Study Guide

Crispin: Cross of Lead Poverty

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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.

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