Review Rating: 8
The story of a 9th Century English-German woman who disguises herself as a man and rises through the ranks of the Vatican.
I’m a history buff, I enjoy those dark ages tales of wars and royalty and such. So when I heard that the legend of the only female Pope had been made into a mini-series, I set the DVR to recording. What was presented was an intriguing portrait of love and fear, and the myriad ways which we humans react to such things.
Our story begins with Iain Glen, of Resident Evil Extinction and Game of Thrones fame, as father to Johanna, intolerant husband and priest of the village of Ingelheim. Now the Germans have apparently only recently been forcibly converted to Catholicism, so when Johanna demonstrates a desire to learn everything she can, her father reacts in a…very zealot-like manner. Which is to say, when he catches Mother telling stories of Woden to Johanna, he beats the Devil out of her. And when he later catches Johanna knowing way more than she should, he tries to beat the Devil out of her too. Johanna has two brothers, one elder who lovingly teaches her in secret to read and write, and the younger Johannes who wants nothing more than to be a soldier. Of course the gentle older brother takes ill and dies, and when the scholar Iscalapius comes to town, father insists that if he wants to take Johanna the girl to the Scholae to learn, he’ll have to take the boy too. Things don’t work out quite that way, and eventually Johanna simply runs off and joins up with Johannes her brother to appear at the Scholae anyway. The Bishop of course takes a liking to the outspoken and intelligent girl, and a man of the Court Gerold offers to take her in, since of course a mere girl can’t be lodged in the boys dormitory. Gerold’s wife isn’t happy about these arrangements and does all she can, from blackmail to marriage, to get Johanna out of her hair. Especially after several years, when Johanna has more filled out and she and Gerold are looking at eachother with dove eyes. So Johanna’s marriage, despite all protests and Gerold being gone on the Crusades, is arranged to the blacksmiths boy of all things. Only to be stopped when pagan Norse raiders (I think) invade the Church and kill everyone they can reach, neglecting to notice that the not-yet-bride is simply knocked out. Johanna survives, and learns to hide her womanhood safe inside a monastery of all things. And that’s the end of Part 1.
Part 2 finds brother Johannes Anglicus, a skilled healer, falling prey to a sickness that rocks the Abbey, and with the aid of a knowledgeable older brother, flees the Abbey before her secret can be discovered. A kindly family with an apparently intelligent daughter saves her, nurses Joan back to health, and offers to let her stay despite her desire to go to Rome. Heading off to that holy city, Johannes is soon noticed for his healing skills and called upon to attend the Pope by a dubious cabinet of Bishops and advisors. Curing the Pope of his gout, Johannes soon becomes an advisor and favorite of his, much to the dismay of ambitious others. When a nasty Emperor comes and threatens to invadeRomeand put all to the sword unless they acknowledge his sovereignty, Johannes uses the mighty power of her intelligence and contrives a miracle at the Pope’s very feet, too.
And then, after Gerold shows back up and Joanna finally admits to her desire and love for him, the one night she’s gone and unable to take care of the Pope, of course the inevitable happens – he’s poisoned. Through whatever machinations were managed, Johanna wasn’t even there, she’s elected the new Pope. Here the story gets faster, we can feel the end approaching. Her days are spent as the Pope in full regalia, and Johanna’s nights are spent in the company of the Captain of the Pope’s men, of course Gerold. Which means inevitably, eventually, Johanna becomes pregnant. And despite all the good works she does, the revisions she tries to bring to the Church and the aid to the people, the story is woven around her name being taken out of history. So her detractors inside the Church, realizing to get to the Pope they need to get past Gerold, plan an assassination. Gerold is well aware of Johanna’s situation at this point, but she convinces him to let her stay for Easter Sunday inRome, and whereafter they will finally flee. And finally, that’s when it all pops off, Gerold is assassinated and sadly Pope Joan falls from her caravan and dies in the street. They made it look like she was suffering in the same manner as the only man she loved died of sword wounds, despite also dying from what I think was a septic pregnancy.
The first Pope is played by John Goodman, who does I think a fair job of the portrayal of the overindulgence that the Pope’s had become known for. Johanna Wokalek does a fine if restrained job as Johanna herself. And I did rather enjoy the role of Anastasius, as played by Anatole Taubman, of Pillars of the Earth fame. The acting is marvelous, the story intriguing and generally well-paced, based off a book by Donna Woolfolk Cross, and told from an interestingly sympathetic point of view.