The Inquisitor’s Tale
By Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly
Published by Dutton Children’s Books
“Whether you go your separate ways or stay together, you will continue to witness— against ignorance, against cruelty, and on behalf of all that is beautiful about this strange and crooked world.” Indeed, The Inquisitor’s Tale is chock full of ignorance, cruelty, and beauty. Readers confront warring knights and witch-hunts, religious beliefs, bigotry, and burnings, the supernatural and the superstitious. Adopting the structure of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the novel unfolds as a series of stories being told by various characters, such as a nun, an inn owner, a brewster, and of course, an Inquisitor. Multiple perspectives infuse the story at every turn, through the various narrations as well as the different backgrounds, experiences, and religious beliefs of the three protagonists. Jeanne, a peasant girl with the power to see the future, must flee knights who wish to bring her to church authorities; William, the son of a Crusader and a North African woman, demonstrates superhuman strength, and is forced to leave the monastery that has been his only home; Jacob, a Jewish peasant with healing powers, must also leave his village, fleeing those who wish to remove Jews from France. The trio meet and face a series of challenges and adventures as they travel first to St. Denis, then Paris, and finally, Mont Saint-Michel. Along the way they confront knights on horseback, literally thousands of books, the Archangel Michael, and the King of France. Gidwtiz does not shy away from the exploration of religious beliefs and arguments, or from presenting characters whose perspectives fly in the face of 21st century values of religious tolerance and freedom. Despite the serious nature of much of the content of this middle grade historical fantasy, the strong writing, fast pacing, and humorous asides (hello, farting dragon), propel readers forward. This is a book that can be unpeeled layer-by-layer and discovered anew through rereadings. A lengthy author’s note supports students understanding of Gidwitz’s recreation of France in 1242. The Inquisitor’s Tale provides much food for thought for middle grade language arts and social studies classrooms.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Intertextuality. While The Inquisitor’s Tale is set in the 13th century, its title and structure are a nod to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the 14th century narrative about a group of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury Cathedral, each taking a turn at telling his/her story. Have your students explore the origins of the original tale using The British Library’s information on Geoffrey Chaucer as well as the first British printer and publisher, William Caxton’s, 15th century version publication. You might want to have small groups explore different excerpts from the tales via Barbara Cohen’s illustrated version for middle grade readers and/or Marcia Williams’s comic book- style picture book version (now out of print). While reading the novel, have students keep track of similarities and differences between the two texts. When they are have completed the novel, have them discuss if/how knowledge of the earlier book supported their reading.
Exploring Medieval Texts. Within the novel as well as in the author’s note, a range of medieval texts are described, from tapestries such as The Bayeaux Tapestry to medieval manuscripts and stained glass windows, such as the ones that “Saint Louis,” the king in the novel, created at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Using the resources below, have students learn more about the different types of texts. Who was the audience for each type? Who created the texts? What information did they convey, for what purpose? Who “read” them? What skills and craftsmanship were required to create them? How long did it take? You could have students become experts and present to one another, or you could have medieval text stations and have students work their way through all three, comparing and contrasting the answers to the overview questions within a graphic organizer. You might want to have local artisans who work with glass, textiles, and handmade books come to class to demonstrate their work.
Marginalia: Then and Now. Before The Inquisitor’s Tale begins, there is an “About this Book” message that describes illustrator Hatem Aly’s work within the book. Some illustrations directly reflect the action. Others challenge or question those events. As you make your way through the novel, have your students document their thinking about the book as a whole as well as the marginal illustrations. You may want to do this by providing them with sticky notes on which they themselves can doodle (purposefully!) in the margins. They can track their interest/emotion response to the text as well as the questions and comments they have about the characters, plot, and the themes that emerge. While reading and writing/drawing in the margins, direct your students to actual medieval marginalia by drawing upon some of the resources below, including the interactive marginalia presentation from the Getty Center. You might want to conclude your ongoing conversation about the marginalia by considering the ways in which we write in the margins in the 21st century. To what extent does your class use the comment feature in Microsoft word or Google docs? To what extent does your class comment on one another’s work in a class blog? How does social media or the comments section on a newspaper or magazine story promote the same kind of commentary that medieval marginalia did?
Exploring Setting. For students reading this novel outside of Europe, the setting may seem unfamiliar. Support your students ability to visualize the novel by having them explore some of the places mentioned, such as St. Denis, Paris, and Mont St. Michel using resources listed in Further Resources below.
Multiple Voices in a Medieval Village. The Inquisitor’s Tale draws upon the strength that multiple voices can provide a story, and is an homage to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Before, during, or after your reading of this novel, pair the book with the Newbery Award-winning Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz. Drawing on their knowledge of medieval village life from both books, have your students recreate a medieval village and the people within it. Draw upon the knowledge students gained from the above exploration of setting. You might want to have a living history simulation by constructing the medieval village in your classroom and inviting younger students from your school or district to come visit. Each of your students can play a role. You also might want to team up with your art teacher or a local artist to represent a medieval village in a form of medieval art, such as stained glass or tapestry. In each case, you can find substitute materials.
Writer’s Craft: Description. In chapter 18, Gidwitz paints a portrait of words to describe 13th century Paris. Have students do a close reading of this description. First, have them reread from the middle of p. 217 to the top of p. 219. Ask them if they can identify how the author’s description of both people and physical structures make the city come alive. Next, have them draw Paris, using the details from the book. Have students in small groups compare and contrast their drawings. What details in their drawings came specifically from the book? Where can they see their prior knowledge (correct or incorrect) informing their art? Finally, have students write a page-long description of some section of your community, modeling their writing on Gidwitz’s.
Writer’s Craft: Figurative Language. In chapter 19, Gidwitz describes Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Have students reread pages 227-228, in which the cathedral is described as both a spider and a crab. Have students explore a range of photographs of Notre Dame from different angles. Which do they believe is a better simile, the crab or the spider? Next, try to build up your writers’ “figurative language muscles.” If possible, take students on a walking tour of the neighborhood around your school. If not, have them walk around their neighborhood for homework, either drawing or taking pictures of various public buildings. Have students share their drawings or photos with one another back in class, and work in pairs or small groups to develop a range of similes that could be used to describe each building.
Writer’s Craft: Deep Thoughts. During your reading of the novel and/or at its conclusion, have your students consider some of the more powerful quotes. Before you begin, consider the book’s dedication: “To all who labor in obscurity to bring dark ages to light.” What is the author asking us to think about? Have students keep track of quotes that they find particularly powerful, such as the following quote from the Talmud in chapter 25: “Whoever destroys a single life destroys the whole world. And whoever saves a single life saves the whole world” (p. 304). When you finish reading the novel students can share and sort their quotes, and consider the meaning in today’s world.
Genre Study: Historical Fiction? Fantasy? The Inquisitor’s Tale is an example of both historical fiction and fantasy. When you have completed the novel, make sure to have your students read Gidwitz’s extensive author’s note, which details the origin of the story and the ways in which nuggets from history turned into events in the novel. Have students map out the ways in which his process models exemplary historical fiction writing. You might want students to draw upon their knowledge of the genre through other books (or even movies) that they have read/seen. But what elements of the novel are considered fantasy? Have students examine the roles of Gwenforte the ghost dog, Michelangelo the archangel, the fiends and the farting dragon, as well as William’s super-strength, Jeanne’s ability to see the future, and Jacob’s healing powers. Have students consider these characters in the context of the lived world of the 13th century as well as our understanding of fantasy fiction today. Have your students draw upon their understanding of fantasy fiction and the ways in which traditional fantasy often draws upon medieval culture (think Lord of the Rings as well as animal fantasy from the Redwall series to The Tale of Despereaux to elements of the magical world in the Harry Potter series). Have your students write original short stories that combine the elements of more than one genre of writing.
Multigenre Exploration of the Medieval World: Literature Circles. Medieval European history spans 1,000 years and many complex regions, cultures, and religions. Rather than limit your students to one representation of one part of that period through one book, have students within the class read a range of novels in order to compare and contrast their representation of the medieval period. Use an essential question to frame your exploration, such as “How did people in medieval society experience everyday life?”. If you have a robust local library network, students may be able to self-select the novels or nonfiction they read. If not, purchase or borrow (with your school librarian’s help) a set of fiction and nonfiction books, drawing from some of the recommended choices below, as well as books that may have gone out of print but are still available. For an extensive listing, see list of medieval young adult novels at HistoricalNovels.Info. As students read, make sure that you provide them with time to compare and contrast when and where their novels or nonfiction take place, and what they are learning about the art, religion, power, and everyday life.
Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain. At the start of the novel, William is infuriated when one of his teachers, Brother Bartholomew, insists that all Muslims are Satan’s “foot soldiers.” William counters by bringing up various Muslim intellectuals. Your students may or may not have the background knowledge that William has: an understanding of the Crusades and 13th century relations between Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and a knowledge of the largely peaceful Muslim Spain in the 8th century, referred to as Al-Andalus. You could play them Darcy Armstrong’s lecture on Al-Andalus and her lecture on the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic number system to Europe. Consult with your school or local librarian to see if this Teaching Company lecture series is available. Have students take notes as they listen to the lecture. What information surprises them? What are the some the comparisons and contrasts they can make between 13th century Christian France, as represented in the novel, and 8th century Muslim Spain? What comparisons can they make between Al-Andalus and the United States in the 21st century?
The Power of Trios. For the majority of the novel, the three protagonists are talked about as a trio, rather than as individuals. Some of your students may automatically begin to make some connections between Jeanne, William, and Jacob and Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Have your students consider other novels or series that feature a trio (for example, the novel Doll Bones features a trio, as does the first Percy Jackson series). How are trios of friends different than pairs? How are trios more complicated? In their own lives are pairs and groups of friends more common than trios? To extend the exploration further, you might have your students investigate the number three as a motif that repeats throughout folktales and fairy tales, as well as its significance in world religions and mythology.
Exploring Religion. At the heart of this novel is an exploration of what it means to be a religious person. In this case, the conversation is limited to the 13th century. But this conversation is important to have in the 21st century as well, in light of current events. What do your students think about religion? What do they know about Christianity, Islam, and Judaism? What do they know about other religions, such as Hinduism, and Buddhism? How can a conversation about these different religions help students to see similarities over difference and foster a spirit of tolerance? To see differences over similarities and foster a spirit of diversity? Divide your students up into small groups in order to study one religion more closely. You might want to create common subcategories for students to explore to help parallel their research. Next, place students in jigsawed-groups in which they share information with one another. Have each group decide the methods by which they want to share how they have compared and contrasted their findings. Students may want to present their findings to a group of local religious leaders who can then respond to the student research in a panel-like discussion.
What’s Next? What do Jeanne, William, and Jacob decide to do at the conclusion of the novel? Do they stay together or go their separate ways? Does Jeanne return to her family? Jacob to his aunt and uncle? Does William attend the University of Paris? Have your students write the next chapter of the story, to demonstrate their own predictions about the characters. Or, you could choose to have each student write a modern-day obituary for one of the three. How did the character live his/her life? What did s/he accomplish? What new challenges did s/he face? Some students may choose instead to focus on Etienne, the Inquisitor, instead, or imagine the next human form Archangel Michael takes.
Grades 7 and 8
Anti-Semitism in Medieval Europe. The anti-Semitism expressed in the book by Brother Bartholomew and King Louis IV, often referred to as “Saint Louis,” will be difficult for your students to read. To help them better understand the historical context of this hatred, have them carefully reread the section on Judaism in the author’s note. Ask your students to consider how the author clarifies the ways in which his character, a historical figure, represents a worldview from the time in which the book was set. Next, have them read about anti-Semitism in medieval Europe in an article from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Students with little background knowledge will need support while reading the article. Research examples of anti-Semitism in your state or local community, and share those with your students. Ask them to consider what the United States could do to further foster the religious freedom promised in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution.
The Inquisition – Students may or may not have questions about the Inquisition, which is briefly referenced when Etienne, “the Inquisitor” whose name appears in the title finally reveals himself. There are not a lot of sources on the Inquisition written for this age group and little is discussed in the author’s note. Mature students who are curious about learning more about the terrible events and devastating impact of the Inquisition may want to read Julie Berry’s beautifully written young adult novel The Passion of Dolsa, set in Provence in the early 13th century. Berry has created a background video for the book that your students may find helpful. The audio recording of this book is particularly well-done.
The Power of Books. German author Heinrich Heine once wrote, “Where they burn books, they will also, ultimately, burn people.” Readers of this novel witness both. While the trio fails to save the monk Michelangelo, as well as thousands of books by Jewish scholars, they do manage to save five books written in Hebrew that William left in his donkey’s saddle bags. The group ruminates on how much labor goes into the creation of a single book. Ultimately, William suggests that “each book is a lot of lives. Dozens and dozens of them” (p. 305). Have students compare this understanding of the power of books to the King and former Queen Regent’s decision to burn thousands of them. What does it mean to intentionally wipe out knowledge and the work of previous generations? Why would someone do that? What power do those books possess? How is burning books different from banning them? How is it similar? Students may not know that book burning and banning still happen today. Use resources from the American Library Association to introduce students to the issue of banned books. You may also choose to share with students the book burning that took place under the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, to connect medieval anti-Semitism to 20th century anti-Semitism. You might want to have students read a history of book burning put together by CNN, which includes the burning of Harry Potter books in the United States. Some students may really struggle with this new knowledge. To end on a more positive note, have students interview an adult in their life, or within the school community, about a book that made a positive impact on him/her. Students can find a way to share the results of those interviews with a larger audience, such as through a class blog, a class reading, etc.
Adam Gidwitz’s Official Website
SLJ Interview with Adam Gidwitz
Hatem Aly’s Official Website
The Medieval World
“The Medieval World” Lecture Series, Darcy Armstrong, The Teaching Company
“Turning Points in Medieval History” Lecture Series, Darcy Armstrong, The Teaching Company
“The Middle Ages,” Western Reserve Public Media
“Everyday Life in the Middle Ages,” BBC
The Canterbury Tales
The British Library, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
The British Library
“William Caxton and the Birth of English Printing” Exhibit, Morgan Library, New York
Parallel Text Translation from Fordham University, New York
Virtual Tour of Canterbury Cathedral, England
An Introduction to Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library
“Out of Bounds: Images in the Margins of Medieval Manuscripts” Exhibit, Getty Center, Los Angeles
(Interactive exhibit: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/margins_manuscripts/interactive/index.html)
Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, Morgan Library, New York
Stained Glass Windows
Overview of Stained Glass Windows, Scholastic
Overview of Stained Glass Windows, Getty Museum
Chartes Cathedral, France
Mont Saint Michel
Official Historic Site
Normandy Tourism Site
Ecological Threats to Mont Saint Michel Video
Official Website, St. Denis Cathedral
The Bayeux Musem
Background Information, Khan Academy
Avi. (2002). Crispin: The cross of lead. New York: Hyperion Books for Children.
Barnhouse, R. (2011). The book of the maidservant. New York: Yearling.
Berry, J. (2016). The passion of Dolssa. New York: Viking.
Cushman, K. (2002). Matilda Bone. New York: Dell Yearling.
Temple, F. (1994). The Ramsay Scallop. New York: Harper-Trophy. **
Shultz, L.A. (2007). Good masters! Sweet ladies! Voices from a medieval village. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
Williams, M. (2007). Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press. **
(** out of print but available through libraries, used bookstore sites like abebooks.com)
List of Young Adult Historical Novels Set in Medieval Period, Historical Novels.Info
Langley, A. (2011). Medieval life. New York: DK Publishing.
Stanley, D. (1998). Joan of Arc. New York: Harper Collins.
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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