The legend of Pope Joan is the story of a ninth-century German woman so devoted to learning and the Catholic Church that she disguised herself as a man and rose through the Catholic hierarchy. According to the legend, she was eventually elected pope. Her sex was only discovered when she died in childbirth, two years into her papacy.

The controversial story has been around for centuries, but the woman pope has received a great deal of attention in the past decade. An investigative work ("The Legend of Pope Joan" by Peter Stanford), a myth-shattering historical work ("The Myth of Pope Joan" by Alain Boureau), and a novel ("Pope Joan") have all recently come out in print. In 2001, Beliefnet's Rebecca Phillips interviewed Donna Woolfolk Cross, the author of the novel.

In your book, you seem fairly certain that Pope Joan really existed, or at least that there is some validity to the legend. Why do you believe the story?

I don't think we'll ever know for sure. But if you're asking me my best guess, I think probably so, just because there is so much historical smoke there, there must have been some kind of fire. Maybe not exactly the way the story has come down to us today, but it's hard to believe nothing happened there.

"Women have always been allowed to be mystics and visionaries and that kind of thing. Whereas Pope Joan, by contrast, is a woman who wielded power, secular power."

Why are readers so shocked to find out about the story of Pope Joan?

Even if you think of her as nothing more than legend, you can compare her to another person whose story is certainly nothing more than legend--King Arthur. King Arthur's story is such a comfortable story, religiously, politically, that it has been advanced and promoted to the point where most people, at least in the United States, think of it as history.

Joan's story, because it's an uncomfortable story, religiously and politically, and because it raises all kinds of difficult issues, instead of being promoted to the point where people think of it as history, has been smothered and obliterated to the point where most Americans have never even heard of her. I hadn't when I came across her story by accident.

And yet people have been writing about her for hundreds of years.

Yes. It just shows what ignoring and smothering can do. I just think we prefer King Arthur's story to be true, and many people don't prefer Joan's to be. But people divide on this issue.

Now, I'm not Catholic, so it's not up to me to make decisions in the faith. I do have a lot of respect for people of a given faith; they should be the ones to make decisions. But even just as an outsider, I feel sorry when I read all these stories about the terrible shortage of priests. There's just no priests around. And here are these women--I know women--of deep spirituality and faith with wonderful leadership qualities who could do so much for that very faith. And the only reason they're excluded is because of their gender. And that seems somehow wrong, or at least a waste.

Is the recent spurt of interest in Pope Joan similar to other recent books about women reclaiming their religion, such as "The Red Tent"?

Exactly, "The Red Tent" and also a lot of books about women who had strong roles in the early church, in the first one or two hundred years. There's one woman who was a bishop, Theodora Episcopa. One recent book by Joan Morris, "The Lady Was a Bishop," is about her and about other women with strong roles that seem to be priest-like roles in the early church. There are many other books on this topic.

Do people embrace Joan as a feminist role model?

I think partly. It's one of these ancient bastions in which this deep inequality that we've tried to address in other realms is still not only tolerated but institutionalized and promoted. She is also widely embraced because she's one of the great lost mysteries of history. I like her because she's so different from Saint Joan of Arc, who was much more typical of a religious woman. Saint Joan of Arc was an illiterate peasant. She couldn't read or write. She dressed as a man, but she never disguised herself as a man because everyone knew she was a woman.

Joan of Arc was also very typical in that she was allowed to hear voices and speak to God. That doesn't overturn the view of women as the lesser of the sexes, because God has always said that he will speak to the least among us. Women have always been allowed to be mystics and visionaries and that kind of thing. Whereas Pope Joan, by contrast, is a woman who wielded power, secular power. She was a woman known for the brilliance of her mind in a time when lots of women were believed to be unable to reason.

For those two reasons, I think that she's a fascinating woman. Partly that she defies the normal stereotype of woman religious, and also because she is renowned not for her beauty or her virginity, but for her smarts.

How did you go about the research for the book?

I started in this country. It wasn't until I went over to Europe, in Germany, France, and England, that I could see original manuscripts. None of them existed in the ninth century. They are copies of ninth-century manuscripts. And that's where a lot of the debate about Joan comes in, because in the copies where her story doesn't appear--was it deliberately left out? And in the copies where her story does appear--was it later deliberately interpolated? That's the whole debate.

I don't think that people have gone through enough trouble to find things out. One of the big ways the story was discredited was in the 17th century by a Protestant. He looked at a manuscript, and on the basis of minor glitches in handwriting, he concluded that it was added in later. Well that's mighty subjective, and no one's gone back to check that. We could date that ink. Why haven't we done it?

What is the current position of the Catholic Church on Joan?

The chief argument of the Vatican now is that the story is a very late invention of Protestant reformers, eager to discredit the papacy. If you can trace her story back to the 11th century, Protestantism wasn't even a dim glimmer in the eye of the great-great grandfather of Martin Luther. There was no Protestantism. And her story is told in more than 500 ancient manuscripts, largely by Catholics, often by Catholics very zealously devoted to the papacy or very highly placed in the papal hierarchy. So why would these people invent this story if they're so devoted?

I know you said you aren't Catholic. Are you at all religious?

I don't usually talk about my religious background because I hate the idea that people might think this book had some kind of agenda. It doesn't have an anti-Catholic agenda, and in fact the only people who object to it are those who haven't read it. It's really a story about empowerment and learning--this woman overcoming these obstacles through education.

Let's talk a little bit about the movie. You wrote the screenplay?

I did. When the book was first bought, the movie rights were purchased, and it was assigned a screenwriter, Andrew Davis. He's done the movie "Circle of Friends," the multipart BBC adaptations of "Pride and Prejudice," "Middlemarch," "Emma," "Moll Flanders." When his draft came in for this movie to be called "Pope Joan," Joan never actually did become pope. It was a problematic script. So I got to be able to write the screenplay.

Which actress would be your ideal Joan?

My ideal choice of actresses has already turned the part down, and I'm still grieving. I think she would have been perfect. That was Jodi Foster. She's so intelligent, and I think she could have pulled it off--that hard task of passing as a man. There are now a couple of actresses being considered.

When is it scheduled to go into production?

Now that the director is in place, either this fall or early winter [2001], depending on how smoothly things go. It will be filmed in Germany and in Prague and Rome.

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