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.