In the earliest review of Pope Joan, Publishers Weekly magazine congratulated Syracuse author Donna Woolfolk Cross for "pulling off the improbable feat of writing a romance starring a pregnant pope." But it's much more than a historical romance with a titillating twist. Pope Joan (Crown Publishers, Inc.; 422 pages; $25) forces readers to gaze upon the whole history of Western Civilization with an entirely fresh pair of eyes. The ninth century was the darkest of the Dark Ages. The Saracens sacked. Vikings plundered. Roads and bridges crumbled throughout Europe. Illiteracy and ignorance allowed heretics and humbug to flourish. Poverty was pervasive. But somehow, out of that dreary world, legend says, rose a woman who would ascend to the throne of St. Peter, the most powerful seat in all Christianity. After nearly a decade of research, author Cross vividly recreates those tumultuous times in her new book about the Middle Ages' most extraordinary woman. In one of the novel's many dramatic scenes, Joan's brother John dies in a Viking raid, and she dons his clothing and adopts his persona. Disguised as a man, she joins a monastery and eventually rises to rule Christianity as the only woman ever crowned pope. At least that's how the legend goes.During the 17th century, Cross learned, the Roman Catholic Church erased most records of Joan's two-year reign. Proof of her existence may never fully surface, but Cross makes a convincing case for Joan's path to the papacy. "Life in those troubled times was especially difficult for women," Cross says. "Women were treated as perpetual minors, with no legal or property rights. By law, they could be beaten by their husbands. Rape was treated as a form of minor theft, and the education of women was discouraged. Small wonder, then, that a woman would choose to disguise herself as a man in order to escape such an existence." Despite that retrospective, Cross doesn't see her novel as a feminist tract. "It's certainly no diatribe," she says. Between its lines, however, the novel begs the question, Cross admits, "that if Joan's story is true, if she did in fact reign as the pope in the ninth century, then why can't women be bishops here in the 1990s?" In a nine-page Author's Note, Cross lays out her arguments in favor of Joan's existence, and the church's arguments against it. The briefly noted stories of other distaff historical figures who passed for male are most persuasive, including two female monks--one from the third century and one from the 12th century--who lived lives strikingly similar to Joan's."This is not an anti-church novel," insists Cross, who describes herself as a "cultural, non-practicing Jew." "This is not an anti-Catholic novel. It's a novel about a woman who dared to live out her dream, who lived her whole life in search of faith." Already in its third printing, Pope Joan has received favorable reviews: The Los Angeles Times called it "an engaging, highly commercial book...with all the elements of love, sex, violence, duplicity and long-buried secrets," and Glamour magazine dubbed the title character "a kind of Yentl of the Vatican." And it'll likely make for a better movie. In September, Variety reported that film rights for Pope Joan were purchased in a six-figure deal by Fine Line Cinema. Producer Harry Ufland, whose credits include The Last Temptation of Christ, expects to begin shooting in Europe in 1997. Pope Joan commands plenty of interest among European readers. Foreign rights were snapped up in Spain, France and Germany, where it remains perched at No. 13 on Germany's bestseller list. (The New Times' cover illustration appears on the cover of the German edition.) "I'm knocking on wood," says Cross, director of the writing center at Onondaga Community College. But it takes more than luck to score at this level. No johnny-come-lately to the writing game, Cross has authored or co-authored four previous books, all works of nonfiction, including two bestsellers under her own name, Word Abuse and Media Speak (both published by Coward-McCann, Inc.). Her father, William Woolfolk, has authored a dozen or more books, including Opinion of the Court, a 1966 biography of the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Cross' mother, Dorothy Woolfolk, wrote a series of mysteries for teen-age girls starring a sleuth named Donna Rockford. Raised in new York City, Cross graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and then met her husband, Dr. Richard Cross, in the early Seventies, while they both did graduate school work at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1973, He took a job with the SUNY Health Science Center, where he now serves as the chairman of the College of Medicine's Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department, and she began teaching English at Onondaga Community College. The couple have a daughter, Emily, now attending college in Pennsylvania. Despite her literary lineage, Cross says her writing career began "by accident." While at OCC, Cross was approached by fellow English professor and New Times theater critic James MacKillop about co-writing the language text Speaking of Words. "Jim knew that the courses I taught trained students to be more aware of words so they could be more effective consumers and citizens," Cross explains. "After Speaking of Words was published, we still had a lot of material left over, so my father suggested I try to get a commercial book going." The result was Word Abuse: How the Words We Use Use Us in 1979, followed by Media Speak: How Television Makes Up Your Mind in 1983. Johnny Carson found Cross' lighthearted language essays so entertaining, he invited her to appear five times on NBC-TV's The Tonight Show. The young author's early brush with fame prepared her well for the media blitz that mounts daily around Pope Joan. Cross returned last week from an East Coast book-signing tour that included several radio and TV interviews. The positive reviews and book tours have been bolstered by her publisher's advertising campaign, with a blurb by 12 Angry Men playwright Reginald Rose: "This is the way history should be written--with pace, and color and a great narrative excitement." If and when the film version comes to fruition, the book will enjoy an entirely new shelf life, as well as a paperback publication. Commercial concerns aside, however, Pope Joan is probably the single most important work of historical literature ever to come out of Syracuse. Academics and highbrow critics will debate the book's ambiguous orientation: Should it be considered as a work of historical research, or as an imaginative work of fiction? Mass market readers, however, could care less. They just know they're in for a damn good read, and a new way of looking at our shared past. As such, Pope Joan looms as one of those rare works which raises our collective consciousness about the way ruling classes have consistently distorted history. It makes us reconsider the roles of women past, present and future. It forces us to question the very foundation of Judeo-Christian culture and allows us to see history, religion and sexism all with fresh eyes.Q: Where did you first hear of Pope Joan?A: I speak a couple of languages--French, Spanish and some Italian--and I like to keep up my facility by reading in the language. I was reading a book in French. I wish I could tell you which one--it would make a much better story--but I can't. I vividly recall reading about this Pap Jeanne. I remember turning to [my husband] Richard and saying, "What a funny typo! Because they really mean Jean--J-E-A-N. They must mean Pope Jean, a man." Something must have gotten me, though, because I went and looked in the Catholic Encyclopedia the next day, and there's this entry on Pope Joan, the woman who lived disguised as a man and was supposed to have become pope of the Catholic Church in the ninth century A.D. She was clearly identified, of course, in the Catholic Encyclopedia as legend.Q: So when you first started, you considered her a medieval legend?A: When I began writing the book, I pretty much thought she was probably a legend still. But I thought she was a fascinating legend, particularly because she'd been so obliterated from modern consciousness. King Arthur, after all, is almost certainly a legend, but everyone knows about him. How come this legend, universally believed for 800 years, is extinguished from modern consciousness? Even among Catholics, no one's heard of her. So I said, "Now that's a great story!" I did some preliminary research, and put together an outline and a couple of chapters with the idea of selling this book the way I'd sold my earlier books. My agent at the time couldn't sell a fiction book, so I said, "OK, I'm still teaching at OCC. I'm not quitting my day job."Q: What kept you on the case?A: I started finding these weird contradictory little things about her that indicated that she may not be legend. There's a lot of indication that she was real. In 1986, Richard and I went to Europe to follow her trail down through Germany--although when she lived there was no Germany, there was no France, there was no Italy, no Spain. Those nations, even those languages, did not exist in the ninth century. Everyone spoke Latin, really, degenerating into a variety of directions. So we traced her trail down through Germany and over to Fulda, where she was in the monastery, and then down into Rome. I became more and more convinced and assured that she was in fact more than legend.Q: Was the difficulty of researching the Dark Ages one of the reasons you wrote a novel rather than a nonfiction work?A: The story is skeletal. It was an incredibly illiterate time period. People now have a hard time understanding what I'm talking about here; the great King Charlemagne, who died about the same time Pope Joan was born, could not sign his own name! Even priests of the ninth century couldn't read or write--they memorized the liturgy. Therefore, when we're talking about records of the time, it's not like records from the 16th and 17th centuries where there are letters and diaries and journals and farming accounts. They just don't exist [from the ninth century]. There are just a very, very few chronicles that often follow a rather set format which just give the skeletal outlines of her life.Q: So as a fiction writer, you had the license to flesh her out, so to speak?A: Yes, and also to explore the psychology of such a woman. Human life is lived in the lines between those few chronicles. What would make a person, a woman, give up that primal identity with which we are born? It's the absolute first thing anyone notices about you, the thing that informs all of our social interactions immediately. Imagine the energy and concentration it takes to maintain such a disguise. And the danger if one is caught: Unspeakable! Death is not the problem. Death would be a happy alternative. They were inventive in the Middle Ages about the way they killed you, and you could linger for a long time in hideous, unimaginable death and torture, should she be discovered. So that psychology interested me, and to do that you have to write a novel, because you're inventing--logically, based upon what we know about her--but still inventing motivations, dialogue and conflicts.Q: And love affairs?A: Well, that's not invented. That's in the chronicles. That was part of history. Not that she had romance necessarily, but what we know is that she was pregnant and that she gave birth. According to the chronicles, she got pregnant from an intimate in the papal court, either a chamberlain or some very close associate. What seemed to me is that a woman of such deep intelligence--and all the chronicles agree that she was an absolutely brilliant person--would not cast away her position of power and all her learning for a fling with a cute chamberlain. That makes no sense. So what I did as a logical invention was create a lifelong love and romance with someone she meets in her childhood. So this is no fling. It's part of her soul, something that matters. And that's what led her in my book to the unfortunate situation she's in. And that's also part of the historical record, that she gave birth on that street [in Rome] in that actual spot, which is why all popes forever after avoid that street.Q: It's amazing how well your prose evokes a world so few of us know anything about. How did you capture the zeitgeist of the Dark Ages?A: For the dialogue, I almost had to create a new kind of language. I needed to suggest archaic speech without making it so archaic that you couldn't read it. The other part is how much of what we believe to be truth, to be justice, to be beauty--are relative concepts. Those things are not absolute. Beautiful women now would have been considered hideous then. For example, Joan is described in the book as not an attractive girl. She says, "I'm not pretty." But the way I describe her, I try to let the reader know she might be considered attractive today. She has a boyish kind of good look.Q: What has been the Catholic Church's reaction to Pope Joan as a historical personage, and to this book?A: They've been noticeably silent so far about my book. In the past, however, the church itself admitted that it seized records. There's no question about that. Orders were given in the 16th and 17th centuries to destroy those records. I think what the church's explanation right now would be is that, "Knowing that she is legend and finding that this legend is destructive to the church, we chose to seize and destroy those documents." The other way to look at it is that this is truth, that these are evidentiary items that they can't afford to have. No attempt was made by the church at all to suppress this story until the Protestant Reformation, until the church came under attack by Martin Luther. It was totally accepted by all the previous popes and bishops. All of the Catholic hierarchy knew this story. It was not invented later by Protestants, as some have said. It was a story known and repeated by highly placed Catholics who remained extremely loyal to the papacy. These were people with no motive, no axes to grind, no reason to make up such a story.Q: In your Author's Note, you discuss several other women who managed to pass for men. Practically speaking, isn't that a difficult process?A: There are no valid portraits or pictures of Joan, so we don't really know what she looked like. But I have seen pictures of women who successfully masqueraded as men, and many of them are overweight. There's something about an overweight woman, or man for that matter--think about that "Pat" character from Saturday Night Live--who have got that kind of amorphous, androgynous aspect. So extra weight would have been a good way for Joan to disguise herself, and then you add the clerical robes and the modesty of the times, the sparse hygiene. This is not a hard thing to carry off. It has been done.Q: One of the most amazing things in the book is its only illustration: an ornate marble chair with an opening like a toilet. You wrote that it was used for 600 years as a way to examine the genitals of every pope elected after Joan, to verify his manhood. What's that all about?A: Yes, the sella stercoraria, and it's very controversial. The church denies that such an exam ever took place, but they can't deny the chair--it's right there in the Vatican Museum. It's obviously a toilet seat, perhaps an obstetric chair, but either way you're in equal trouble. I mean, obstetrics take you back to Original Sin. Women weren't even allowed to set foot in a church for 33 days after giving birth, or 66 days, by the way, if it was a female child. You were unclean. It was like menstrual blood--to give birth was an unclean act. So whether it's a toilet or an obstetric chair, it was not the sort of chair on which a pope should sit at the most sacred moment of his coronation, without some very compelling reason. I don't find it believable to say that, "Well, it's just a very handsome-looking chair, and it's just coincidental that it has a hole in it." I find that absurd. There are at least three eyewitness accounts of that exam, and stories, anecdotes, popular jokes about it were rife for centuries. All through Rome, everyone would talk about the exam of the popes, which went on until the 16th century. Something must have happened to inspire this exam, something like the embarrassment of a woman pontiff.Q: You started by researching a legend, but now it seems you believe that Joan was real. Are you sure?A: I don't think it's certain that Joan existed. Given the obscurity and the darkness of the times, it's impossible to determine with certainty what happened. What I argue is that it's an untenable position to say for sure she never lived. There's an awful lot of compelling evidence. No one has really looked into this in a scholarly, serious way. We now have modern methods of dating. We have all kinds of manuscripts we could look at. I think it's time we should look at it again. I don't know how they can be so damn sure she didn't live. Legend or not, Pope Joan is one of the most interesting stories of the Middle Ages that has been lost to us. The story says a lot about the medieval mind-set. It says a lot about the position of women in the church. Her story is the heritage of every single one of us.