Chapter 1 Summary
Crispin: The Cross of Lead begins in a small village in medieval England. A woman named Asta has just died, and her thirteen-year-old son is helping the priest carry the body to the pauper’s section of the graveyard. As they do so, the other villagers stare but do not show any sign of respect for the dead woman. The boy, who has no name and is known only as Asta’s son, reflects that the villagers have always shunned his mother in this way.
Asta’s son and the priest dig a grave in the wet earth and lay the body in it. They kneel, and the priest recites prayers in Latin. As Asta’s son listens, he tries to trust in God—but this is difficult, considering that he has just lost the only family he ever knew.
When the funeral is over, Asta’s son sees a wealthy man named John Aycliffe sitting on his horse outside the cemetery gates. He obviously wants to speak with Asta’s son. The boy approaches warily, reflecting that Aycliffe hates him and often hits or kicks him.
The medieval village where Asta’s son lives is the property of Lord Furnival, who has been away for many years, fighting in a war. John Aycliffe is the steward of the land—the man responsible for overseeing the manor and the serfs in the lord’s absence. Everyone is terrified of Aycliffe, who can and often does exact cruel punishments on villagers who complain, skip mass, or do poor work. Aycliffe typically has villagers whipped for committing small crimes like these. Once in a while he cuts off someone’s hand or ear. The worst crimes—such as poaching in the forests outside the village—are punishable by death.
Aycliffe orders Asta’s son to give up the only animal he owns, an ox, as a “death tax” for his mother’s burial. Asta’s son protests that he will be unable to work in the fields without it. Aycliffe is unsympathetic; he simply orders the boy to starve.
When Aycliffe leaves, the priest tries to offer comfort. He says that the living must trust God to save them, as He saved Asta. This statement upsets and confuses the boy, who wonders if there is any salvation aside from death. Refusing to stay for further prayer, he rushes into the forest to be alone. He is so distraught that he runs without looking where he is going, and before long he falls down and hits his head.