The story opens with Crispin recounting the events of his mother's burial. Our young protagonist is only thirteen, but for a boy living in 14th century England, he soon finds his life becoming more complicated than he would like. As matters stand, The Black Plague or The Great Mortality of...
The story opens with Crispin recounting the events of his mother's burial. Our young protagonist is only thirteen, but for a boy living in 14th century England, he soon finds his life becoming more complicated than he would like. As matters stand, The Black Plague or The Great Mortality of 1348 has wiped out at a third of Europe's population. Whole villages in England have been reduced to ghost towns, with fields lying fallow and fires left untended at hearth-sides.
Meanwhile, Crispin is now bereft of both his parents. To make matters worse, the village steward, John Aycliffe, has just declared him a wolf's head; any man may kill him at will and be held blameless for the act. The steward has Crispin's hut torn down and has Father Quinel, the parish priest and the boy's only friend, murdered. Not only is Crispin burdened with questions about his birth and identity, he now has no one he can depend on. Fearing for his life, he takes the priest's advice and tries to run to one of the towns 'with its own liberties' in order to secure his freedom from servitude.
As the story continues, Crispin's personal struggles represent but a microcosmic slice of the overarching political and sociological turmoil threatening 14th century England. At the time, the oppressed were beginning to question the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the nobility. Reformers like John Wycliffe proclaimed the singular authority of God and argued that the priesthood had become corrupt and unfit to hold the scepter of rule over religious matters.
The poor resented being forced to work on their lord's lands for two or three days a week without pay. They also chafed over arbitrary rules which saw them having to acquire permission for every necessary liberty. For example, the story highlights the fact that the lands in Stromford and surrounding areas are owned by Lord Furnival. In his absence, all authority is ceded to the steward, John Aycliffe. Every serf working Lord Furnival's lands from dawn to dusk is paid a pittance for his labor. The text highlights the difference in lifestyles between the nobility and the serfs.
There, on the river's law, 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. Inside - I had never been allowed to enter, but I'd been told - was an arched hall with a long trestle table and benches, several sleeping rooms and a chapel. On the walls hung pictures of saints, along with ancient battle shields. The lower level was a large storage place meant for the wheat and other foods the village produced.
Everything - from the woods, the cottages, the manor house, the mill, the roads, the growing lands, the common, even the mum 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. 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 many, even to baptise our children.
Not only did the mill grind our wheat and barley - at a cost - it contained the ovens where we villagers, by the steward's decree, baked our bread, which required yet another fee.
To read more, please refer to:
Life in the Middle Ages for the nobility and serfs.
Feudalism and Medieval Life.
Serfs also had to work on the Church's lands for free several times a week. In addition, the Church instituted an oppressing tithing system on the poor; this, combined with dehumanizing labor on manorial lands prompted the serfs to eventually rise up in defense of their trampled rights.
You can read about the Peasants Revolt of 1381 here.
For life lessons that Crispin has learned, compare Bear and Crispin's opinions about faith and fate. You can then analyze how Crispin changes his mind about long held suppositions after the events of the last few chapters.
All these things ... your cross, your prayers. As God is near - and surely He always is - He needs no special words or objects to approach Him.
'But this cross -' I began. He cut me off. ‘I know what it is. It's made of lead, made in countless numbers during the Great Death. Never blessed, they were given to the dying as false comfort. They're as common as the leaves and just as sacred.'
'Crispin, as Jesus is my witness, churches, priests – they’re all unneeded. The only cross you need is the one in your heart.'
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 labour, to serve our masters and our God.