Those Who Do Not Study History Are Condemned to Repeat It – Guest Post and Giveaway

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.

29 comments to Those Who Do Not Study History Are Condemned to Repeat It – Guest Post and Giveaway

  • lindymc

    I read and thoroughly enjoyed Pope Joan some time ago, and then loaned the book to other family members to read, and let it get away from me. I’d like to reread it, and I am particularly intrigued to learn that this newer edition has updates and additional author notes. Please give me a chance to get this “new and improved” novel.
    Thank you.

  • I read about Pope Joan in one of my graduate courses…it was in a play in which the author used several famous historical women as his main characters…man, but I’m kicking myself for forgetting the name of that play!

    Anyway, reading that play really piqued my interest in Pope Joan…I was looking at this in the bookstore a few weeks ago, but passed over it in favor of saving money. I’d love to win it now!

    Meanwhile, I’m going to search my files and see if I haven’t saved it (the hoarder in me is sure it’s somewhere…)

    Thanks for the giveaway!
    .-= Bibliolatrist´s last blog ..I will not make a finger joke, I will not make a finger joke, Iwillnotmakeafingerjoke =-.

  • Bibliolatrist–the name of the play you are thinking of is “Top Girls”. It just had a successful revival in NYC. Interesting play–but doesn’t give Joan half her due, which I tried very hard to do in my novel.

    Good luck in the contest!

    Donna Woolfolk Cross

  • This book has been on my reading list for awhile, and now I’m even more anxious to read it. What an interesting and inspiring story – in an era where women are little more than property, a woman rises to one of the most powerful positions possible! I would love to win a copy of this book!
    .-= Brittany´s last blog ..Review – Drood =-.

  • I most certainly want to read this story and I can’t agree more with you about exposing our children to history early. The sugarcoated or complete absence of some parts of history that continues to be taught in schools and broadcast in the media is disturbing in this day and age.

  • Because this book is based on a legend, I have been rather loathe to read it; I get concerned when history is “tampered” with or when legends are treated as fact. However, I’ve heard nothing but good about this book, and this guest post has finally convinced me – I really DO need to read it!

    Please enter me – I’d love to win this. :)
    .-= Heather J.´s last blog ..Moll Flanders =-.

  • I already own the book, so don’t enter me in the giveaway, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post. Can’t wait to see the movie!
    .-= Lorin´s last blog ..Review: Passeggiata: Strolling Through Italy =-.

  • Donna – you’re brilliant!! Thanks so much, especially since I searched my files yesterday and didn’t find the play. Guess the hoarder in me has been slowly stamped out over the years. That’s a good thing, I’m sure, although it’s moments like these that have me kicking myself.
    .-= Bibliolatrist´s last blog ..I will not make a finger joke, I will not make a finger joke, Iwillnotmakeafingerjoke =-.

  • Ooh, great guest post! No need to enter me in the contest as I already have Pope Joan. It’s very true that what’s in historical fiction is sanitized medieval life and we certainly should teach our children more than the sugar-coated history they get in schools. I just hope my kids like learning about it as much as I do!
    .-= Meghan´s last blog ..Blog Tour Review: Last Light over Carolina, Mary Alice Monroe =-.

  • Excellent post. Even for the horrors that happened in our lifetimes (or our parents’) — genocide in Africa, the Holocaust — we are a step removed if we weren’t actually there, and we can’t even begin to imagine what people went through. The middle ages were not a good time for women (well, was any time a good time for women, even up to 2000?), who had no rights, not even in regard to their their own bodies.

    I first learned of Pope Joan when I was in college and have been fascinated with her story every since.

    I would love to win the book. BFish (dot) Reads (at) gmail.
    .-= Beth F´s last blog ..Where Are You? / Teaser Tuesday (July 14): Inventing Montana by Ted Leeson =-.

  • No need to enter me as I plan on buying this to enter the contest! Our book club just read POPE JOAN and I haven’t even reviewed it yet. Donna called in and she was fantastic to talk to! Fantastic post Donna!
    .-= Natasha @ Maw Books´s last blog ..Heroes by Ken Mochizuki, Illustrated by Dom Lee =-.

    • Hey, Natasha! Right back atcha about our speakerphone chat–it was a lot of fun speaking to your group of smart, funny, responsive women!

      Book group members reading this blog should know that I “join the conversation” for free–that is, I make the call from my end, so there’s no expense to the group. It’s an unusual opportunity for readers to ask questions of “the horse’s mouth, so to speak–especially useful with historical fiction, for you can find out which characters and events are real, which fictional, etc. And I also have some insider movie news to “dish” at the moment!

      It’s easy to set up a chat with me. Just go to and follow the links to the “request a time” form. I’ll usually reply within 1-2 weeks.

  • I couldn’t agree more with Donna about the necessity of bearing witness to the past. When my husband and I were writing our History Lives series (a 5-vol YA history of Christianity), our publisher was very concerned about age appropriateness. We acknowledged the necessity of handling certain topics with care, but we were determined not to sanitize any aspect of the past simply to make it more palatable–or to feed anyone’s (mis)perceptions of reality. Our purpose was to portray real people with real problems trying to make sense of their circumstances–instead of conjuring perfect (and non-existent!) “heroes.” I sense a kindred commitment in Donna–let me know if you ever want a writing partner!

    I was intrigued by POPE JOAN when it first came out, but it somehow fell off my radar, so thanks for this reminder. I’m adding to my TBR list whether I win the free copy or not! Please enter me.
    .-= Mindy Withrow´s last blog ..Shorts on the web =-.

  • Just RT’d this post/giveaway, too. I’m @mindywithrow.
    .-= Mindy Withrow´s last blog ..Shorts on the web =-.

  • No need to enter me, as I have a copy of this one (and hope to get to it soon), but just wanted to thank you for the wonderful guest post.
    .-= Melissa – Shhh I’m Reading´s last blog ..Review: 8th Confession by James Patterson =-.

  • Sue

    My sister has been telling me I need to read Pope Joan, so I’d love a chance to win it~ Thanks for sharing!

    smickelson1993 at yahoo dot com

  • I’d love to read about this intrepid woman – the idea of being beaten for becoming literate is so chilling, but I know that it was uncommon for men to think women needed to be literate.
    .-= melanie´s last blog ..Saturday fill-ins =-.

  • I was horrified when i read this 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!)

    Really?! There was a LOW like that! I can’t believe it! But then Middle Ages and all ages were equally bad for women!

    I think that was a fantastic answer the author gave for “Schlinder’s List”. I think I will hunt for this movie, and see it myself!

    I am really happy that I came to know about this one! Thank You!
    Please enter me – if I can win this, I will be VERY GLAD :)
    .-= Veens´s last blog ..BTT: TBR =-.

  • My mother and I were just discussing the topic of our responsibility to those that came before us to witness (in whatever manner we can now) what they went through. We were specifically talking about some of the differences between post-war British literature and post-war American lit and why that might be. My kids are both still too young to really broach some of these topics, but I plan on it as soon as I feel they’re ready to grasp it. I love the idea of being vigilant and humanized by our knowledge of history. I’d love to be entered to win this book. I really want to read it. Thank you so much!
    .-= Angie´s last blog ..Retro Friday Review: The Prince of Ill Luck by Susan Dexter =-.

  • This book sounds really interesting. I had never heard of Pope Joan until the book started popping up on blogs. I love historical fiction so I’d like to be entered in the draw.
    .-= Chris@bookarama´s last blog ..Friday Bookish Buzz: Lazy Summer =-.

  • This is an interesting guest post. I like how the author says about writing and reading histrocal novels and bearing in mind those historical events, however ugly and unbearable it might be. I’ve heard a lot about Pope Joan and I’ve been aching for it. I hope to have this great chance to win the book. I’m crossing my fingers. 😀 Happy reading and happy summer.
    .-= Linna´s last blog ..Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler =-.

  • CherylS22

    I am amazed to even know that a woman was pope (although disguised as a man). I, too, believe that past history must be learned & acknowledged or history will repeat itself. We have to learn from what has happened before us so we don’t repeat the horrors that have occurred.

  • It is really sad to realize that things like that happened (and are happening still) to women. I have experienced discrimination in the form of being treated like a child because I am a woman, but at least I haven’t faced all of the other horrible things on your list of mistreatments.

    I remember watching Schindler’s List in my apartment during college and weeping. I’m kind of glad I didn’t see it in the theater because I’m not a big fan of weeping in front of others.

    Anyway, this sounds like a fascinating book that I would love to read.

    akreese (at) hotmail (dot) com
    .-= Alyce´s last blog ..Mailbox Monday – July 20 =-.

  • I think historical fiction – that is, GOOD historical fiction – can truly bring history alive for the masses of people who may not otherwise have any interest in the subject. I can’t tell you the many historical fiction books I have read and immediately headed out to the library to read up further on the subject. In doing so, I’ve had so many areas illuminated, lives and stories that would have never have touched me and that I may have never learned from.

    Your point, that there is only the thinnest veneer of civilization is a truly salient point. One doesn’t need to look very far, even today, to see just how thin that veneer is.

    Would love to be entered in the contest. I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, and for some reason other things have popped up. That said, I’m on a HUGE historical fiction kick right now, and this would fit in nicely.
    .-= b*babbler´s last blog ..A man, merely a man =-.

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