Crispin: The Cross of Lead

CrispinNEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 2003

Crispin: The Cross of Lead

by Avi

Age: 9 +

Interests: history, medieval history, British history, adventure, action, violence, orphans, politics, religion


Hyperion: 2002

310 pages, with Historical Note, Interview with the Author, and Glossary

Sequels: Crispin: At the Edge of the World, Crispin: The End of Time

Also by this author: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing but the Truth, The Barn, Poppy, and others.

Other medieval history books: The Midwife’s Apprentice, The Trumpeter of Krakow, Adam of the Road, The Bronze Bow, A Dictionary of Chivalry
In 1377 England, a poor peasant woman named Asta dies, leaving behind a thirteen-year-old son who truly has nothing to call his own, not even a name: he is known simply as “Asta’s son”. Asta and the boy are outcasts, shunned by the other villagers, but the reasons for this are shrouded in mystery. The priest informs the boy that he was baptized Crispin, and gives him the only key to his true identity – a cross of lead with writing on it the boy cannot read. Things go quickly from bad to worse, as the priest is murdered, and the cruel steward John Aycliffe accuses Crispin of a theft he didn’t commit, pronouncing him a ‘wolf’s head’. This means he is to be considered as less than human, and anyone may kill him and receive a reward. Crispin flees the village he’s known all his life, bewildered and terrified.

On the road he falls in with a shiftless, drunken jester named Bear, who forces him to become his own servant and apprentice. As he gets to know Bear better, Crispin realizes that under the threatening exterior, Bear really has a good heart. They travel toward the city of Great Wexly, pursued all the way by John Aycliffe, who seems unaccountably obsessed with hunting Crispin down. As they travel, living by their performances and illegal poaching, Crispin learns a lot from Bear; namely the jester’s trade, but also some heretical religious views and rebellious political ideas about freedom for all men. Crispin slowly begins to think for himself.

In Great Wexly Bear comes to grief for his underground politics, and Crispin must face John Aycliffe to release his friend from prison. He also finally finds out the secret of his parentage. His mother was a noblewoman, but was sent to the remote village and vilified because Crispin is the illegitimate son of Lord Furnival. Upon Furnival’s death, his wife wants any possible heirs to the fortune eliminated, charging Aycliffe with the task of killing the boy. Successfully escaping the city, Crispin is glad to be on the road again with Bear, choosing freely and happily to give up the lead cross, and with it his claim to a life of nobility.

The middle ages is a time period that has always fascinated young readers. The challenge for the author is to adequately portray how common people of the time thought, particularly the lower classes; to modern eyes they were strangely accepting of their dismal plight. An author has to make the reader understand why peasants thought the way they did, while still keeping the characters relatable, alive and engaging. Not easy, but Avi really delivers the goods with this novel.

Much time is given to Crispin’s interior journey, evolving from a nameless orphan who stammers and can’t meet the eye of his betters, with no ambitions or goals, to an apprentice named Crispin, who boldly sings for his supper, faces down the feared steward, and acts very bravely to save his friend. It is a fascinating journey, full of adventure and danger, and the grim life of the peasantry is vividly portrayed.

This book is an interesting companion piece to The Midwife’s Apprentice, whose female protagonist goes through a similar developmental journey. In both books the main character begins, aged about 13, about as low as they can be, alone in the world without even a name. And in both books they gain enough confidence to claim for themselves a name and a trade, thus enabling them to take control of their own lives. Another good match for this book is Adam of the Road, which is much less action-packed, but gives a very detailed portrait of the life of a young minstrel.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead is a thrilling, suspenseful read, full of dangerous plot twists and betrayals. The historical element is well handled, including one real historical character John Ball, who is briefly seen fomenting the Peasant Rebellion which occurred later in 1381. While Crispin’s change from nobody to hero seems to happen a little too quickly (compared to Alyce in The Midwife’s Apprentice, who evolves over several years), his progress is still convincing and thoughtfully developed.

(this title available at amazon.com)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.