Study Guide

Crispin: Cross of Lead Quotes

  • Abandonment

    As the priest chanted the Latin prayers, whose meaning I barely understood, I knelt by his side and knew that God had taken away the one person I could claim as my own. But His will be done. (1.7)

    The only family Crispin has ever known is his mother, and now she's gone. When we meet our main character, he's alone and oddly accepting of his fate since he also understands himself as powerless. He might be a little whiny about it, but can we blame him?

    But that morning I had little doubt: I'd never be protected again. (4.31)

    Considering that the steward just tried to kill him and the reeve and the bailiff just pulled down his house, Crispin may be making a bit of an understatement.

    God, I was certain, had completely abandoned me. (11.27)

    If you want to talk low points, this is definitely one. Crispin's lost his mother, his only friend (Father Quinel—don't even get us started on how sad it is that his only friend was a really old priest), his home, and he's been proclaimed a wolf's head. We don't blame him for feeling a little low right about now.

    "A punctilious man, my father," Bear went on. "He paid my fees in full, gave me his hasty blessing, and walked away. I never saw him more." (21.10)

    In Medieval times, people thought that kids owed their parents, not the other way around. And people had a lot of children, so Bear's dad actually does better by him than you might think by setting him up in a comfy career path. The fact that Bear doesn't want to be a monk is beside the point.

    "And that was only water and a blade. Think what you might become if you were cleansed of thirteen years of dirt, neglect, and servitude." (25.28)

    While Crispin's mom loved him, it's also clear that she had mixed feelings because he reminded her of bad things that happened to her. Bear's referring here to the fact that because others have never taken great care of Crispin, he doesn't think much of himself.

    "Blessed Saint Giles," I whispered to the cross, "let me play the music well. Let me be a credit to my master. And I beg thee, let me have a soul, that I too may sing and dance like Bear. And, Saint Giles, do not let him betray me." (26.22)

    Given Crispin's history, protection from betrayal seems like a good thing to ask for. Also, Bear still comes off as a little bit sketchy at this point, so we don't blame Crispin for being concerned.

    "Bear, you… you won't betray me… will you?"

    He gave me an angry look. "How can you even ask?"

    "Forgive me," I said. "But… it has happened." (32.37-39)

    Well, Bear, maybe Crispin's asking because of that trick you pulled with the bread the day you met, and because everyone who wishes him well tends to wind up dead.

    "But when she quickened with child—you—he abandoned her, leaving orders that she be held in that place. Not killed, but never allowed to leave." (49.32)

    Lord Furnival is a total jerk. We might ask why he cared where Asta went, but the answer is probably that he wanted to keep an eye on potential heirs—not out of fatherly affection, per say, but so he wouldn't have to worry about anyone making a claim to his property. His treatment of Asta is worse than total abandonment because he essentially imprisons her at Stromford.

    Then the courier had arrived with his document, probably to announce the impending death of Lord Furnival. His protection—such as it was—was removed. (50.10)

    While Lord Furnival lived, no one could actually kill Asta and Crispin because he might have been mad about it, but with Lord Furnival dead, anyone who sees Crispin's existence as a threat can take action.

    "I can't abandon Bear," I said. (53.51)

    Nobody knows better than Crispin what it feels like to be abandoned. Respect to his choice to risk his life to help his friend.

  • Fear

    As judge, jury, and willing executioner, Aycliffe had but to give the word, and the offender's life was forfeit. We all lived in fear of him. (1.13)

    There are a lot of ways to get people to follow you, but Aycliffe chooses fear. Stromford is a place entirely governed by fear, which explains why Crispin is so afraid all the time: He's never known anything different.

    Transfixed by fear, I stood rooted to the spot. Not until he came close to me did I turn and flee. (2.27)

    As Aycliffe approaches, Crispin finds he can't move. Is Aycliffe's power over Crispin based simply on his power to kill, or does he have some other hold over him?

    I did try to accept my life, but unlike our perfect Jesus, I was filled with caution and suspicion, always expecting to be set upon or mocked. In short, I lived the life of the shunned, forever cast aside, yet looking on, curious as to how others lived. (3.7)

    Poor Crispin. It's hard to make friends when all your experience tells you you'll be attacked.

    Only then did I creep toward the church, alone, uncertain, and very full of fear. (7.23)

    Considering that John Aycliffe has had people out searching for Crispin to kill him all day, all of these feelings sound completely reasonable, if not that big of a leap from where Crispin's been since page one.

    Startled, I stopped. Then I became afraid. After what I had witnessed in the village, I could not believe I was hearing a living voice. (16.1)

    If this were an episode of Scooby-Doo, it would definitely be a ghost voice coming from the abandoned amusement park instead of a living voice coming from an abandoned village. Lucky for Crispin, this is not Scooby-Doo.

    I was in such a fright I could hardly breathe. Tears were coming hard. "I… I swear," I choked out. (18.15)

    Crispin spends most of the book terribly afraid, and now Bear's holding him down and making him swear service. This kid cannot catch a break.

    He shrugged. "I never fear for myself."

    "Why?"

    "I make my own choices."

    "Then do you fear for me there?"

    "Perhaps." (29.35-39)

    Well, that's interesting. Why would the ability to make his own choices make Bear not feel afraid, especially when many of his choices are the kind that tend to lead to nasty deaths in 1377?

    Bear put a hand on my shoulder. "Crispin," he said softly, "try to show less worry. The worst disguise is fear." (34.1)

    While they are trying to sneak past guards who are looking for Crispin, we get the feeling that Bear uses the word "disguise" both literally and figuratively. What might he mean?

    Frantic, but hardly knowing what to do—go to the aid of Bear or take care of myself—I hesitated. Guilt and fear engulfed me equally. (46.19)

    Just when Crispin was starting to feel less constantly afraid, he gets caught with Bear's group of treasonous political cronies, and he feels it's his fault they've been caught, adding guilt to his list of fun emotions.

    "Your connection gives no honor. No position. What someone fears is not you, but that you will be used. Can't you see it? Your noble blood is the warrant for your death. It will remain so till it flows no more." (49.46)

    Finally, the revelation that gives Crispin some power and leverage: John Aycliffe and Lady Furnival are afraid of him. And that means he actually has some power over them.

  • Happiness

    His eyes were closed, but clearly he was not asleep. Instead, he was singing raucously while beating a small drum with his massive hands. As I looked on, he continued to tap the drum with his big fingers, bleating out his song. After repeating the words a few more times, he let loose a booming laugh as if he'd just heard a rare jest. He laughed so hard he put down his drum and opened his eyes. (16.9)

    This is our first look at Bear, and we don't blame Crispin for thinking he might be mad—he is sitting alone in the middle of a plague-stricken village singing and laughing to himself, after all.

    "Do you ever smile, boy?" he demanded. "If you can't laugh and smile, life is worthless. Do you hear me?" he yelled. "It's nothing!" (19.17)

    Ah, our explanation for why Bear is sitting in the middle of a plague-stricken village singing and laughing to himself. YOLO seems to be his motto.

    "For ten years I traveled with those people," he said. "They became my dearest friends. We went all about the kingdom. Mind you, we lived only a tad beyond beggary. But my companions taught me better languages: the language of song, of hand, of foot. And most of all, of laughter." (21.20)

    Yeah, laughter's definitely more valuable than Latin, French, German, or any of those other languages you might run into in Medieval England. Just laugh at people when they try to communicate—it totally works.

    What's more, everything he talked about was stitched with laughter. It was as if life itself were a jest. Except, every now and then he'd cry out with an awful anger at what he called the injustices of the world. (22.25)

    Now we discover that the heart of Bear's laughter is tragic. He laughs to keep from crying.

    "Because sorrow is the common fate of man. Who then would want more? But wit and laugher, Crispin, why, no one ever has enough. When I think on the perfections of our Savior, I choose to think most upon His most perfect laughter. It must have been the kind that makes us laugh, too. For mirth is the coin that brings a welcome. Lose your sorrows, and you'll find your freedom." (24.16)

    Essentially, Bear is telling Crispin that nobody likes a downer, and we can't say he's wrong.

    At this Bear thrust his hand aloft, "O God," he cried. "Look upon Thy miraculous gift. This wretched boy has given the world a smile." (26.18)

    Bear's having a little laugh at Crispin's expense, but only because he's happy Crispin is finally starting to lighten up.

    I hastily made the sign of the cross over my heart, called on Saint Giles to protect me, and with trembling fingers took up the recorder and began to play. Bear began to beat his drum and dance. People turned to look. There were smiles on their faces, and from some, applause. That included the soldiers.

    We fairly well danced our way up to the gate and through the town walls with not so much as an unkind look from anyone. (34.9-10)

    Bear uses the old distraction trick to get himself and Crispin safely into Great Wexly. People seem to figure that if you're drawing attention to yourself, you must be okay.

    "Crispin," said Bear as we moved away from the walls, "in that place they had me, I heard chants coming from the cathedral. The priests were singing, 'Media vita in morte sumus,' which means, 'In the midst of life, we are in death.' But, Crispin," he said, "can't you see the new truth we've made? In the midst of death, there is life!" (58.40)

    Count on Bear to turn it around. They are literally dancing (almost) over John Aycliffe's dead body.

    I took out the recorder. When I began to play, Bear laughed. Then he began to sing. Though he did not sing in his usual bellowing voice, it was his voice all the same. (58.43)

    Only Bear would be singing a few minutes after being tortured in a dungeon. You really can't keep this guy down.

    And by the ever-loving God who sits above, my heart was full of more joy than I had ever felt before. I was unfettered, alive to an earth I hardly knew but was eager to explore. (58.46)

    We'll say it along with Bear: Finally! It took Crispin almost the whole book, but he's feeling the joy.

  • Power

    There on the river's low, tree-lined banks, stood our noble's house—Lord Furnival's manor—the grandest house I knew. It was where the steward had lived for many years in the absence of the knight.

    With stone walls two levels high and small windows, the manor was to me like a castle, high, mighty, and impenetrable. (4.17-18)

    While the manor is a much stronger dwelling than Crispin's cottage—we don't think two guys could just pull it down—it's not exactly as defensible as a castle, either. Why, then, does Crispin refer to it as one?

    Everything—from the woods, the cottages, the manor house, the mill, the roads, the growing lands, the commons, even the church itself, to the tiny crofts behind our cottages used for planting herbs and roots—everything belonged to Lord Furnival, who held it in the king's name. (4.26)

    Long before Karl Marx expressed the idea that power comes from control over the means of production, feudal lords understood that ownership, particularly of food, a basic human need, grants power.

    The moment I did, his free hand shot out, and with a speed that belied his bulk, he grabbed me by the wrist and held me with the strength of stone. (16.44)

    Physical strength is yet another type of power this book explores. Because Bear can physically overpower Crispin, he is able to claim his labor and become his master. In the Medieval era, a lot of power came from this very literal physical reality.

    "Pay heed, young Saint Crispin," he added, glaring at me with eyes that seemed to glint, "a bear has two natures. Sweet and gentle. If he becomes irritated, he turns into a vicious brute. So I beg you to consider the two sides of my nature." (19.61)

    Here Bear emphasizes his power over Crispin: Crispin better not annoy him, or things could go very badly.

    "Since you are a wolf's head, you might as well have some fangs. It could prove necessary."

    It was hard to know what upset me more: the weapon; the handling of it; the idea that I might need it; or that I was in such danger that I'd have no choice but to use it. (32.9-10)

    Crispin may be nervous about learning to handle a weapon, but Bear has a point: Without a weapon, he's dead meat. With one, at least he has a chance against those who are out to get him.

    But now the market town of Great Wexly loomed before us, as if it had sprung from the ground. Its brown stone walls were immense, stretching away for as far as I could see.

    "Where do those walls go?" I asked, for I had never seen anything so vast.

    "They surround the town in a great circle," Bear said.

    "Why a circle?"

    "To keep all enemies out." Then after a pause he added, "And in." (33.25-29)

    Here's another example of power through architecture, a common means of expressing power in the 14th century, and a practical one, too, given the realities of constant warfare. A wall gives the people of a city some means of self-defense.

    I followed his look. Soldiers, their chests covered with iron plates, were guarding the entryway. Pointed metal helmets were on their heads. Tall glaives were in their hands, swords at their sides, daggers on their hips. Atop the wall were other guards. What's more, the soldiers were allowing only a few people in at a time. (33.36)

    Armor and weapons make people look pretty powerful, especially to those who don't have any, no?

    "It now belongs to his widow, the Lady Furnival. Unless some bastard son—with an army at his back—makes a claim. Or until she marries. If she marries. But they say that's unlikely. She's not the type to relinquish her new powers." (35.43)

    Part of us says, "Wow, Lady Furnival, way to continue your husband's life's work of being a jerk." But another part of us says, "You go, Lady Furnival," because we're guessing that these new powers are the first significant power Lady Furnival has had in a long time, or maybe even ever.

    As she passed, people on the streets hastily made way for her, some doffing their hats, or inclining their heads in reverence. Some even went down upon their knees, so I knew her to be a personage of great power. (37.13)

    Yeah, it's a safe bet that anyone getting this kind of treatment has some sway. Good call, Crispin.

    Opposite the church, on the other side of the square, was a large stone building some three stories tall. Whereas the church rose high, this building seemed to cling to the earth with a weight and bulk that bespoke earthly power. (38.5)

    Like the manor house and the town walls, this fancy-pants residence of the Furnivals tells us the owners don't play.

  • Sin

    As for me, I felt, as I often did, ashamed. It was as if I contained an unnamed sin that made me less than nothing in their eyes. (1.4)

    Asta's son has always felt that people in the village look down on him, but he has no idea why. This contributes to his lack of confidence in himself and his feeling that there's something wrong with him. Sad times.

    It was my curiosity—another name, my mother had often said, for Satan—that made me want to see what was there. (2.7)

    People in Crispin's world definitely believe that questioning anything is a sin because God has willed everything to be as it is. However, it's also true that curiosity killed the peasant, as well as the cat, so it could be that Asta is just trying to keep her son safe.

    For the remainder of the night, I found little rest. Not only was I in fear of being found and made subject to the steward's wrath, I was still engulfed by grief at my mother's death. Then, too, I had turned from the priest when he had asked me to church. I had broken the curfew, too. Why, I'd even stolen church wine to ease my mother's pains before she died. In short, I was certain God was punishing me.

    Even as I waited for His next blow, I sought, with earnest prayers, forgiveness for my sinful life. (2.34-35)

    Wow, guilty conscience much? We're pretty sure it's John Aycliffe, not God, who's causing all this trouble for our boy Crispin.

    These confessions were numerous, since I had become convinced there was some sin embedded in me, a sin I was desperate to root out. (3.5)

    Poor Crispin. Is there anything worse than not knowing why everyone is mad at you? While Crispin doesn't know what he's done to offend everyone in Stromford, we know that his parents weren't married, which in this time was considered a sin that reflected just as much on the child as on the parents. It's likely that many people also suspect that Lord Furnival is his father, and their anti-Furnival feelings trickle down to Crispin.

    Birth and death alone gave distinction to our lives, as we made the journey between the darkness whence we had come to the darkness where we were fated to await Judgment Day. Then God's terrible gaze would fall on use and lift us to Heaven's bliss or throw us down to the everlasting flames of Hell. (3.14)

    This pretty much sums up a Medieval European outlook on life and explains the obsession with sin and confession and forgiveness. Life was brief and hard for most people, so they tended to focus on where they were going to spend eternity.

    "Was he a sinner?" I demanded. "Did he commit some crime? Should I be ashamed of him?" (8.72)

    Well, as it turns out, Lord Furnival is not going to win any Nobel Peace Prizes. Still, Crispin is desperate for information about his father, even if that information doesn't lead anywhere good.

    As for what would happen, I could see little but an early death in an unmarked grave—if I were lucky to have even that. What's more, I knew that if I died alone, without benefit of sacred rites, I'd plunge straight to Hell, and my torments would go on forever. (12.7)

    What we like about Crispin is the way he always looks on the bright side. You just can't keep that guy down. Seriously, though, sins are serious business in Medieval England, even those—like dying without sacred rites—that you can't help.

    Late that day, besieged by fears, very lonely and quite famished, I fell to my knees and prayed with deep-hearted, sobbing words. In these prayers I acknowledged my great unworthiness to my Lord Jesus and searched my heart for every sin to which I could confess. This time I begged him to gather me that I might join my mother in His holy Heaven. The truth was—and how great my shame—I no longer wished to live; which was, I knew, a sin. (13.15)

    The cause of this blight was well known: God had sent it as punishment for our sins. All one could do was pray to Jesus and run—and even then, there was no escape. (15.11)

    Crispin refers here to the Great Mortality, or plague, which was generally believed to be a divine punishment for a sinful world.

    But I am only bad, I thought to myself, wishing yet again I knew what sin was embedded in me to have brought God's hand so hard upon me. (24.22)

    Sadly for Crispin, he's never heard the idea that "bad things happen to good people." Because so many bad things have happened to him, he believes that he himself is bad, rather than just unfortunate.

  • Identity

    For as long as I could recall, my mother had simply called me "Son," and, since her name was Asta, "Asta's son" became my common name. In a world in which one lived by the light of a father's name and rank, that meant—since I had no father—I existed in a shadow. (3.2)

    Sexist as we might find this today, in Medieval England (and many other places), a person's legal existence was tied to the adult man in his or her life, whether that person was a father, brother, husband, or son. In return, this person was supposed to provide protection (and there was a lot to protect people from). This lack is the heart of Crispin's identity crisis.

    "Asta's son, listen to me with the greatest care. When I baptized you, you were named… Crispin." (8.44)

    Try to imagine never being called anything but the child of your parents. Then imagine someone just tells you that you have another name. Weird, right? No wonder it throws Crispin for a loop.

    Occasionally I would say the name Crispin out loud. It was rather like a new garment that replaces an old: desired but not yet comfortable. (9.2)

    If you think breaking in your new kicks is rough, says Crispin, try breaking in a new name.

    "Because I have no name," I said, my rage bursting forth. "No home, no kin, no place in this world. I'm a wolf's head. Any and all may kill me when they choose. Even you. You say you want me to do things. Think things. But when I won't be able to, you'll shun or betray me like the rest." (25.9)

    All these things would indeed go a long way toward contributing to the low self-esteem Crispin exhibits throughout the first part of the book. He has sunk so low that anyone can kill him without penalty. It's rough seas, but things do start to turn around for Crispin after he stops meekly accepting his fate and starts fighting back—in the form of outbursts, at first.

    Her calling me "Asta's son," since I was all she had, and that was all she could say. But all the same, christening me secretly with my father's name. (50.7)

    Crispin is reflecting on all the weird things about his life with his mom in Stromford. She couldn't tell anyone who his father was, but she left a clue by giving him his father's name.

    He sought to kill me because of who I was. No, not who I was, but who my father and mother were. For me—as Widow Daventry had said—they cared not so much as a rooster's tooth. (50.16)

    This is totally unfair: Crispin hasn't even done anything, and people are out to get him just because of his parents. It's quite insulting when people who don't care anything about you want to kill you.

    No, I had to remind myself. Not because of me, or anything I'd done, but because I was—Lord Furnival's son. The only question was, now that I knew who I was, what should I do? (50.20)

    We applaud Crispin's realization that none of the bad things that are happening to him and others are his fault. It's all down to Lord Furnival's general jerkiness. Even so, Crispin faces a problem: Does he have a responsibility to help those he can anyway, even though none of this is his fault?

    I kept asking myself if I felt different, if I was different. The answer was yes. I was no longer nothing. I had become two people—Lord Furnival's son… and Crispin. (51.2)

    Crispin says he's become two people. How are those two people different? How are they different from the "nobody" he was before?

    Just to see him in his exalted state, made me know with finality I was not him. No, not any part. I was myself. What I had become. (55.12)

    Crispin sees a painting of Lord Furnival in all his glory and rejects that part of his identity. What has Crispin become, if not the son of his parents?

    And my name—I knew with all my heart—was Crispin. (58.46)

    This is the last line of the book, the idea we leave with. What is so important about this name? How is Crispin able to accept it even though it's his less-than-stellar father's name?

  • Poverty

    The burial took place amongst the other paupers' graves in the walled cemetery behind our church. It was there the priest and I dug her grave, in water-laden clay. There was no coffin. (1.6)

    As if a funeral weren't already depressing enough, Asta doesn't even get a coffin. And it's raining. Because of course it is.

    Aycliffe stared at me for a long while as if in search of something. All he said, however, was "With your mother gone you're required to deliver your ox to the manor house tomorrow. It will serve as the death tax."

    "But… sir," I said—for my speech was slow and ill formed—"if I do… I… I won't be able to work the fields."

    "Then starve," he said and rode away without a backward glance. (1.14-16)

    Ah, the death tax, another of the glories of life in Medieval England. As Crispin tells us later, he and his mother aren't technically slaves, but they aren't technically free, either. One of the responsibilities of free people they have, though, is the responsibility of paying taxes. No wonder this is the culture that gave us Robin Hood.

    It would have been a rare man who would want so frail and impoverished a woman for a wife. For in the entire kingdom of England there could have been no poorer Christian souls than my mother and I.

    Crispin and his mom have it pretty rough. Even among peasants, there were varying degrees of wealth, and Crispin and Asta are right at the bottom.

    It did not matter. Spring, summer, and fall—save certain holy days—my mother and I, like every other Stromford villager, worked his fields from dawn to dusk.

    When winter came, we fed the animals—we had an ox, and now and then a chicken—gathered wood and brush for heat, slept, and tried to stay alive. (3.10-11)

    For Crispin, the four seasons are Work, Work, Work, and Try to Keep from Starving or Freezing to Death. Not exactly fun times.

    At a time when bread cost a quarterpenny a loaf, the value of my mother's daily labor—by King Edward's royal decree—was a penny each day; mine, but a farthing. (3.12)

    Minimum wage is not a new concept. In Medieval England, the value of an adult's labor was more than that of a child's, but both were legally mandated because if they hadn't been, you can bet your barley bread many landlords would have tried to pay (even) less.

    Since my mother had been a cottar—one who held no land in her own right—she and I lived in a rented one-room dwelling that stood at the far edge of our village by the northern boundary cross. A thin thatch roof kept out most rain. Earth was our floor. (4.6)

    Yet another responsibility of serfs in Medieval England was to pay their landlord rent for the land and dwellings they occupied. Serfs were legally bound to the land, forced to live in one place—and yet the landlords got to charge rent, even though their tenants were legally obligated to live there. Classy.

    More than once I reminded myself of the times when my mother and I had gone without sustenance. If we could survive then—and we did—I could do so now. (15.3)

    Nothing like reminding yourself of the hard times you've already made it through to get you through the hard times you're going through right now. It's a hard knock life for Crispin, make no mistake.

    "Do you like meat?" he said, seeing me with my mouth agape.

    "I've only eaten it a few times," I confessed. (22.18-19)

    One thing that hasn't changed between then and now is that meat is an expensive food. Peasants in the 14th century couldn't even hunt without risking the gallows because all the hunting rights belonged to the lords, and ultimately, to the king.

    Still another was in rough brown robes and sandaled feet. "He's a begging friar of the Franciscan rule," Bear said. "They take their sacred vows of poverty to heart. May God always look kindly on him and his kind."

    He made me give the friar a penny. (33.13-14)

    At this point, Bear has voiced his contempt for organized religion quite freely. Why do you think he admires this Franciscan friar when he has no use for priests?

    I had always known that Stromford Village had little enough to eat, but assumed it was no different from the rest of the world. Now I discovered how poor my village was. (34.25)

    When Crispin sees how people live in Great Wexly, he realizes that things in Stromford are a lot worse than he ever realized, which is saying a lot because he definitely realized things in Stromford were not ideal before.

  • Society and Class

    Everything—from the woods, the cottages, the manor house, the mill, the roads, the growing lands, the commons, even the church itself, to the tiny crofts behind our cottages used for planting herbs and roots—everything belonged to Lord Furnival, who held it in the king's name. (4.26)

    Society is very stratified in Crispin's world, without a lot of room for movement. At the top is the king, who bosses the nobles; then come nobles, like Lord Furnival, who boss the peasants. Last come peasants like Crispin, who don't get to boss anybody.

    Indeed the steward said we belonged to our lord as well. Like all villagers, we were required to ask the steward's permission to be excused from work if ill, to grind our wheat, or bake it, to buy or sell, to travel from our parish, to marry, even to baptize our children.

    In return we gained two things:

    When we died there was a hope of Heaven.

    And Lord Furnival protected us from the Scots, the French, the Danes, and the wicked infidels. (4.27-30)

    Here's the flipside of the social coin. While there's no question that the lords live better from day to day, they do have certain responsibilities to their serfs, at least in theory. And we do know that Medieval England was a violent place, and the threat of invaders was quite real. Fighting off those invaders was the job of those wealthy enough to afford weapons. Again—in theory. Many times nobles just went to war among themselves over land rights that the peasants couldn't care less about.

    I'd listened to such talk before, but always whispered. People often complained about their lives, taxes, work, and fees. Indeed, there had been so much talk that the steward—who must have heard of it—called a moot and informed one and all that such speech went against the will of God; our king; and our master, Lord Furnival. That henceforward he would treat all such talk as treason, a hanging offense. (7.18)

    One thing that stays the same through the centuries is people complaining about work and taxes. One thing that's different now, though, is that complaining isn't considered treason. Remember those strict social layers we've been talking about? Indicating that maybe you'd be happier if they were loosened up a bit is not something the bosses want getting around.

    "Hunger never pleases me," he roared. "Though our great if doddering king surely means well, his loyal subjects go hungry. And why? Because the officials of this most holy kingdom are all corrupt gluttons. His councilors and parliaments—all dressed in that new Italian cloth, velvet—sit upon the backs of the poor and eat their fill of venison and sweetmeats. Not to mention the Flemish foreigners who loot our country's gold. But such is the will of His Gracious Majesty, that poor souls like you and I are not part of his daily reckoning. 'It is as it is,' is his motto. Mine is, 'Let it be as it may be!'" (16.34)

    "It is as it is," is one way those in charge tried to keep their power. If you tell people it's God's will that they're poor, it's kind of hard for them to argue with you because you've just appealed to the highest authority there is. At the beginning, Crispin accepts this argument for the idea that the world can't be changed, but Bear sees things in a different light.

    "And yet," he said, leaning toward me and leering, "when Adam plowed the earth and Eve spun, who then was the gentleman?" (19.11)

    Bear is quoting a real sermon by John Ball, in which Ball asks, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" Catchy rhyme, right? The point is that perhaps God didn't will the social classes to be divided because in Eden everyone was equal.

    "But he's a noble knight."

    He snorted. "Do you think that makes him less mortal? By God's everlasting bones, Crispin, war is where the Christian is truly tested. Alas, your Lord Furnival was not one to inspire faith." (22.33-34)

    We admit that when we think of Medieval England, we often think of noble knights in shining armor fighting for truth, justice, and—well, okay, maybe not the American way, since there was no such thing then. But that romanticized story has more to do with Arthurian legends than actual history. In real life, war was war, and knights were more often out for personal gain than to right wrongs and help the less fortunate.

    But what vexed me most was his saying that every man should be master of himself. If I knew anything it was that all men belonged to someone. Surely God Himself put us all in our places: Lords to rule and fight. Clergy to pray. All the rest—like me—were on earth to labor, to serve our masters and our God. (24.61)

    Crispin's referring to what is sometimes called the "Three Estates" of Medieval society—those who work, those who fight, and those who pray. While the reality was significantly more complicated, this was a simple way for people to explain their place in society to themselves and others.

    "Crispin," she said. "whatever noble blood there is in you, is only… poison. Lady Furnival, who's the power here, will never let you have the name. She'll look on you as her enemy, knowing that anyone who chooses to oppose her will use you and what you are." (49.38)

    Being a noble isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Sure, Crispin is the son of Lord Furnival, but really powerful people are willing to kill him to make sure he's not a threat to them, and anyone who would help him is probably just using him to help themselves. So yeah, not automatically awesome.

    "Your connection gives no honor. No position. What someone fears is not you, but that you will be used. Can't you see it? Your noble blood is the warrant for your death. It will remain so till it flows no more." (49.46)

    Okay, thanks, Widow Daventry. We get the point: Noble blood equals death warrant. Historically speaking, she's not wrong. A lot of people were killed because they could make a claim to wealth or position someone else wanted.

    I saw it then: Bear and Ball were talking about the very word Father Quinel had used, freedom. Something I had never had. Nor did anyone in my village, or the other villages through which we had passed. We lived in bondage.

    To be a Furnival was to be part of that bondage. (51.8)

    It's no wonder Crispin doesn't want anything to do with the Furnivals. He has firsthand knowledge of the way oppressing others enables their wealthy lifestyle.

  • Freedom

    There was little my mother or I could do about our plight. We were not slaves. But neither were we free. The steward, John Aycliffe, never lost an opportunity to remind us of the fact that we were villeins—serfs—bound to Furnival, Lord of Stromford Village. (3.8)

    Yeah, so the feudal system worked out a way to take slavery up a notch by saying people weren't technically slaves. Could they leave? No. Could they marry whom they wanted to? No. Could they refuse to work? No. Could they pay taxes? Yes. Could they pay rent? You betcha.

    Then they spoke bitterly of the things the steward had done: how he had increased their labors, imposed countless fines, taken many taxes, increased punishments, and, all in all, limited their ancient freedoms by being a tyrant in the name of Lord Furnival. (7.14)

    Despite the fact that serfs are, for all practical purposes, slaves, there's still the idea that the lord has responsibilities toward them. Clearly Lord Furnival is not taking care of his, though.

    "Dearest boy," the priest said wearily, "I beg you to find your way to some town or city with its own liberties. If you can stay there for a year and a day, you'll gain your freedom." (8.50)

    Add another wrinkle to the complexity of the Medieval system. While manors like Stromford belonged to a lord, some towns and cities belonged to themselves. If a serf could live there for a year and a day without being captured, that person would then be free.

    Sure enough, his face clouded with anger. "Does it now?" he bellowed, making me jump. "So be it. I hate all tyranny. Is that treason, too?" (16.39)

    Well, yeah, if Bear's mouth is open, treasonous talk is probably coming out of it. To be fair, though, it's not that hard to say treasonous things in this environment. Anything short of totally kissing up to the powers that be is considered a major no-no.

    "Answer me!" he cried, making me jump. "Do you believe that someday none of us will have masters, or not?" (19.7)

    Bear does not mind grilling a kid he just met about his political leanings, we'll say that for him.

    Unable to withhold myself I cried out, "I don't know what I was going to do. I wanted to gain my liberty. And with God's help I would have, if not for you." (19.55)

    Crispin gets the drop on Bear here, there's no question. Bear's all, "I believe in freedom," and Crispin's like, "Well, you stole mine." And then Bear feels bad. But not bad enough to let Crispin go. Hrm…

    At first we didn't speak. I was too down in my spirits. That I, in fleeing from one cruel master, should be bound to another, was almost too much to endure. And to a man who claimed he hated tyranny. (20.3)

    Yes, the difficulty of Crispin's situation is not lost on us. What is Bear's deal, anyway? Why does he take Crispin's freedom if he claims to hate tyranny so much? Be sure to swing by the "Characters" section to dig a little deeper into this.

    "To feed us I've put both our lives in jeopardy," he said. "That's the kind of freedom that exists in this kingdom." (22.16)

    In most cases, hunting wasn't allowed because some lord or other had rights over all the land. And if there was any land left over, the king had rights over it. Hunting became poaching and was punishable by death—just like most other crimes at the time.

    I remembered the word—freedom—as one which Father Quinel used. (24.17)

    Freedom. Crispin literally does not know the meaning of the word. Oh man…

    "Crispin, I merely wish to bring some of that freedom you seek." He studied the sky as if some answer might be there. "But I fear the time isn't ready." (29.30)

    Figuring out if the kingdom is ready for the revolt that will bring greater freedom is pretty much Bear's life's work. But why might the time not be right? Why wouldn't people want freedom?