The books that inspired Lotharingia - Thoughts on Pope Joan

Updated: Sep 29

This is my first post in a while. I have spent the summer dreaming of holidays I could not take, and sharing visuals of the settings of Lotharingia on Pinterest and Twitter,

The inspiration for Lotharingia initially came from history books but was enriched by my travel, and the images, sounds, smells, I would say the moods you capture walking in the footsteps of the characters you are fictionalising.

So, in the beginning, were the history tomes, then the journeys. Eventually, reading fiction by other authors, and taking a few batterings in real life, I had my own road to Damascus moment, and realised that Matilde had been there all along, waiting to be re-written for contemporary audiences.

My posts over the next few weeks will pay credit to the writers and the stories that were my inspiration. Whilst I do not believe in rankings, I have to acknowledge that my personal turning point came when I read Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross. It is a masterful re-telling of the hypothetical life of a female Pope that might or might not have existed. The story is engrossing and deeply moving, one of those books you wish would never end,

Young Johanna is the daughter of an abusive priest - they were allowed to marry in those days - and of a Saxon mother, secretly still a pagan. All she wants in life is to learn, but her father sees even that as a sin. Only a travelling Byzantine teacher and a great lord of the Lotharingia lands by the name of Gerold see her talent and appreciate her courage. Johanna feels drawn to the older Gerold but fears her love is unrequited.

When her brother is brutally killed during a Viking attack, she takes up his identity to enter the monastery of Fulda, where she takes on the name of Brother John Anglicus and distinguishes herself as a great scholar and healer. Eventually, fate draws her to Rome, where she finds Gerold again. Her intelligence and courage result in the completely unexpected election of Brother John to the highest office in Christendom.

When I got to the end, I knew that the point was not whether Pope Joan had actually existed or not, the point was that the possibility had to be acknowledged. As I stared at the back cover, colourful images of women from illuminated manuscripts flew out of the shadows, women that history had nonchalantly erased or turned into a footnote scribbled in the remotest corner of a manuscript. The 'intervenientes,' the interceders, of the German kingdom/Holy Roman Empire diplomas. Women who could only convince a male ruler to take a certain course of action, if he decided to listen. But who might have been more intelligent and capable of the man they were advising - something we will never know because they left traces as light as dust, and did not have a voice.

There were so many, but Matilde stood out.

Perhaps because one of her diplomatic efforts - a truce between a Pope and a would-be Holy Roman Emperor, was so impactful that it could not be obliterated.

Perhaps because no other woman went to war against a Holy Roman Emperor and defeated him.

Perhaps because, conscious of her historical uniqueness, she took masterful care of her self-representation.

Perhaps because so many castles, cathedrals, country churches, even the landscapes and the food of Italy still bear the traces of her will.

Perhaps because Saxony, the ancestral land of Pope Joan's mother, plays such a meaningful part in Matilde's life too.

If a woman deserved to be recreated the way Donna Woolfolk Cross recreated Pope Joan, in my heart it had to be Matilde.

Readers of Pope Joan will realise that I have acknowledged my influence and paid homage to Donna and her character, through the fleeting appearance of a certain lady towards the end of the book.

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