Crispin: The Cross of Lead – Cultural Studies

Crispin – Cultural Background – 1377

The Middle Ages – a quick overview

The Middle Ages lasted from 1154 until 1485 (“British History Timeline”). The story of Crispin took place in the late Middle Ages; that meant the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. To be exact, the story happened in 1377. In general, the period of the late Middle Ages was seen as the decay of the old and the preparation for the upcoming new (Heimann 25). It was also a period of crises. (Heimann 25) Characteristics of this time period were the Christianization of the peoples, a renewed Roman empire (Heimann 33), the feudal system, religious crises, peasant unrest, riots in the towns, depopulations of whole areas, agrarian depression, caused by the Great Famine, monetary crises, the Hundred Years’ War in which France and England tore each other apart, and robber baronry (Lückerath/Uffelmann 211). Robber baronry meant that knights were losing their importance as well as their wealth. In order to decimate their financial distress, they attacked and robbed merchants, travelers and pilgrims (“Was waren die Raubritter”).

Events going on in the late Middle Ages

  • Political situation

In 1327, Edward III became the new king of England. He led the nation into the Hundred Years’ War with France. Fifty years later, in 1377, Edward III died and Richard II became the new king of England (“British History Timeline”).

  • Society

In medieval times, the population was mainly divided in three parts: the clergy, the nobility and the peasants. The clergy consisted of monks and clerics whose job it was to care about the salvation of one’s soul. The nobility was responsible of providing peace, protection and safety. And finally, the peasants’ task was to work. The allocations of space and functions were seen as ordained by God (Heimann 73).

  • The Feudal system

The feudal system was widespread in Europe. It was a social order that was agriculturally determined (Müller 78) and in which there was a lord who had men and women working for him. Land and property belonged to the lord and were given by the king (Müller 78). Moreover, the workers had to serve their lords and bring him tributes. As a service in return, their lords protected them (Heimann 66 – 70). This system was primarily a rural phenomenon; urban centers functioned differently. Every medieval town had its own rules which are set by the citizens. For example, they could govern inner conflicts. Citizens had their own property and houses, they could decide who they wanted to marry and they could move freely around. Furthermore, the citizens had no lord and did not have to bring tributes. Nevertheless, it was subject to the town lord as well as the king and therefore, a town was only to a certain extent sovereign (Müller 86).

The fools were another group of people in society. They were professional clowns, who were employed at the court of kings and nobles to entertain them. Their task was to amuse their master. The fools, or jester, did not fit in any system, as they “held privileges which were not afforded to many other persons at court”   or elsewhere (“Medieval Jesters”). “The court jester was one of the few characters […] who could freely speak his mind without causing offence and somebody who could use humor to mock, jibe and joke about the lords, ladies and nobles of the court” (“Medieval Jesters”). Some fools, or jongleurs were not employed by kings and nobles; in contrast, they did not serve any master, but travelled from town to town in order to perform and to assure a livelihood (“Medieval Jesters”).

In general, the peasants had no property and everything belonged to their lord (Lückerath/Uffelmann 139). Furthermore, the peasants needed their lord’s approval for a marriage (Lückerath/Uffelmann 144) and could not decide where to live or to work on their own, too (Lückerath/Uffelmann 139).

Moreover, the peasants had to work hard and pay taxes to their lords. In particular, their task was not only tending the fields, but also ploughing, clearing lands, looking after dairy animals and poultry, herding, tending vegetable gardens and cloth making (Jones 84). In addition, many villages had a mill belonging to the lord. As a consequence, the villagers had to pay a fee in order to have their grain ground (Jones 86).

The peasants’ homes were generally small and one household could often house up to three generations (Jones 84). The family, as well as the animals, lived within the huts. As a fire was constantly burning inside, the air was always smoky. In addition, it was dark because there were few windows. The food consisted mainly of vegetables like potatoes (“Everyday life”). If families had enough money to have their wheat ground, they could also bake bread.


  • Religion and the role of the church

The church played an important role during medieval times. It dominated everyone’s life and everybody believed in God. The peasants “paid 10% of what they earned in a year to the Church” (“The Medieval Church”). If they did not, the Church told them they would be sent to Hell. In addition, the peasants had to pay indulgences in order to shorten their temporal punishment (“Indulgence”). Furthermore, if not baptized and buried on holy land, people believed that they would not get to Heaven. The Church made the people believe that the Church decided who would be sent to Heaven. As a result, the Church was very powerful and the people were dependent on it (“Medieval Church”). Every village had a patron saint to whom the people prayed rather than to God because God was too holy to pray to. In addition, every man and every woman went to church each Sunday. Moreover, they believed that God had placed them into their actual situation. As a consequence, the people believed that their life was the will of God and, therefore, what happened to them was God’s will and unchangeable. As the Bible was written in Latin, no one other than the clergy could read it and, therefore, the people believed everything the Church told them. All in all, the belief in God played an important role and the people did not doubt the Church or its authority.


  • The Black Death


The Black Death was one of the largest and most dramatic catastrophes in human history and more than a quarter of the European population fell victim of it (Scheibelreiter 166). No town was spared and many villages lost all of their inhabitants (Scheibelreilter 172). Subsequent outbreaks of disease continued to inhibit population growth in the following years (Lückerath/Uffelmann 210).


The plague started 1347 in Caffa (Scheibelreiter 166) and lasted until 1351 (Lückerath/Uffelmann 210). During the whole period, no treatment was successful and even the strong were not spared (Scheibelreiter 167). Most people died within three days of becoming infected (Lückerath/Uffelmann 209).


The Black Death had a dramatic impact on the people, as suspicion and fear were rampant, as was indifference to family ties and social obligations (Lückerath/Uffelmann 210). For example, a father might not come to his son’s deathbed for fear of also contracting the disease (Scheibelreiter 169). Even priests and clergy often refused to hear last confessions or to draw up wills since they, too, were afraid of becoming infected (Scheibelreiter 169). Servants were paid inordinately high wages to bring the dead to the cemetery since this also proved to be a dangerous job. In addition, doctors could not be found because they had either or already passed away. The death rate was so high that nearly everywhere, sounding the knell and wearing mourning clothes was forbidden in order to not damping the mood. Otherwise, almost everyone would wear mourning clothes and the knell would sound very often every day (Scheibelreiter 170 f.).

  • The Peasants’ Revolt


The Peasants’ Revolt had several causes that all converged to trigger it. First of all, the lords were afraid that their tenants would rise up against them and therefore, they raises taxes in order to make their position clear and to remind their servants of whom their lord is (Jones 88). Not only were the peasants forced to pay their landlords more, but they were also forced to pay the infamous poll tax, levied by the King in order to pay for the costs of the Hundred Years’ War (Jones 96).

Moreover, general dissatisfaction related to the social and economic crises of the time increased that were related to the Black Death, the agrarian depression, caused by the Great Famine, and robber baronry (Jones 94). And this dissatisfaction was articulated particularly well by the radical priest, John Ball, who preached against the economic inequity and social dysfunction of the era (“The Peasants’ Revolt”).

Sequence of events

The upheavals began in 1381 in Essex as a response to the third poll tax within four years (Jones 98). The riots took place in several towns and villages and the peasants also entered London and burned down the Bishop of London’s palace. The King sought refuge in the Tower of London (Jones 99). Nevertheless, the peasants managed to invade the  Tower of London and forced the “king to agree to the abolition of serfdom and to have charters recognizing the liberty of specific tenants drawn up” (Jones 99.) The following day, Wat Tyler, the leader of the revolt, met the King to present new demands. During the meeting, “the mayor of London, William Walworth, attacked Tyler and killed him while the king managed to calm the peasants by claiming to lead them. The rebels were dispersed relatively peacefully” (Jones 99). Later, individual rebels were judged to death (Jones 99).

John Ball

John Ball was one of the key leaders of the revolts and was executed after the revolution failed. He was an English priest and was well-known for preaching radical ideas. Especially the slogan “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” became famous (“The Peasants’ Revolt”). It meant that “in the very beginning of society, everyone had to work equally” (Avi 302) and there was no nobleman or king and neither servants (Avi 302). John Ball wanted to say with this slogan that equality is a God-given right and that God never wanted a society in which one group ruled over another (Avi 302). The slogan became famous because Ball was “referring to the book of Genesis in the Bible” (Avi 302) and it was part of “a sermon delivered on June 1381 […] at Blackheath (near London) to the rebels of the uprising” (Avi 302). In 1364, John Ball was excommunicated by the Bishop of London, freed, and put in prison again. During the riots, the rebels managed to free him. After this, he became an important leader of the movement (Avi 301) until his execution. “A contemporary Historian, Jean Froissart, has called John Ball’s sermon to the rebels [at Blackheath] ‘the most moving plea for social equality in the history of the English language’ ” (Avi 301). His demands for equality could be defined as the predecessors of today’s human rights.

Where the story takes place

The story is set near Canterbury. In medieval times, Canterbury played an important religious, political and historical role.

Importance for the church

Canterbury was the main center of the English Church and still is today (“Britannica – Canterbury”). The Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Church of England who is determined by the king or queen of England, has his seat in Canterbury. The cathedral of Canterbury is famous and was built in 1070 (“Canterbury”).

Political role

Canterbury is in the administrative county of Kent. In medieval times, it received a county status with a sheriff (“Britannica – Canterbury”). Furthermore, it has the second largest mint of England after London (“Canterbury”). Moreover, it is the largest town nearest to France and, therefore, it was a large trade center but also a city that had to be defended against the French.

Historical role

As Thomas Becket was murdered in the cathedral, many pilgrims came to see his shrine (“Britannica – Canterbury”). Moreover, The Canterbury Tales were written by Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote about the journey of a pilgrim to Canterbury Cathedral (“Canterbury”). The pilgrim joined a group of people to travel with them “to the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury” (“The Canterbury Tales”). On their way, they decide “that each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back” (“The Canterbury Tales”).

Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the first who wanted to make his story accessible to most of the English readers by writing it in English, whereas the languages of the clergy was Latin and the one of the court French. He wanted to create “a literature and poetic language for all classes of society” and he succeeded (“The Canterbury Tales”). Moreover, for medieval literature the intense realism of Chaucer’s characters was new. Even today, Geoffrey Chaucer is still seen as one of the great shapers of literary narrative and character (“The Canterbury Tales”).

Remains today


The Eyam Museum near Sheffield shows the story of a village that was overcome by the Black Death (“Eyam Museum”).

The Met Museum has a collection of medieval and Byzantine art (“Medieval Art”).

The Museum of London shows London during the Middle Ages and also includes aspects of war and the Plague (“Medieval London”).

Buildings and cathedrals

The Canterbury Cathedral is still famous for its being the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury and it is declared as World Heritage Site (“Canterbury Cathedral”).

The Canterbury city wall as well as the West Gate are remains of the medieval times and can still be visited (“Canterbury City Walls”).

The Tower of London is next to the river Thames and tells many stories about English kings and queens, but also about the Peasants’ Revolt (“Tower of London”).