Heretic Heroes in YA Literature

What are the chances that two different books, one for middle grades, and one for older teens, would be published within six months of each other, both about heretics, set in medieval France in the years 1241 and 1242?

I don’t know about you, but aside from the story of Joan of Arc, I’ve rarely read many YA books about characters who can perform miracles (fantasy books don’t count) and who are considered heretics. A heretic, as defined by the dictionary is, “a professed believer who maintains religious opinions contrary to those accepted by his or her church or rejects doctrines prescribed by that church.” Although there are many YA books where characters are accused of being witches who could also be labeled heretics by the church, I’m limiting this discussion to just two new books.


If you’ve ever read Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, you’ll recognize the structure of Adam Gidwitz’s medieval tale Inquisitor's Talecalled The Inquisitor’s Tale that’s set in France in 1242 (and this one’s written in more modern language and even has a farting dragon in it!). A stranger has stopped at the Holy Cross-Roads Inn, a day’s walk north of Paris on a dark night, the perfect kind of night for a story. The inn is packed with all sorts of people (female brewsters, peasants, priests, butchers, knights, and many others) all anxious to regale this stranger with the tale of how they’ve seen the miraculous children and their holy dog who are all wanted by King Louis IX.

These miraculous children are William, a giant of a boy, and a monk who is Muslim, whose mother was from Northern Africa, and whose father is a lord. William’s capable of performing feats of strength that would make Samson tremble. Jeanne (named for Joan of Arc) is a girl who sees true visions of the future and Jacob, a Jew, who can heal a wound as fast as Saint Luke himself. Holy dog Gwenforte loved Jeanne when Jeanne was a child but was killed by Jeanne’s parents after they mistakenly think Gwenforte attacked a killed Jeanne, when actually Gwenforte saved her. Ten years later Gwenforte has been miraculously resurrected.

These children meet each other as Jeanne’s running from a huge knight with red hair, Jacob’s fleeing the burning of his community by Catholic boys and William’s been sent on a mission to another monastery with books for the abbot. They realize that, despite their differences, they can talk easily with each other because they all feel like they’re different from other children. And they are! William tears a donkey’s leg off and fights off bandits with it then miraculously reattaches it to the unharmed donkey! The children are chased throughout France by the huge knight who finally catches up with them in Mont-Saint-Michel. The adventure tale is full of humor, heartbreak and amazing historical characters and legends – both real and made-up – with an afterward by Gidwitz that explains where the origins of the book came from.

Julie Berry’s The Passion of Dolssa (Best Fiction for Young Adults nominee), tells the story of  a  young woman, Passion of DolssaDolssa de Stigata, who hears God and is branded a heretic in medieval France in 1241. When a church inquisitor warns Dolssa she will be excommunicated, and her soul will burn in hell and her body will burn in a heretic’s pyre, she says, “I dwell with my beloved, and when you slay me, I will dwell in his arms forever.” In trying to make her confess, they condemn her mother to burn at the stake, and when it’s her turn, she’s mysteriously saved. On the run from her inquisitors, she’s aided by the Flasucra sisters.

Teenaged matchmaker Botille finds Dolssa, and she and her sisters, Sazia, a fortuneteller, and beautiful Plazensa, the  oldest, hide Dolssa away in the tavern they operate in their village. They had a tough life, wandering from town to town stealing to get by after their  mother died, leaving them with her drunkard husband, until they settled down in Bajas (now Bages). Dolssa, grateful for being saved, begins performing miracles, like bringing dying villagers back to life or making sure the sisters’ jugs of ale are continuously full.

Saving Dolssa puts their entire village in mortal danger when Dolssa’s pursuers, particularly dogged Friar Lucien and a former knight get wind of the miracles occurring there. This book might seem a bit daunting in length, but the characters are distinct and engaging, and the earthiness and realism of how life must have been during that period, really shines through. It’s a beautifully written story that’s alternately funny, poignant, and sad and a testament to the power of belief.

Dolssa’s story was discovered by a friar who recreated her story from various places – as the tale told at a bishop’s deathbed; from papers belonging to a priest that were really written by a woman and from a tale by a friar in Barcelona. By putting all these pieces together, the friar recreated Dolssa’s story. Like Gidwitz’s book, the afterward contains the author’s notes about how this fictional book came to be, with it’s real locations and mixture of real and made up characters.

Both of these books about heretics are very different from one another, yet are both gorgeously written (as is the illuminated artwork in Gidwitz’s book).

— Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Naomi Novik’s Uprooted