Crispin: The Cross of Lead






Date Reviewed:

May 12, 2021

just finished reading one of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, set in 13th century England, and I followed that up by picking up Crispin: The Cross of Lead, also set in medieval England. I read Crispin: The Cross of Lead because I liked The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, also by Avi. Since Crispin: The Cross of Lead is the first of a trilogy, I guess I now have a few more books by Avi to add to my list. This book won the 2003 Newbery Award.

The story is set in 1377 A.D. In the poor village of Stromford, Asta has died. Asta was a small, quiet woman shunned by the rest of the village. No one attends her funeral except Father Quinel and her child, who is simply called Asta's Son because no one can be bothered to give the lonely child a name. Now he alone in the world. As Asta's son leaves the graveyard, the cruel steward from the manor house, John Aycliffe rides up and informs Asta's son that the death tax shall be their one ox. "But how shall I plough the field without our ox?" asks the thirteen year old boy. "You can starve for all I care!" replies Aycliffe.

Asta's son has nothing but a lead cross given to him by his mother. She inscribed something on the cross, but since Asta's son is illiterate, he has no idea what is written there. He talks to Father Quinel, who reveals that he baptized Crispin when he was born - yes, Asta's son actually has a name, he is Crispin, though no one had ever told him that before.

Wandering in the forest at night, Crispin accidentally comes upon a night time rendezvous between John Aycliffe and a stranger caring a scroll that is adorned with important looking seals. Crispin over hears some of their conversation, which makes no sense to him, but the reader understands what the conspirators are discussing. Alas - Aycliffe discovers Crispin watching him, and attempts to murder him, but Crispin escapes into the dark forest. Word soon goes out to the village of Stromford that Crispin has been declared a "wolf's head" - a criminal that can be killed on sight. Crispin is accused of stealing from the manor house though of course he has never been inside such a luxurious dwelling. Crispin tries to get advice from Father Quinel, but comes upon him lying on the road, foully murdered. Certainly this crime too shall also be blamed on Crispin.

Falsely accused, penniless and starving, Crispin flees from Stromford, even though he has never in his life ventured beyond the village boundaries. Crispin discovers a bigger world than he could have imagined, full of strange people, amazing wonders and perils he doesn't understand. The narrative gives us a plausible tour of fourteenth century England, with all of its misery, starvation, injustice and brutality. At one point, Crispin happens upon a plague village (bubonic plague first struck England in 1348), and all the inhabitants are gone, though a skeleton sits among the ruins. This is a grimmer world than the one inhabited by Brother Cadfael, who is comfortable in his abbey, tending his garden, with regular meals and living safely protected behind stone walls. Crispin wanders through a dangerous world, eventually ending up in the city of Great Wexly - were he is astounded by the concept of two story building, something he has never seen before. The cathedral appears miraculous to him.

At one point, Crispin encounters a character named John Ball. I have a feeling Ball is a genuine historical character, but I don't know enough English history to understand his significance. From the words the Balls utters, he sounds like a revolutionary ... I just did a quick internet search and learned that John Ball was a leader in something called The Peasant's Revolt. Perhaps those events will be covered in the next books of Crispin's adventures.

The book is a fast read. Not long, but entertaining. The hapless Crispin is likeable enough, though he makes some foolish decisions which put himself in peril (but he is only thirteen!) I thought the ending was a bit implausible, which why I rated this only four stars.