by: Michael Baigent and Leigh and Lincoln
Publisher: DELL Book
Copyright: 1982, ISBN: [038534001X]
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, November 12, 2004
Summary: Origin for the idea behind Dan Brown’s DA VINCI CODE novel. This history is much more enjoyable reading because you can have a spirited argument with it.
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
From Hamlet (III, ii, 239)
The line is from a play within a play, an analogy drawn here to Holy Blood, Holy Grail through a rather torturous train of logic, befitting, I believe, an equally torturous train of assumptions. Indulge me as I start from the beginning.
A friend recommended reading Dan Browns’ The Da Vinci Code (see September 2004 review). This friend, a very astute and learned gentleman, also recommended Holy Blood, Holy Grail as background material. Given the plethora-one of my favorite words-of rebuttals to The Da Vinci Code, it is no small matter that the foundation work, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, also produced a few rebuttals. Alex Burns wrote one such counter-fact, focusing on a side-issue (the medium and the messenger) which has a relative importance of five on a scale of ten. (For Burns’ article, see http://www.disinfo.com/archive/pages/dossier/id96/pg1/) . For our purpose here, a critique of a rebuttal must consist of two parts. The overall “value” of the rebuttal and, most importantly, an assessment of the rebuttals’ relevance to the work it is trashing, or rather, criticizing. Alex Burns’ rebuttal focuses on the messenger and the medium and not the message itself. Does Holy Blood, Holy Grail make a contribution to our understanding of the history of Christianity? The snap judgment will be that any work which challenges the core of a religion can not contribute anything of value, ergo, the work can be dismissed on any grounds. As a snap judgment, I think such a dismissal quite legitimate.
Bart D. Ehrman’s Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code (to be reviewed in November 2004) rebuttal to The Da Vinci Code comes awfully darn close to be a definitive rebuttal in every respect-except one. In general, the rebuttals to Holy Blood, Holy Grail have been off the mark. But we are not doing a rebuttal here, we are doing a review.
As was stated in the review of The Da Vinci Code, the author went out of his way to state rather clearly that whether one accepts Jesus Christ as of divine origin is a matter of faith. It is here, in ignoring this rather simple and prosaic proclamation, that rebuttals to The Da Vinci Code are falling all over themselves in an embarrassing way. The rebuttals to Holy Blood, Holy Grail are rather more straightforward, focusing on the conspiracy angle splashing and swooshing within the confines of its pages like a bowl of cold chicken soup.
Now, back to Hamlet.
The Mother Of All Conspiracies
While the author of The Da Vinci Code allowed his characters to recognize religious faith as a distinct adjunct to religious history, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail plunge right into the history and make no detours. This is fitting. Michael Baigent and company are talking history. Unfortunately, they jump out of the gate by making an assumption and precede stretching it to a plethora of presumptions. Bad sign.
The story of Holy Blood, Holy Grail is basically this: In 1891, Berenger Sauniere, a parish priest in the French village of Rennes-le-Chateau, starts a restoration project on the village church. He finds four parchments sealed in wooden tubes. Two of the parchments appear to be ciphers or codes spelling out seemingly incoherent messages. Some of the messages however, such as “To Dagobert II King and to Sion belongs this Treasure and he is there dead”, make plenty of sense, but to what end? Sauniere, with the Bishops’ blessing, takes the parchments to Paris for study. The rest, as they say, is history. Or it would be, except Sauniere meets up with some folks who are heavily involved in esoteric thought and occult-oriented philosophy. Sauniere spends three weeks in Paris, purchases some paintings from the Louvre and returns to Rennes-le-Chateau where he continues restoration of the church. Then, in 1896 “he began to spend in earnest on a staggering and unprecedented scale.” By the end of his life in 1917, the restoration project alone amounts to several million dollars-an enormous sum for the day. That essentially is the story.
Now, the questions. Where did Berenger Sauniere get the money to do the restoration of the church? Did the encoded text in the parchments reveal the secrets to some hidden treasure-for instance, the treasure belonging to the once powerful Knights Templar-the first bankers of Europe? Did the encoded text contain a secret concerning Jesus Christ?
The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail spend the next fourteen chapters providing answers to these and other questions. The history is rather obscure but well documented in notes and references. Can’t argue the history. But pile on top of the history a plethora of assumptions and you have Holy Blood, Holy Grail and a slew of other works trailing after.
The authors maintain that Berenger Sauniere unearthed a secret in addition to a possible treasure. It is the secret, which they surmise is religious in nature, that accounted for the source of vast sums of money the village priest expended on the church restoration and which, upon his death, he gave to his house keeper of thirty-two years, Marie Denarnaud. From this assumption, that there was a secret associated with Sauniere’s activities, the authors launch into a rather engrossing though highly dubious expose of murder, cover-up and intrigue on the part of the Roman Catholic Church. The key to reading this historical conspiracy is to keep in mind that the association of facts is based upon the underlying assumption that Sauniere had a secret (don’t know what it is) and that it would turn western civilization on its head if it were revealed.
To be fair, the authors are rather explicit in saying when they are making conjectures. So the burden really does fall on the reader to shift sense from non-sense.
Building a viable assumption is no easy task. The authors devote four paragraphs in chapter one of Holy Blood, Holy Grail to laying out the foundation of their theory-that Sauniere was blackmailing the church , aided by a secret society in which prominent members of European society were involved. The secret society of course is the Prieure de Sion (Priory of Sion). The authors name the former Grand Masters of the society, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and Jean Cocteau. These names as well as the purpose of the society itself are based “a corpus of material” that is “too dense, too confusing, too disconnected, most of all copious”. The authors do not add “of dubious value”, but we’ll do that here. In describing the association of the former “Grand Masters” with the Priory of Sion group, you get the very distinct feeling that you are in the realm of floating mirrors in which any perception is possible.
Michael Baigent and company must be given credit for producing a highly coherent theory-that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdala and they had children who eventually became the well-spring of the Merovingian bloodline. As coherent as the theory is, despite all the surrounding facts supporting the theory, it is missing a factual link joining their base assumption (Sauniere’s secret) to the entire edifice upon which they build the theory. But hey, this is a good read. The facts they do present are manna to any armchair historian.