THE MYTH OF POPE JOAN

Alain Boureau, Author, Lydia G. Cochrane, Translator THE MYTH OF POPE JOANAlain Bo $21 (400p) ISBN 978-0-226-06744-5 ISBN 0-226-06745-9

Fact or fiction: in the ninth century, a woman named Joan donned britches and entered the male preserve of Catholic scholarship; she was so savvy and smart that she eventually became pope, only to die giving birth two years later. This book is less concerned with the reality of Pope Joan ("Did this papacy truly exist?" Boureau asks at the outset. "Certainly not") than with the historical memory of Joan. How and why has Joan's story been told and retold? Who told it, and to what political end? The Church itself subscribed to the story until the 16th century, when Rome distanced itself from Joan because antipapist reformers used the story to discredit the Vatican. Lutheran reformer Martin Schrott, for example, illustrated his anti-Catholic pamphlet with a picture of Joan as Revelation's Whore of Babylon. She also turned up in anticlerical tracts of the French Revolution and in the writings of the 19th-century French novelist Stendhal. American readers ought to rejoice that this book, which came out 12 years ago in French, is finally available in English. This far surpasses Peter Stanford's 1999 apologia The Legend of Pope Joan, one of the few resources about Joan that has been available in English. Kudos to noted French translator Lydia Cochrane, who gives us such gems as "dabbl[ing] in the dubious tinsel of scandalmongering." The scholarship is impeccable, and the stories and the prose make this a book that a wider audience will also enjoy. (May)

Reviewed on: 03/26/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
Genre: Religion
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