Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide to
An Order of Darkness Title
By Philippa Gregory
About the Book
Italy, 1453. The Church still reigns, but the Ottoman Empire poses an ever-growing threat to Christian Europe. Inquirer Luco Vero and Lady Isolde, both seventeen, continue their travels, accompanied by their companions Freize, Ishraq, and Brother Peter. And although neither of them will admit it, they are also falling more and more deeply in love. While they are staying in the tiny fishing village of Piccolo, the village is inundated with hundreds of children on a crusade, who claim they are going to walk all the way to Jerusalem. When the sea parts for them, it looks as if their leader, a young boy named Johann, is truly a prophet. Then a giant wave comes from the sea, and Isolde and Ishraq are accused of being witches—stormbringers. It is up to Luca to save the girls and uncover the true causes of such storms. When a mysterious Ottoman stranger arrives by ship, with promises of ancient manuscripts and clues about the whereabouts of Luca’s long-lost parents, Luca cannot resist a meeting with him, no matter how dangerous it may be.
1. What happens in Luca and Isolde’s relationship over the course of the book? Why doesn’t Luca kiss Isolde on the stairs on their first night in Piccolo? Why does he kiss Ishraq in the doorway of the inn on the night after the storm?
2. Does Johann truly hear God speaking to him? How does he know what to say to Luca, Ishraq, and Isolde about their lives?
3. Many of the characters in Stormbringers have lost or left their parents. Explore the theme of orphans. How is the notion of children without parents developed over the course of the book?
4. Isolde fears that people prefer Ishraq because she has useful skills. “Oh, I know she is quite indispensable,” Isolde says, irritated. Ishraq feels sad because she thinks that people will always choose Isolde, for her beauty: “Everyone prefers her to me. Everyone always will.” Who is right?
5. Will Freize’s disappearance and reappearance change Luca’s relationship with him?
6. Isolde takes conventional rules about female honor very seriously, and she is shocked that Ishraq kissed Freize. Ishraq says that her honor comes from her respect for herself, not from external rules. Why does each girl believe as she does? Which girl’s ideas are more similar to our own ideas in modern society?
7. Over the course of the book, Ishraq and Freize grow closer. But Ishraq also lies to Freize more than once. Why?
8. Radu Bey invites Ishraq to come with him to study in Istanbul. Why doesn’t she go with him?
9. On the night that Freize sleeps by the fire in the inn’s kitchen, Freize, Ishraq, and Milord all have different ideas of who visited, of what happened, and of what it means. What do you think the midnight visit meant? What do you think it foreshadows?
10. How are Radu Bey and Milord different? How are they alike? What is the relationship between them?
11. Explaining Brother Peter and Luca’s next assignment, Milord tells them that it will be “[f]or the greater good.” Discuss the terms of their mission, and whether you agree with Milord’s choice of words.
1. Luca is excited at the prospect of reading the works of the Greek philosopher Plato. Try reading some of Plato’s work—perhaps part of his most famous piece, The Republic. What does Plato say about justice? Education? Happiness? Why do you think that Renaissance thinkers valued Plato’s works so highly?
2. Write the first two chapters of a story about a child living in the fifteenth century, one from the point of view of the child, and one from the perspective of the parents who abandoned him/her or sold him/her into slavery.
3. Stage a play in which a child leader like Johann leads a large group on an unlikely journey. How can you portray the leader so that your audience will believe that crowds would have faith in him and follow him?
4. In the book, Isolde and Ishraq have their first serious fight. Look for other moments in the text where characters find themselves in conflict with those closest to them. Think about fights you have had with close friends or family members. How was your conflict resolved? If it was not, what happened to your relationship?
5. Rewrite one or more of the scenes between Radu Bey and Luca from Radu Bey’s point of view. How does he perceive Luca and his friends? Why does he do all that he does?
6. Learn more about the church in the fifteenth century. List what you think it did well, and what it did poorly. Then learn more about fifteenth-century critics of the church. Were their criticisms the same as yours?
7. The people of Piccolo wash their clothes once a month and bathe themselves once a year, on Good Friday. Find out more about fifteenth-century Europeans’ ideas about personal cleanliness. Why did they think that frequent bathing was unhealthy?
8. In Stormbringers, there is a terrible storm—caused by an earthquake—in which the sea seems to draw back and then attack the shore. Find out more about earthquakes and storms and the destruction they can cause. What were some fifteenth-century explanations of natural disasters like the one in the book? How do they compare to our own?
9. The people of Piccolo accuse Isolde and Ishraq of being storm-bringing witches. Find out more about witchcraft and magic in fifteenth-century Europe. What powers were witches thought to have? What were witches supposed to look like? What could a woman accused of witchcraft do to prove her innocence? If a woman was found guilty of witchcraft, what was the penalty?
Period Overview and Supporting Information
Life in fifteenth-century Europe: Before industrialization or urbanization, let alone computers or the digital age, the majority of Europeans were poor and illiterate. Most people worked on farms, tending crops or animals. A tiny minority formed a wealthy aristocracy that owned most of the land and wielded all of the political power. But more powerful even than them was the Church.
Children in fifteenth-century Europe: Most children—unless they were in the tiny minority whose families were not poor—received no education and were expected to work hard from a very young age, at farming, shepherding, or whatever their parents set them to do. Some were given away as servants or sold as slaves, because their parents could not care for them or needed the money, or because their parents believed that they were giving their children a chance at a better life than the one they would have had at home.
The Church: In the fifteenth century, the Church—no one called it the Catholic Church, because until the Reformation there were no other churches in the West!—was extremely important. Most governments were small, weak, or fragmented. The Church was not only the spiritual institution of most Europeans, but was also the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful institution in all of western Europe.
Fall of Constantinople: After its decline in the fifth century, the Roman Empire had divided into two parts: the eastern half—called the Byzantine Empire—used Greek as its learned language, and had Constantinople as its capitol, while the western part—western Europe—used Latin as its scholarly language, and had Rome as its capitol. The two parts had their tensions, but both were Christian areas. Then, in the spring of 1453, the Ottoman (or Turkish) empire captured the city of Constantinople and all its vast libraries of classical learning, and renamed the city Istanbul. To fifteenth-century Christians, the fall of Constantinople was a catastrophe. They feared that the Muslim Turks might go on to conquer the rest of Europe and to stamp out Christianity. Many thought that the fall of Constantinople was a sign that the end of days was coming.
End of days: Medieval Christians believed that Christ’s second coming was imminent. They were always on the lookout for signs that the end of days, in which a series of major disasters would strike and Christ would return to earth, was approaching. Some took the fall of Constantinople to be a harbinger of the end of days—Constantinople was, after all, a major center of Christian authority, the “Rome of the east”—and became extremely anxious about the fate of the Church, humanity, and the world.
Acre: A city in what is now the state of Israel, north of Haifa, on the Mediterranean coast, known as a thriving port and a beautiful city. In the medieval period, Muslims and Christians fought one another for control of the city; in 1517, it was taken by the Ottoman Empire.
Galley: A type of large ship powered by both sails and oars, the latter worked by huge numbers of slaves, convicts, and prisoners of war. In the fifteenth century most of warships in the Mediterranean were galleys.
Hospitallers: also known as the Knights Hospitaller or the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. The Hospitallers were a knightly order that aimed to combine the ideals of the pious monk and the martial knight. By the 1450s their official mission was to care for and protect Christian pilgrims to the Promised Land. However, many—Christians as well as Muslims—feared the Hospitallers for their naval military expertise; while the Hospitallers claimed to fight Muslim pirates on the Mediterranean, many thought they were little more than Christian pirates themselves.
Classical Greek texts: Some of the most revered works of antiquity were written in ancient Greek. Until 1453 these Greek works had been available in the imperial library of the Byzantine Empire, in Constantinople, but were unavailable in western Europe, which had historically favored Latin texts. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, these texts seemed lost to Christians (though eventually refugees who fled Constantinople for Italy reintroduced some Greek classical texts to western Europe). Arab scholars, however, had the Greek texts, both in the original Greek and in Arabic translations.
The Children’s Crusade: Waged mostly between the years 1000 and 1300, the Crusades were a set of religiously motivated military campaigns to retake the Holy Land from Muslim control. While there is no record of a children’s crusade in 1453, there was a large children’s crusade in the year 1212. As many as 50,000 children followed their leaders, a French shepherd boy named Stephen and a German boy named Nicholas, believing that the sea would part for them and that they would walk from Europe to Jerusalem. Historians disagree over whether there was one unified crusade or two (one French, one German) and over the children’s fate: Some say the children were sold into slavery, but others maintain that most of the children either returned to their homes or settled down in the European port towns where their crusades ended (such as Marseilles).
Luca: With an unusual gift for languages and mathematics, seventeen-year-old Luca has been chosen to leave his monastery and travel Europe as an Inquirer. His thirst for knowledge sometimes leads him into dangerous situations. Unlike Brother Peter he is not yet a fully fledged member of the Order of Darkness; he has many questions about the Order and its true purpose, and is quick to challenge its directives when they seem to him immoral or unjust.
Freize: Luca’s best friend, servant, and protector, Freize is a man of the people, not a man of the church like Brother Peter and Luca. He is not formally educated but is extremely perceptive about the feelings of both animals and people. While Brother Peter reveres the men in the Knights Hospitaller, Freize is not afraid to call them murderers. While Luca anguishes over his feelings for Isolde, Freize cheerfully asks Ishraq for a kiss.
Brother Peter: a clerk and a longtime member of the mysterious Order of Darkness into which Luca is being trained, though even he does not know much about the Order beyond his own sworn commitment to it.
Isolde: a young noblewoman determined to regain her inheritance, which was stolen from her by her brother. As an orphan, Isolde has been thrust into a position of independence, but she still takes social standards seriously and strives to follow the rules that govern the lives of respectable ladies.
Ishraq: neither white nor Christian, Ishraq is an outsider in Europe. Raised Muslim, she knows Islam’s texts and tenets well and dresses in both Arab and Christian garb as the mood takes her. Ishraq questions the standards of ladylike behavior that Isolde takes so seriously, and is just as likely to follow her heart as the rules.
Johann: a young shepherd from Switzerland who believes that God speaks to him. He is walking all the way to Jerusalem and has attracted hundreds of children on his journey. People often doubt him until they hear him speak; then they are ready to follow him wherever he leads them.
Milord: the mysterious member of the Order of Darkness for which Luca works as Inquirer and to which Brother Peter has sworn his loyalty. He keeps his face hidden under his hood, and appears to take intense interest in Luca and his career.
Radu Bey: a mysterious Muslim stranger who arrives by sea, tempting Luca with Arab and Greek knowledge and Ishraq with the offer of life with people more like herself. But is Radu Bey his only name? And what of his claims that he has a Christian brother who looks just like him?
For good overviews, see
Hollister, C. Warren, and Judith Bennett. Medieval Europe: A Short History. 11th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2011. Part III, “The Later Middle Ages, 1300 – 1500.”
Merriman, John. A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present. 3rd ed. Norton, 2009. Chapter 1, “Medieval Legacies and Transforming Discoveries” and Chapter 2, “The Renaissance.”
“Galley.” The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.
“Galley.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
“Knightly Orders.” The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
“Knights Templars.” Encyclopedia of World Trade From Ancient Times to the Present. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2005.
“Plato.” Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2005.
“Plato (427–347 BCE).” The Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics. London: Routledge, 2006.
Guide written by Susie Steinbach, Professor of History, Hamline University, College of Liberal Arts.
This guide, written to align with the Common Core State Standards (www.corestandards.org) has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.