A couple of years before I started my blog, I read and enjoyed a book called “Pope Joan” by Donna Woolfolk Cross. I was fascinated to learn of the legend that a woman named Joan became Pope during the 9th century while disguised as a man. Donna’s book was difficult to find for awhile, but it has been picked up by Three Rivers Press along with some corrections and additions to the original work. Not only that, but “Pope Joan” is being made into a movie that will be released this fall! To celebrate, Donna has a contest going on her site that will enable one lucky reader to walk the red carpet with her at the movie premiere and she is also giving away one personalized signed copy of her book to a reader here! See the end of this post for details.
“Were the times really as bad as that?” This is a question I get very often from the book groups I chat with by speakerphone 2-3 times a week, every week.
“No,” I always reply. “They were worse. I took it easy on you in my novel!”
Ninth century Frankland, the time in which “Pope Joan” is set, is often described as “the darkest of the Dark Ages.” The collapse of the Roman Empire had led to an era of unprecedented barbarism and violence. The population of Europe had been almost halved by a disastrous series of famines, plagues, civil wars, and “barbarian” invasions.
In the North, the Vikings were attacking. One scene in my novel depicts a band of Norsemen breaking into a church in Dorstadt while the congregation is at worship–and slaughtering everyone in the room (and yes, that scene is historical). Norsemen had become so bold they even sailed down the Seine and sacked Paris!
In the South, the Saracens attacked Rome. As St. Peter’s Cathedral then lay outside the city walls, they were able to break in, trash the cathedral, open the tomb of the Saint, and scatter his remains. (I’m not sure who is in that tomb right now, but if you believe ninth-century accounts of this shocking attack, it’s not St. Peter!). All Christendom was plunged into mourning at the desecration of this oldest and greatest of Christian cathedrals (another event described in my novel).
As one contemporary chronicler lamented, the ninth century was “a sword age, a wind age, a wolf age.” The average life expectancy was very short; less than a quarter of the population ever reached their fifties. There were no longer any real cities; the towns rarely had more than two to three thousand inhabitants. The Roman roads had fallen into decay; the bridges on which they depended disappeared. People tied strings of rowboats together so they could step from one to another to cross a river.
As so often when times are hard, they were especially difficult for women. With few exceptions, women were treated as perpetual minors, with no legal or property rights.
Rape was considered a form of minor theft. Women were forbidden to enter a church for 30 days after they had given birth, for they were considered to be “unclean” (make that 60 days if they had birthed a girl). By law, women could be beaten by their husbands or fathers; the only law on the books was one regulating the size of the club that the husband/father could use (and what the law permits, people will often do!)
One scene in my novel shows my young heroine Joan beaten into unconsciousness by her father for the “crime” of learning to read and write. Such moments are hard to take, no question about it. But they happened–and they are still happening today in countries like Afganistan, Pakistan, and Algeria. I see no advantage to putting our heads in the sand and pretending they do not exist.
When my daughter was only 15, I took her to see “Schlinder’s List”–a film that depicts the Holocaust, another horrific moment in human history. Some of my friends questioned whether this was a good idea. My reply: if people can live through such a nightmare, if they can endure such terrible things, then the least we can do is to bear witness. My daughter, now a grown woman, smart, accomplished, and kind, agrees–and “Schlinder’s List” remains one of her favorite films.
Knowing history humanizes us, broadens our perspective–and makes us vigilant. For the veneer of civilization is applied very thin; scratch it only slightly, and all kinds of human savagery may surface. As George Santayana said, “Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.” Best, then, to face it unblinkingly, to learn from it, and to defend against it. For one thing is certain: such times must never come again.
Donna is giving away one copy of “Pope Joan” to a DevourerofBooks reader anywhere in the world. Simply leave a relevant comment on this post AND let me know you would like to be entered. If all you write is ‘enter me’ or something similar your entry will not be counted. For additional entries, blog or twitter about this contest then come back and leave me the URL in a separate comment. Remember, this is going to be a signed copy, Donna is also willing to personalize it if you would like to give it as a gift. This contest will end at 11:59 pm Central on Thursday, July 23rd.