Crispin: The Cross of Lead is a 2002 children's novel written by the American writer Edward Irving Wortis under the pseodonym "Avi." The story begins in 1377 A.D. The protagonist is a 13-year-old boy, Crispin, or "Asta's Son." His mother has recently died.
Avi attempts to portray the lives of both peasants and nobles realistically. The first element in the portrait is the the shortness of life before the invention of modern medicine. The plague was an ever-present danger, with major outbreaks in 1348-1349 and 1361-1362, and minor ones thereafter. Other infectious diseases were quite common, and maternal mortality rates high. Infant mortality rates have been estimated as ranging from 25 to 50 percent. This meant that especially for peasants, children and childhood were not the objects of sentimentality as they are now. There were no laws against child labor and no prolonged periods of education for the peasants; children began to work as soon as they were capable of being useful. Peasant children were not sent to schools and even sons of aristocrats had limited education, usually at home or in church-run schools. Very few people had any form of tertiary education.
Estimates of male literacy rates for this period range from 10 to 25 percent for men, but that uses as a measure "signature literacy", ability to sign a name rather than an "X", and so may not represent ability to read and comprehend a text. Literacy was restricted mainly to clergy, gentry, and certain tradesmen and artisans. Avi is being realistic when he makes the Father Quinel able to read the letters on the cross but Crispin himself illiterate. That Crispin's mother could read and write is strikingly unusual as women had far lower literacy rates then men.
Power and wealth were distributed unequally, with nobles such as Lord Furnival having absolute power over the serfs tied to their lands. Illegitimacy was also common and inheritance was normally determined by "primogeniture", with the eldest legitimate son inheriting an estate, but with bastards sometimes staking claims resulting in protracted (often bloody) disputes.