camelot was sited.

I believe that Medievalists who enjoy Arthurian legend, should also enjoy the legend of Pope Joan.

There is circumstantial evidence to support the conclusion that such a woman existed, but rather than attempt to persuade anyone by listing it here I will use a different appeal. I want my fellow medievalists and lovers of mythic fiction to forget about evaluating the historical evidence on this particular legendary figure, and allow yourself to explore the what ifs provided by such a legend.

Imagine what it would have been like to be a woman of the Middle Ages who yearns for a life beyond her station, but have such avenues as entering a monastery denied to you because of the accident of being born a woman. The only way to subvert that blockade would be to use subterfuge. Then imagine how difficult it would be knowing that every day you had to be on guard lest your true sex become revealed, and with that possible torture and death as punishment.

As a woman, I want to believe Pope Joan existed. Much more than I care whether or not Guinevere existed.

Because I want more positive historical role models of women. Compared to men, there are few women in the historical record and most of them are known because of who their fathers were, who their husbands were, or who they slept with.

Women in the historical record are usually born into a position of power or rose to it due to their beauty and sexuality.

The legend of Pope Joan is of a woman of humble origins who rose to a position of power due to her intellect.

I Love That.

Really. Beauty fades, but knowledge grows over a lifetime. To have a woman become successful due to her reason and wits is inspirational to me.

This is similar to my preference of the archetype of Athena over Aphrodite.

To have a woman hide the most basic aspect of her personhood so that she might aspire to be literate and live a life of scholarly theological pursuit is a testament to her own desire for learning.

Then to have her dedication for knowledge be recognized by her peers and have her advance within the hierarchy is even more impressive.

Knowing the sordid history of discrimination against educating women and the necessity of lawsuits to allow for their entry into schools and universities, it is understandable how it would have been far easier centuries ago for a smart female to avoid denial by passing herself off as a male.

And history is rife with examples of women who cross-dressed to survive and even to thrive in a male dominated world. I came across an example today of a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania whose dissertation is entitled: “Legendary Effects: Women Saints of the Legenda Aurea in England 1260-1563.”

Therefore, please do not let the controversy of a female pope dissuade you from enjoying the novel and the movie. I have my doubts about the historicity of King Arthur, I but still enjoy watching the movie Excalibur regardless of its historical inaccuracies.

The Novel

Donna Woolfolk Cross stumbled upon a mention of Pope Jeanne one day while doing research. She dismissed it at first as being a misspelling of Pope Jean. Later, she pulled down a reference tome and looked up a listing of popes and discovered that there was a mention of Pope Joan who was dismissed as being nothing more than legend.

Intrigued, Donna began to investigate and soon found herself immersed in ninth century European lore and intrigue. She spent seven years researching this novel and traveled to Europe several times.

Donna chose to write the story of Pope Joan as a novel rather than a non-fiction book because there were too many gaps in the storyline. Using her imagination, she filled in those gaps and wanted to tell the story of a brave woman who defied the expectations of females of the middle ages and strove to become educated.

The novel is told through multiple points of view and provides insight into the varying perspectives different people in society would view the subject of educating women and girls.

The Movie

For my friends in the medievalist communities, I want to assure you that this movie shows the medieval period in all of its gritty glory. There is not the high glossed shine of some movies set in medieval times with a romanticized look and women appearing to have mascara, lipstick, and wearing silken finery. Not in this movie. Thankfully the smells of the farm animals and the unwashed masses are not transmitted through the screen to the audiences.

Nor does this movie portray idealized righteous kings. Charlemagne's grandson Lothar is shown feuding with the papacy. I was happy to recognize that the crown worn by Lothar appears to be the one that once belonged to his grandfather.

A replica of Charlemagne's crown from the Rathaus in Aachen, Germany

Similarly, the armor worn by the knights in this movie is scale armor and is not the brightly polished plate armor depicted in medieval fantasies such as Excalibur.

There is also not the problem of modern sensibilities being injected into the past as if the only difference between life then and now was wardrobe and hygiene.

Instead, it is clearly shown as a time when women had little power of their own.

Overview of movie with minimalist spoilers

Here is the theatrical trailer:



Johanna (Joan) is born the same day that Charlemagne dies (January 28, 814), and is the beginning reference point for the story. There are also mentions of the Saxons having been forcibly converted to Christianity by Charlemagne and those who refused having been put to death.

Johanna's father is a village canon and is a cruel man with a violent temper.

Naturally curious, Johanna pays attentions to the lessons her father gives to her two brothers and discovers that she comprehends and remembers more than the younger son. She begs her oldest brother to teach her to read and write. He does so, but only in secret.

Later her father is horrified to learn that his daughter has become literate. An opportunity presents itself for Johanna to leave her abusive father and attend a school. She begins a new life where she is once again ridiculed for being female and seeking to be a part of the male world.

The local bishop allows Johanna to enter the schola in Dorstadt. He is shown as a man who enjoys wine, women and song. He finds the prospect of a girl in the school to be an amusing novelty and calls for her admission over the objections of the schoolmaster.

Violence in the movie is unflinching, but is merciful in its brevity. A finger is chopped off to remove a ring with ease, a head lopped off with a single stroke of a sword, as well as the aftermath of a Viking raid where dozens of corpses are lined up to help with identification of the dead.

Johanna reaches a crossroads in her life and finds that her best chance of survival is to assume her brother's identity and enter a monastery. There, for the first time in her life, she is given the recognition she deserves for her piety and her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, but only because she is believed to be a man. She is called Johannes Anglicus (or John Anglicus). Anglicus in reference to her father being English.

During her time in the monastery she works as a healer and translates books by Hippocrates from Greek to Latin. Her knowledge of medicine is what brings her acclaim, but also possibly her downfall. At one point after working with the sick, she develops a fever and is almost forced by her fellow monks to disrobe for treatment. It is the fear of being discovered as a woman that forces her to flee the monastery.

After her recovery from illness, she decides on a pilgrimage to Rome. It is there that she achieves her life's destiny.

Pope Sergius is near death. The physicians have bled him repeatedly and he looks doomed.
John Goodman plays the part of gluttonous Pope Sergius. Goodman was made for the role. Not only the body type, but he shows the range of behavior similar to a pendulum swing from violent excess when drunk to having a keen intellect when sober.

Anatole Taubman is the conniving Anastasius who plots his own ascension for the papal throne. He is afraid that if Sergius dies too soon that he will passed over in consideration. He needs time to consolidate his power and in desperation, he seeks an outside healer, John Anglicus, whose good works have come to be renowned since his arrival in Rome.

Taubman played the part of Remigius in the mini series Pillars of the Earth (being rebroadcast starting December 3rd also on REELZ channel). After Pope Joan and Pillars, he may get typecast as wily, untrustworthy, utterly ambitious villains. The good news for him is that there are many of those roles in movies so he could have a long film career.

Other familiar faces on the screen include David Wenham, Faramir of Lord of the Rings fame. He plays Count Gerold, a kind man who took pity on Johanna when she first came to the schola in Dorstadt and offered lodging in his family's home for her. They develop a strong bond as Johanna grows from a child to a young woman.

Johanna Wokalek plays the title role from late teens to Johanna's death in her forties. She does a marvelous job of playing a character who has mastered patience in the face of adversity. Many actors are called to gain or lose weight for parts, but not many actresses are asked to be tonsured. Part of my brain while watching the movie was paying attention to the length of hair stubble appearing on the crown of her head.

I fully recognize that stories told in movies are different than they are books. They are two different mediums and you must recognize that what works in one format must change in order to work in another. Several plot points of historical relevance were omitted from the movie for time considerations. This includes leaving out the sacking of St. Peter's, a fire in the Borgo that destroyed much of the Vatican, the reign of Pope Leo IV, and flooding of the Tiber River.

Those are all in the novel, but not in the movie. At least those were not included in the theatrical release of the movie. Perhaps some of those exciting historical events will be a part of the restored 25 minutes of the director's cut.

The version I saw worked as a dramatic vehicle even if it was streamlined from the events of the novel. It has all the foreshadowing and plot points necessary to tell a story that holds together. The acting is wonderful.

There are some historical inaccuracies, but those are explained by Donna Woolfolk Cross in her detailed author's notes at the end of her novel. She admits that she made some adjustments "in the interest of telling a good story." This includes changing the timing of a Viking raid in Dorstadt to coincide with a major plot point.

All in all, the novel and the movie represent good historical fiction of a legendary character.


I urge my medievalist friends to watch the miniseries and discuss it amongst your friends, classrooms and colleagues. If nothing else, as an example of a what a good medievalist movie looks like.

Full disclosure:

I first met Donna Woolfolk Cross in 1997 when she came to Sonoma County and did a benefit book signing for an organization I was president of at the time. My husband and I spent an enjoyable day with Donna and her husband Richard prior to the evening's event.

We have corresponded periodically ever since.

At the time when we met, the trade paperback version was a new release and she was just beginning her major method of promoting her novel by doing author chats via speaker phone to book groups. She has done that several times each week since then. There is a set of questions at the back of her book to stimulate discussion in book clubs and then she calls and joins the conversation in progress.

The clubs arrange a time for Donna to call by sending a message to her website www.popejoan.com . She has talked to thousands and thousands of book clubs this way over the last thirteen years and speaks with classrooms as well.

Her persistence in championing her novel served as an inspiration of my first ever blog post where I highlighted those efforts as well as those of Richard Zimler's in getting his first novel published. That post is titled Never Give Up.

Each time Donna speaks with a book group, she has the hope that the participants will tell others about their positive experience of speaking with an author and having the ability to ask questions about their novel. This positive word of mouth (WOM) campaign has led to her trade paperback being in its eighteenth printing in the U.S. alone.

Pope Joan has been translated into thirty-one languages, was ranked #1 for three years on Germany's bestseller list and is number one on the list of longtime bestselling novels in Germany.

This is borne out by my finding a copy of her novel in the train station in Aachen, Germany this summer.

Here is the wall of historical fiction:

And if you look closely you can see the word "Papstin" on a red paperback cover. That is Donna's novel.

After the movie, I was able to grab Donna for a quick photo. It was nice to see her again, and I wish her continued success with her novel of a legendary woman.

To further help out a friend, I am going to list her new social media sites to help promote the miniseries and the novel.

Pope Joan the blog
Pope Joan the Book Facebook page
Donna Woolfolk Cross on Twitter


Please spread the word about the upcoming miniseries. I also want to read reviews about it across the medievalist blogosphere after it airs.



http://lcmccabe.blogspot.com/2011/12/pope-joan-legend-novel-and-mini-series.html
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