THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE
“I’ve just read Marcel Schwob’s The Children’s Crusade twice over, with deep admiration and reverence. I am profoundly moved: what a work! And to think I’d never heard the name of Marcel Schwob. Who is he?”—Rainer Maria Rilke
Marcel Schwob’s 1896 novella The Children’s Crusade retells the medieval legend of the exodus of some 30,000 children from all countries to the Holy Land, who traveled to the shores of the sea, which instead of parting to allow them to march on to Jerusalem, instead delivered them to merchants who sold them into slavery in Tunisia or to a watery death. It is a cruel and sorrowful story mingling history and legend, which Schwob recounts through the voices of eight different protagonists: a goliard, a leper, Pope Innocent III, a cleric, a qalandar, and Pope Gregory IX, as well as two of the marching children, whose na´ve faith eventually turns into growing fear and anguish.
Though it is a tale drawn from the early thirteenth century, Schwob presents it through a modern framework of shifting subjectivity and fragmented coherency, and its subject matter and its succession of different narrative perspectives has been seen as an influence on and precursor to such diverse works as Alfred Jarry’s The Other Alcestis, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove,” William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Jerzy Andrzejewski’s The Gates of Paradise. It is a tale told by many yet understood by few, a mosaic surrounding a void, describing a world in which innocence must perish.
Marcel Schwob (1867–1905) was a scholar of startling breadth and an incomparable storyteller. A secret influence on generations of writers, from Guillaume Apollinaire and Jorge Luis Borges to Roberto Bola˝o, Schwob was as versed in the street slang of medieval thieves as he was in the poetry of Walt Whitman. His allegiances were to Rabelais and Franšois Villon, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. Paul ValÚry and Alfred Jarry both dedicated their first books to him, and in doing so paid tribute to the author who could evoke both the intellect of Leonardo da Vinci and the anarchy of Ubu Roi. He was also the uncle of Lucy Schwob, better remembered today as the Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun.