I vaguely remember reading somewhere that, in addition to all of the shenanigans that popes have gotten up to in centuries past, there was actually a woman who managed to get elected to the Throne of St. Peter. I assumed it was one of those political situations where she served as a figurehead for about 3 minutes and then was replaced by a man. It seems it's a little more complicated than that: the legend (and that's all it can be proven to be, unfortunately) is that Joan, or Johanna, passed herself off as a man and was only revealed as a woman when she gave birth, rather publicly, in the middle of a procession through Rome. As a result, it's said that for centuries afterward each papal successor had to undergo a physical examination to make sure he was indeed male. Now, there are good arguments both for the strictly mythical nature of Pope Joan's reign and for her actual existence, but the fact is, there really is a sort of chair shaped like a toilet (which was allegedly used to facilitate the exam) that exists as a church relic, and there are writings dating back to the 15th century that document that examination. Seems to me there wouldn't be a reason for an exam unless there was some question about the pope's gender.
In any case: The novel's Joan is a wunderkind
who defies her father and church doctrine in her quest for an education; she eavesdrops on her brothers' school lessons, eventually learning to read Latin and Greek and argue logically despite repeated punishment. She even gets to go to school, but her status as a freak (in a time when it was authoritatively stated that learning was debilitating to a woman, as her uterus would shrink in direct proportion to her intellect's growth, rendering her infertile) puts her in conflict with the monks and priests at the school, her fellow students, and even the host family in whose house she lives during her schooling. She escapes a forced marriage and an attack by Vikings, takes on the identity of her dead brother, and once disguised begins a steady rise through the ranks of the Church, culminating in nearly a two-year reign as pope.
A little too much 21st century feminist idol spin on this 9th Century woman for me. Joan, or John Anglicus as she is known, is a wizard at debate, a genius healer, and an advocate for the poor, lending her powers of persuasion to the development of public works designed to improve the lives and health of the common folk. And through it all she is devoted - albeit distantly - to the solder Gerrold, who fell in love with her when she was a teenager and periodically tries to get her to leave the Church and marry him. (Of course she doesn't, prototypical feminist that she is.)
An interesting read. I learned a lot more about Church history (there are plenty of facts in play here, and most of the characters are based in real people), and I like the mystery aspect - was she real or not?