Study Guide

Crispin: Cross of Lead Themes

  • Abandonment

    Crispin's life has been one long abandonment extravaganza, going back to before he was even born when Lord Furnival abandoned his pregnant mother Stromford. The first few chapters of Crispin: The Cross of Lead record one loss after another. And because Crispin believes God makes everything happen, his string of losses combined with Aycliffe's attacks on him make Crispin feel like God isn't protecting him—so he even feels abandoned by God. Bummer.

    Initial parental abandonment by Lord Furnival is the force that shapes Crispin's life, until Bear's adoption of him reverses this trend and the two of them build a relationship based on mutual trust. Finally, the healing can begin.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. Why do you think Lord Furnival chose to force Asta and Crispin to remain at Stromford rather than simply shrugging off their existence?
    2. Does Bear also feel a sense of abandonment that gives him empathy for Crispin? Prove your answer by turning to the book.
    3. Do you think Crispin's fear that God has abandoned him changes by the end of the book? Why or why not?
    4. Why does Crispin decide not to leave Bear imprisoned and just save himself? Give evidence from the text, please.

    Chew on This

    Every action Crispin takes is motivated by his sense of being alone in the world.

    Crispin's initial mistrust of Bear is based on the fact that everyone else has let him down.

  • Fear

    Crispin is afraid all the time, and no wonder—he's been raised on fear of the steward in Stromford, and as soon as his mother dies and he's all alone, that fear is realized as John Aycliffe starts trying to kill him, a fear Crispin lives with for the entirety of Crispin: The Cross of Lead.

    Add to that the everyday fears of life in 14th-century England—execution, starvation, outlaws, the plague… we could keep going—and then top it off with a healthy terror of an angry God and a fiery afterlife. That's a recipe for serious anxiety if we ever heard one. We give Crispin credit, though: He's honest about how scared he is, and he often does brave things in the face of fear.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What do you think Crispin is most afraid of? Back it up by quoting the book.
    2. What actions does Crispin take because of his fear? Do you notice any patterns here? What do you make of fear as a motivator for Crispin?
    3. What actions does Crispin take in spite of his fear? What does this tell you about Crispin's character and what matters to him?
    4. How does fear—Crispin's and others'—drive the plot? Be specific, yo.

    Chew on This

    The entire plot is driven by John Aycliffe's and Lady Furnival's fear of Crispin.

    The entire plot is driven by Crispin's fear of John Aycliffe.

  • Happiness

    Crispin: The Cross of Lead deals with some heavy happenings, so we're glad we have Bear along for the ride to lighten the mood. In his role as Crispin's mentor, Bear not only teaches Crispin about important things like freedom and politics and playing the recorder, he also teaches Crispin, who's been through some tough times—like thirteen years' worth of 'em—to laugh despite the fact that the world isn't perfect, and even to laugh because the world isn't perfect. Laughter and happiness are necessary, especially when living in a world of grisly executions and frequent plagues.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. Bear laughs a lot. What exactly does he find funny? What patterns do you notice and what does this tell you about his values?
    2. Do Bear (and other characters) laugh and express joy when things aren't really funny? Why might they laugh then?
    3. Which characters are truly happy? Which are not? Back your claims up with proof from the text.
    4. According to the book, what makes people happy?

    Chew on This

    Poor people are shown to be happier than rich people.

    Rich people are shown to be happier than poor people.

  • Power

    Ever hear the phrase, "Might makes right"? It was made for Medieval Europe, and basically it means that whoever can throw the hardest punch, whether they're using money, property, armies, or an actual fist, gets to make the rules. And guess who those rules will favor?

    In Crispin: The Cross of Lead, power comes across in three main ways. First is architecture—people who build large, strong buildings to protect their power generally get to keep it. Second is literal physical strength and power over another person's body, which we include here because physical strength leads to a third kind of power: the power conferred on a person through weaponry and the power they then exert over others through the use of force. In short, there's no escaping power in Medieval England.

    Questions About Power

    1. Who is the most powerful person in the novel? Why? What does this tell you about power in the world of this book?
    2. What forms of power does Crispin have, if any? Are any of his weaknesses actually sources of power? Why or why not?
    3. What is the relationship of money to power in the novel? Do the poor have any powers the rich lack? Be specific, please.

    Chew on This

    All of John Aycliffe's power derives from the use of physical force.

    All of Lord Furnival's power derives from his wealth.

  • Sin

    People in Crispin: The Cross of Lead think about sin a lot, which makes sense in light of their religious worldview, which says that people are inherently sinful and most people will end up in Hell. Heck, Hell even is capitalized in this book—to Crispin and others, it's as real a place as Stromford or Great Wexly. So you know sin's a big deal. And since you can die pretty much any time, due to illness, violence, or some other lurking evil in Medieval England (cough, bad personal hygiene—this only makes sin higher stakes. After all, your day of reckoning could be tomorrow.

    Questions About Sin

    1. Why does Crispin believe he is being punished for his sins? Does this shift at all? How can you tell, and what does this tell you about Crispin's evolution?
    2. Does Crispin ever stop believing he is inherently bad?
    3. What new ideas does Bear introduce about sin?
    4. What effect does the idea of sin have on Crispin's actions?

    Chew on This

    Crispin thinks about his sins more than anyone else in the novel.

    Sin appears to be the most important component of Crispin's belief system.

  • Identity

    Crispin's attempt to discover his true identity lies at the heart of his inner journey in Crispin: The Cross of Lead. He starts out as a nameless boy, but by the end he confidently claims the first name he shares with his absent father, Lord Furnival. Much of Crispin's task is to figure out who he is in relationship to his parents and without them. Still, his relationship to Lord Furnival drives much of the action, as it's this relationship that makes him Lady Furnival's enemy and leads to John Aycliffe's need to eliminate him as a threat to the inheritance he doesn't even want.

    Questions About Identity

    1. What's in a name? Why do you think Asta named her son after the man who did her wrong?
    2. Why do you think Asta and Father Quinel concealed Crispin's real name from everyone else in Stromford, including Crispin himself?
    3. How does Crispin define himself at the beginning of the book? How about at the end?
    4. How does Crispin define his identity in relationship with other people?

    Chew on This

    Crispin is right to reject Lord Furnival and give up his claim to any inheritance.

    Asta's naming her child Crispin and then refusing to use the name reflects her mixed feelings about Crispin's father.

  • Poverty

    While our pop culture depictions of the Middle Ages feature wealthy knights, lords, and kings, the fact is that most people in Medieval England lived in terrible poverty in order to support that lavish lifestyle for a tiny ruling elite. So in Crispin: The Cross of Lead, what little Crispin and his mother earn is lost in taxes and rent, the kid's only tasted meat, and his mother doesn't even get a coffin when she dies.

    Poverty is the force that shapes Crispin's life, at least until he meets Bear, who disregards—at the risk of his life—many of the rules that keep people in poverty. That's the thing to know: The whole system is designed to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. Some people do get ahead, but they are exceptions. In this world, for the most part, if you're born poor, you die poor. No rest for the weary, you might say.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. How much does Crispin's experience of growing up in poverty contribute to his view of himself? Work with specific examples, please.
    2. Is there any evidence that some of Lord Furnival's serfs live better than Crispin and Asta? What does this tell you about poverty in Medieval England?
    3. Compare poverty in Stromford to poverty in Great Wexly. Is there a difference between urban and rural poverty? If yes, how? And if not, what patterns do you observe?
    4. Bear is also poor, but he seems to live better than Crispin did in Stromford. Why might this be?

    Chew on This

    In the novel, poor characters are generally good, while rich characters are generally bad.

    Crispin's experience of poverty leads him to believe that he is undeserving of a better life.

  • Society and Class

    Society and class is a big issue on all the characters' minds in Crispin: The Cross of Lead. Specifically, everyone is concerned with knowing exactly where they fit—and while most characters are confident that they know where that is, some, like Bear, see class as more fluid than others. The book deals mostly with the great divide between the wealth of great lords and the poverty of rural peasants, as seen through the characters of Crispin and Lord Furnival, so though the 14th century boasted a growing middle class, especially in the cities, we don't hear much about it.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Other than the very rich and the very poor, where do we see evidence of a middle class?
    2. What tools do the very rich use to keep the very poor very poor?
    3. According to the novel, how do the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?
    4. Identify and discuss some of the major social classes in the novel.

    Chew on This

    Cities provide more opportunities for movement between social classes than country manors.

    Religion is used to discourage the disadvantaged from trying to change their lives.

  • Freedom

    Crispin doesn't yet understand the concept of freedom when Father Quinel tells him to seek it, but figuring out what freedom means to him—and then figuring out how to gain it—is one of his major inner journeys in Crispin: The Cross of Lead, second only to figuring out who he is and where he belongs. The concept of freedom is also linked to the major historical movement the book deals with, namely the political unrest in England that led to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, which John Ball helped to lead. As Crispin seeks his freedom, the whole society is about to experience a major upheaval, too.

    Questions About Freedom

    1. What does freedom mean to Crispin? To Bear? To John Ball?
    2. How is the idea of freedom in the book different from and similar to the way we think of freedom today? Be specific, yo.
    3. What does it mean that Crispin and his mother are not slaves but also are not free?
    4. At the end of the novel, is Crispin free? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    There is evidence in the novel that most people would support a revolt to earn their freedom.

    Over the course of the novel, Crispin discovers the true meaning of freedom.