Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 224

Crispin: The Cross of Lead (2002) is an engaging story about a young boy (Crispin) in medieval England. The book starts with the death of the boy’s mother, which sets a series of political complications in motion, dislodging Crispin from the village he has known his entire life and sending...

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Crispin: The Cross of Lead (2002) is an engaging story about a young boy (Crispin) in medieval England. The book starts with the death of the boy’s mother, which sets a series of political complications in motion, dislodging Crispin from the village he has known his entire life and sending him out across the countryside. His path cuts across the various layers of society, exposing them from a peasant’s view and showing readers just how frightening life in a world defined by plagues, illiteracy, and the feudal system could be.

At the same time, though, Crispin: The Cross of Lead is a book of innocence and wonder. Not long after Crispin is forced to leave his village, he gains a new friend in Bear, a traveling juggler, political agitator, and spy. Bear protects Crispin, helps him understand the society in which they live, and trains him to be a man, as his absent father never did. Crispin’s world had been so limited that every new encounter is a roller coaster; some are terrible, but some are wonderful. Through a series of adventures, Bear and Crispin become essentially foster father and son. As they do, they forge a new destiny and identity for Crispin, making him brave where he was frightened, inquisitive where he was passive, and free where he was essentially chained.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1304

Crispin: The Cross of Lead opens the day after Crispin’s mother, Asta, dies some time in 1377. Asta’s death sets a chain of events in motion that disrupts the dull but stable life Crispin had known up to that point. Crispin overhears John Aycliffe, the local steward, speaking with a stranger. When they realize he has been listening, they try to capture him. Failing, they make a public proclamation that Crispin stole from the manor house and declare him a “wolf’s head”: someone outside of human society, who can be killed at will. The village priest, Father Quinel, advises him to leave the village, but he also tells Crispin surprising things about his mother, specifically that she could read and write. Those abilities are rare in the fourteenth century, and they mark her, and Crispin, as special.

Crispin goes to Goodwife Peregrine’s home. The priest has arranged for her to help him, but the boy Cedric, who says he was sent in Father Quinel’s place, leads Crispin into a trap. Crispin runs, and when he does, he stumbles across Father Quinel’s murdered body.

Crispin flees across the countryside alone. Searching for food in a village where everyone was killed by the plague, Crispin finds only bodies, until he hears a voice singing from the village church. Crispin investigates. The singer is a large, strangely dressed man. The man quizzes Crispin about who he is and quickly uncovers that he is a runaway. The man claims Crispin as his own and makes him swear an oath of service.

This strange man, Orson Hrothgar, is better known as Bear because he is so large and strong. Rather than living and working in one place his whole life, like everyone Crispin has ever met, Bear travels, earning his living as a juggler, dancer, and entertainer. As they walk, Bear educates Crispin, explaining politics, the social organization of English society, religion, and his (Bear’s) own views on truth, faith, and the meaning of life. Bear also teaches Crispin practical skills. He shows him how to juggle, how to sing and play a recorder, and how to observe details in people’s actions. At the same time, Bear helps “unteach” Crispin some of the narrow beliefs about life the boy picked up in Stromford, including Crispin’s acceptance of his own outsider and “wolf’s head” status.

Crispin is becoming accustomed to Bear’s strange ways when they run across John Aycliffe and some armed men waiting for them. Bear and Crispin cut across fields and eventually end up in the village of Lodgecot. Once there, Bear and Crispin entertain the locals and make good money, though one of Bear’s tricks angers a one-eyed young man.

The pair travel on toward Great Wexly. As they do, Bear begins to teach Crispin how to fight with weapons. As they approach Great Wexly, they see more travelers. Bear uses this as an opportunity to explain more about social classes. When they arrive at Great Wexly itself, the city is walled, and everyone must enter through a few narrow gates. Men are stationed there, looking for Crispin. Rather than trying to hide, Bear has Crispin play the recorder and dances them through the gate.

Bear takes Crispin to the Green Man tavern, where Bear has often stayed and has friends, including Widow Daventry, who owns the tavern. Soon after they arrive, she tells them that Lord Furnival, of Crispin’s old village, recently died. Bear shows Crispin a secret hiding place in the tavern and then leaves on a mission he will not share with Crispin. He tells Crispin to wait, but Crispin goes out to explore Great Wexly on his own. He is overwhelmed by the activity and size of the town.

Later in the day, Crispin visits the town’s cathedral, which is far grander than any building he has ever seen. He has been inside for only a short time when he sees John Aycliffe. Aycliffe sees him and sounds an alarm. Crispin runs through the streets of Great Wexly. He is eventually cornered and attacked by some of Aycliffe’s men. Crispin fights his way free. He runs away again, but gets lost. He is still out when night falls, and some of the soldiers guarding the town gates tell him about the curfew and that it is illegal for him to be out after it.

Bear eventually finds Crispin and takes him back to the tavern. Crispin rests for a while in their room, but eventually he creeps downstairs to listen in on the voices he hears in the tavern’s main room. There he finds Bear and a group of other men talking politics and planning some sort of rebellion in the window of opportunity created by Lord Furnival’s death.

The next day, while exploring the town again, Crispin sees the one-eyed man Bear had teased earlier in their travels. Once he is back at the tavern, Widow Daventry hides Crispin away in the kitchen to keep him from the public eye and puts him to work. When Bear returns, Crispin tells him about seeing the one-eyed man. When Bear leaves again, he tells Crispin to stay inside—but Crispin follows him and sees the one-eyed man inform one of the Furnivals’ servants about him. Crispin follows Bear to another political meeting. Almost everyone escapes due to Crispin’s warning, but Aycliffe and the soldiers with him capture Bear.

Crispin flees back to the Green Man tavern and hides in the secret hiding place. Soldiers search and wreck the tavern but do not find Crispin. Once they are gone, Widow Daventry advises Crispin to flee the city, saying there is nothing he can do for Bear. While she is advising him, Crispin asks Widow Daventry to read the cross of lead his mother gave him. She tells him it says he was the son of Lord Furnival and explains that all the chase and upheaval in his life is because his mother gave birth to an illegitimate son (Crispin) who would have a claim on the Furnival wealth—and that now every member of the house of Furnival wants him dead to reduce the threat to their wealth.

The widow gets a man to guide Crispin to the town walls so that he can escape, but Crispin bribes him to take Crispin to the White Stag tavern, where the conspirators are meeting. The men say the palace is too well guarded for them to help Bear escape, but one agrees to guide him to the town square. Once there, Crispin sneaks in and accidentally enters a room where John Aycliffe is. The man moves to call the guards, but Crispin threatens to reveal that he is Lord Furnival’s son and bargains for Bear’s release. Aycliffe turns him down and moves to call the guards, but Crispin tackles him and puts a knife to his throat until he agrees to release Bear. Aycliffe swears an oath to do so but makes Crispin swear he will surrender the cross, the only evidence of his claim, when he and Bear leave the town.

They retrieve the battered and bloody Bear from the dungeon. The soldiers surround them, and Crispin has to remind Aycliffe of their oaths. He lets them go, but when they get to the city gates, Aycliffe tries again, offering the guards a reward if anyone kills Crispin. Aycliffe and Bear fight, and soldiers start to crowd close. When Aycliffe knocks the dagger out of Bear’s hands, it looks like it is all over, but Crispin distracts Aycliffe. Bear grapples with him and throws him into the air, where he lands on soldiers’ swords. Crispin and Bear escape, and as they do, Bear formally frees Crispin.

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