By midafternoon, Hank thinks King Arthur’s disguise might fool people. They approach the nearby hut, which is shrouded in unnatural silence and stillness. Nobody answers their loud knocking, but Hank pushes his way in through the slightly opened door. A woman in the shadows begs for their mercy in a weak voice. She tells them that all her valuables are gone and that she’s under the Church’s ban. Talking to her could get Hank in trouble with the religious authorities. But he insists on helping her, and when she asks for water, he rushes to collect some from a nearby stream.
The woman in the smallpox hut, like the prisoners in Morgan’s dungeons, demonstrates the extent of medieval cruelty, which the book casts as the cruelty of power concentrated and unjustly used by the Church and nobility. In the medieval period, being “banned” by the Church meant being exiled from spiritual, social, and economic activities, since the Church exercised authority over almost the entire society.
Hank returns to find King Arthur inside opening the shutters. The new light reveals that the woman is dying of smallpox. Hank’s first instinct is to get Arthur outside, beyond risk of infection. But, insisting that it would be shameful for a king to show fear, Arthur insists on remaining to help. The woman asks them to check the loft, and Arthur goes to the ladder, passing the body of the woman’s husband on the way. The woman expresses her gratitude that her husband has been released from suffering. Even if he’s in hell, he’s finally beyond the reach of abbots or bishops.
Smallpox is an incredibly contagious, often deadly viral illness that ran rampant in Europe during the Middle Ages and in America until the middle of the 20th century. In this moment, Arthur behaves with courage and humanity, showing readers why Hank so respects him, and suggesting that something might genuinely distinguish his character as truly noble.
King Arthur returns from the loft carrying the body of a teenaged girl, dying of the same illness as her parents. He places her in her mother’s arms, gently telling her that her other daughter lies dead in the loft. Caressing her daughter, the woman tells her family’s tragic tale. They struggled but made a successful living until the lord of the manor planted some fruit trees on their farm. Since they only lease the land and the lord owns it, it was his right to do so. But when someone cut the trees down and her three sons ran to report the crime, her sons were imprisoned for it.
Even though smallpox points towards a common humanity—King Arthur is as susceptible to the illness as the poorest of the poor—the rest of the woman’s sad tale emphasizes the abuses and injustices that an unchecked aristocracy and Church can inflict on the powerless. Although the family were so-called “freemen,” they were still subject to the authority of the local lord and had no redress when he first stole their land and then falsely imprisoned their sons.
Thus, the woman, her husband, and their two daughters were left to harvest a crop that the family of seven had planted. Then, they were fined for sending a smaller harvest—which only happened because they were too busy helping harvest the lord’s crops to tend to their own, which subsequently died. Then the bishop and the lord claimed their meager stores for taxes. The family was placed under interdict (barred from participation in the Church) when the traumatized and ill woman uttered a blasphemy in front of the priest. She tried to nurse her family through the illness, but she had to watch as they slowly died, one by one. Now in the present, the woman hears her last child’s death rattle and bursts into tears.
This story suggests the ways in which the feudal system was set up to benefit those at the top of the hierarchy exclusively—hence the family was punished doubly, first by the loss of their sons and then for their consequent drop in productivity. The Church, instead of offering succor and charity, compounded the problem when it proved itself to be as greedy and heartless as the lord of the manor, demanding its full allotment of taxes despite the family’s trials. And then, when the woman dared to voice her frustration, the Church punished her further by an essentially unjust, antidemocratic system.