Not all history is about castles, kings, princely duels, or big horses. My favorite medieval historical fiction for kids is about ordinary people–doing extraordinary things. Here are two good books about children hundreds of years ago living in the world.
Matilda Bone by Karen Cushman
Cushman, Karen (2002). Matilda Bone. New York, NY: Dell Yearling.
Matilda, unlike most 13-year-old girls in medieval England, knows how to read. She was raised in a convent by a priest named Father Leufredus, who taught her about saints, demons, good, evil, and how to speak and read Latin. But when Father Leufredus is called away to London, he abandons Matilda at the home of a woman named Red Peg, who makes her living as a bonesetter (someone who mends broken bones). While Matilda wants to be useful as Peg’s assistant, she quickly becomes terrified by how bloody, physical and heretical (against the Bible) the outside world can be. Red Peg has no use for books or saints, and is frequently fed up with Matilda’s inability to tend a fire, get a good deal at the market, or make use of herbs, balms, or household tools like a broom. Even worse, plenty of people Matilda meets don’t have any faith at all that prayer to saints is the way to Heaven—and that’s if they believe in Heaven at all. But as time goes on, Matilda realizes that the practical medicine that Red Peg provides her customers with—and the humane way she treats them—might be more valuable in day-to-day life than the words of priests.
Cushman has many novels (The Midwife’s Apprentice, Catherine Called Birdy) about smart, independent girls living in what we know as the Middle Ages. Her basic idea, which is a good one, is that even in times when most women’s stories weren’t written down and they were treated by men as property, most women probably thought for themselves and made their own lives on their wits just like men did, when they could. Most history books about this time period leave out details about women and girls’ lives, and also leave out the ways people got medical care when they lived too far away or were too poor to visit famous doctors. Only recently have historians looked at cookbooks, books on medicine, and artifacts to find out more about what women did during the “dark ages.” This book, like Cushman’s other books, draws on a lot of research to paint a picture of what daily life and medicine looked like. Often, that reality was disgusting and bloody.
The gross details of Medieval England in this book include:
-Rotten eels sold as fresh fish
-Streets full of poop and garbage
-Barbers who double as doctors —when someone needs to amputate a leg!
-Eye medicine from “experts” that calls for bull manure
At the same time, Cushman writes about the things people did know how to do, far better than they do today—which they drew on experience for. These include herbal medicine, practical skills like bonesetting, and midwifery (delivering babies at home). This book is more than just a history book, though. Matilda navigates loneliness, panic, and hard work before becoming an independent, admirable woman. Many women like Matilda have probably been forever erased from history. Cushman brings her back.
The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz
Gidwitz, Adam (2016). The Inquisitor’s Tale. New York, NY: Penguin Young Reader’s Group.
In 1242, in the area that would one day be France but was at the moment sort of a collection of kingdoms only kind of under the control of a king, live three eleven-year-old children who are all in horrible danger.
Black monk William, the son of a Spanish aristocrat and a North African woman, has been sent away from his monastery after getting into an argument with another monk and smashing a marble bench in what can only be described as a miracle. Peasant girl Jeanne, who sees visions of the future, has to flee her hometown after she witnesses the resurrection of a heroic dog that the townspeople revere as a saint, and promptly saves it from agents of the Church who have been sent to destroy it. Meanwhile, a boy named Jacob, equipped with healing powers, sets off alone to find his uncle, the Rabbi Yehuda, after the Jewish quarter of town he lives in is burned to the ground.
Tracking all three children is an Inquisitor (someone who works for the Church and decides if people should be persecuted by it). He hears their tale from a group of strangers at an inn who have each independently had contact with one or another of the children at different points along their journey. As each new person tells a story, readers get a better picture of everything that has happened—of course, that’s assuming that any one of these people is telling the truth.
This book is fun to read and full of bloody battles, witty arguments about religion, magical dreams, evil men with very sad backstories, and a diverse, thriving, artistic, funny, dirty, bloody society. It includes murderous Crusaders, piles of dung, farting dragons, stinky cheese, fools, bandits, and weak ale. It also includes prophetic dreams, friendships across religious lines, intelligent women and girls, efforts to rescue books from burning, brave warriors, a magic dog, and a great deal of hope about what we can make the world if we work together. As an added bonus, there are beautiful “illuminations”–tiny illustrations–by artist Hatem Aly, which trace the edges of each page just like they would in an old medieval book. Great for fans of The Tale of Despereaux, Jane Yolen’s The Young Merlin trilogy, or Serafina and the Black Cloak.