Mary Magdalene's Secret History Encoded in a 17th Century Epic Poem

© John M. Saul, Paris, May 2006

If you think that the encoding and decoding of secret messages about Mary Magdalene as the holy grail is only the province of contemporary writers, the following essay by John M. Saul shows why you should think again. In this essay, Saul initiates readers into an incredibly esoteric club - the handful of modern scholars aware of the work of Pierre de Saint-Louis, an obscure French poet. Pierre de Saint-Louis’ 17th century epic poem about Mary Magdalene contains acrostics, double entendres, and convoluted allusions that Saul suggests may point to a sense on the poet’s part that Mary Magdalene was the bride of Jesus and the mother of a royal bloodline.

John Saul holds a Ph.D. in geology from M.I.T. More than 30 years ago, he was among those doing the earliest research studies on the stories and legends about Mary Magdalene in the French town of Rennes-le-Ch‚teau. He recalls it as a time when many people thought great "secrets" would be found in one or another of the limestone caves in the region. “Mary Magdalene was little discussed in 1974 and everyone hoped, and some even expected, that ‘The Treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem’ ‘Templar Treasure’ would be discovered in one of the caves.” Saul subsequently contributed to the research for the seminal book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, first published in 1982, which kicked off much of modern international interest in French legends about Mary Magdalene being the bride of Jesus and mother of his child/children, about the Merovingian kings, the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, etc. Many of these themes attracted much subsequent attention after the publication of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code in 2003. Although Saul contributed to the research for Holy Blood, Holy Grail, he did not agree with its authors about a number of things, including whether information dispensed by Pierre Plantard, the alleged “grand master” of the 20th century version of the Priory of Sion, should be relied upon.

In the essay that follows, Saul provides his personal overview of the arguments in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code as they relate to Mary Magdalene and Jesus, and then goes on to discuss the very odd "Poem of the Magdalene" written by Pierre de Saint-Louis more than three centuries ago.


As children and perhaps as adults, many people have dreamed of discovering something that nobody else knew about, a great secret of some sort. In the 17th century a Discalced Carmelite Friar did just that. He discovered, or thought he had discovered, a truly great secret. There are indications, however, that things did not go well for him thereafter.

When Holy Blood, Holy Grail was published in 1982, it touched on this same centuries-old secret, a supposed marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. According to its authors, a child or children may have been born of this marriage, with the subsequent bloodline protected by a secret group of "Grail Keepers". Then, twenty years later, the hero of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code found himself on the track of present-day descendants of just such a marriage. But why should these modern authors have fixed on Mary Magdalene, the supposedly fallen woman who had changed her ways in the presence of Jesus? Why evoke this saint whose icon is a covered pot or other vessel - commonly said to be a "Grail Cup" - held by her midriff? What were the sources of information or inspiration for these modern writers? Odd as it seems, it was only in the year 591, a half millennium after the death of Mary Magdalene, that she was definitively identified as a reformed prostitute. It was only with Pope Gregory the Great's Homily 33 that her reputation was transformed. Mary Magdalene and her reputation thus suffered a fate perhaps unique in history. Who, today, even a pope, could convincingly soil the reputation of a woman who had lived five hundred years ago, declaring her a prostitute, reformed or not? Who would have had reason to? True or false, to whom would it have made a difference at such a late date?

In recent years, the possible significance of this curious piece of history has come to light: its purpose may have been to delegitimise the Magdalene's children. For Mary Magdalene was Jewish (as was Jesus) and, according to Jewish law, the children of prostitutes are considered to be fatherless. Such children and their descendants could never pretend to be "King of the Jews", nor legitimate king of anyone else.

This legal circumstance might have solved a great potential problem for kings and popes in the Very Christian Europe of the Middle Ages. For if someone somewhere, whether known or not, was a legitimate descendant of Jesus - of the True Blood of Christ - what would stop them from claiming the right to power? And could the Church of Saint Peter then retain legitimacy?

According to The Da Vinci Code, in which the central female personage is addressed as "Princess", there is a secret group called the "Priory of Sion" that watches over and keeps the bloodline of Mary Magdalene, the royal and legitimate bloodline of Mary Magdalene. Dan Brown presented this group as "a real organisation". Twenty years earlier, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail had also investigated the Priory of Sion and had reached the same conclusions.

The starting point in investigating the Priory of Sion was a near-incoherent text registered by the French National library (the BibliothËque Nationale) in 1967 under the title Dossiers Secrets d'Henri Lobineau (shelfmark 4_Lm1.249). Its contents include several long genealogies with a multitude of names, both familiar and obscure; short references to long-ago migrations of little-known peoples; coats-of-arms, some of which had quite obviously been concocted for the occasion; and the names of the Grand Masters of Secret Societies. Cited by the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the Dossiers Secrets does not actually refer to Jesus or Mary Magdalene. Nevertheless, it strongly indicates that the first kings of France, the Merovingians, described as "our first race of kings", was of biblical descent. According to the Dossiers themselves, this is the "secret" which the Priory of Sion has guarded over the last centuries.

The Da Vinci Code, ;which is a novel, cannot be treated as a reliable source for an historical study. Neither can the Dossiers Secrets, which sets an agenda for a hoped-for day when France will restore its sacred monarchy. Yet the Dossiers do contain much valid information, some of which would be extremely difficult to dig out, even by a talented researcher with access to a great library. This presents an enormous problem for anyone interested in the Priory of Sion and other related subjects. For Pierre Plantard (1920-2000) who, according to a multitude of indications must be the person behind the modern Priory of Sion, and of the Dossiers Secrets as well, was not a talented researcher. He was simply a pretender to a non-existent throne, a non-intellectual school drop-out who was systematically careless with facts and whose overall incompetence had on occasion landed him in jail for short terms. In short, he was a bumbler. But Plantard, who from 1989 called himself "Pierre Plantard de Saint-Clair", had somehow obtained historical information denied to the rest of us.

Holy Blood, Holy Grail differs from both The Da Vinci Code and& Dossiers Secrets. It is not a novel, nor was it intended to further a private or secret agenda. Its purpose is to suggest the historical possibilities that arise on reading Plantard's fabrications in conjunction with the realisation that the term "Holy Grail" comes from "Sangreal", a word of unknown origin which, if broken after the "g", gives sang rÈal, meaning "Holy Blood". But who belonged to the Holy Bloodline in question? Pierre Plantard? The Saint-Clairs? "Lost kings" of Merovingian origin? Descendants of the biblical Tribe of Benjamin, as suggested in the Dossiers? A supposed line descended from a marriage at Cana of Mary Magdalene and Jesus? In the end, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail attempt to combine all these bloodlines, rejecting only that of the bumbling Monsieur Plantard. Their efforts result in a view of Western history in which most any event of substantial interest can be tentatively linked to struggles involving supposed descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Dan Brown, the authors of Holy Blood Holy Grail, and even Pierre Plantard (despite his claims) were not tracing an actual genealogy. Instead, each was investigating an ancient royal tradition which, they all agree, has long had and still retains the ability to influence the making of history.

Ideas from this stream of tradition were in circulation well before our own times, and were expressed in the 17th century by the obscure poet Pierre de Saint-Louis in his La Magdeleine au Desert de la Sainte-Baume en Provence (Lyon, 1668, 1694, 1700; The Hague, 1714; and an undated edition with no place of publication). Near the beginning of this carefully-composed poetic extravagance of over two hundred pages, we are given "a "history lesson" and "a grammar lesson" in which the author’s muse, who had been identified as Mary Magdalene, "conjugates" with "the VERB", i.e. with Jesus. ThÈophile Gauthier (1811-1872), prolific French critic, author and editor, described the poem as "in its own way as complete as the Iliad or the Odyssey… It seems impossible for anyone to voluntarily compose such strange verses… and [the author's] literary wretchedness is not a commonplace wretchedness but studied, exquisite and conscientious. This poem with its abracadabrant verses is the "most eccentric that has ever appeared in any of the world’s languages.” Simone de Reyff, a contemporary specialist on 17th century French literature, adds that its author had had a reputation as a perfectionist. Abracadabrant or not, Pierre de Saint-Louis had evidently written exactly what he had intended.

Pierre de Saint-Louis seems to have been born April 5, 1626 in ValrÈas, one of at least two sons of Jacques BarthÈlemy and Anne Canal. He abandoned his secular name of Jean-Louis ("Ludovic") BarthÈlemy on becoming a Discalced Carmelite in 1651. According to a catalogue entry in the library of Viollet le Duc, Pierre de Saint-Louis had lived at Aygalades near Marseilles until named regent of the College de Saint-Marcelin in DauphinÈ. The catalogue also reports a story in which the author joined the Carmelites and wrote his poem following the death of a fiancÈe named Madeleine.

Writings by Pierre de Saint-Louis circulated in manuscript form during long periods, perhaps decades, and at least one of his surviving manuscripts has apparently never been carefully examined. (Voltaire mentions Pierre de Saint-Louis in his Lettre ‡ Thiriot, 7 February 1738.)

For whatever reason, the year of death of Pierre de Saint-Louis is variously reported: "around 1670", 1672, 1673, "1677?", or, as may be more likely, 1683 or 1684. He is indicated to have died "in disgrace" in "Pinet in Switzerland", though a better bet concerning the place in question may be the Carmelite establishment at Eyzin-Pinet, south of Lyon. One gets a strong impression that something about his death was covered up and that some of the biographical details I have given might not stand up to scrutiny, the matter of Madeleine the fiancÈe, for example. Did she actually exist?

Much of what we know, or think we know, about Pierre de Saint-Louis comes from an article by "Follard" in the July 1750 issue of the Mercure de France. Yet as a frustrated historian, Jean de ServiËres, wrote in the review Provincia (Marseille, 1925), "we are not about to learn why the editors of the Mercure de France waited so long - 23 years! -before publishing Follard's biographical letter [on Pierre de Saint-Louis], nor the motives for finally publishing it." And who, exactly, was "Follard"? Nicolas-Joseph Folard (1664 - c.1736), an ecclesiastic in Nimes whose name comes down to us spelled with a single "l", seems to be the only candidate author, but neither the style nor the choice of subject matter appear to be his.

Discussing La Magdeleine au Desert de la Sainte-Baume en Provence n his massive two-volume compendium, Monuments in Èdits sur Sainte-Marie Madeleine en Provence… (Paris,1848), E.-M. Faillon tells that "this work, for which the author paid with five years of vigils, stayed on the bookseller’s shelf for a decade, totally ignored. Following the author’s death, the stock was retrieved from the dust by a Jesuit named 'P. Berthet' (or 'Nicole') and immediately sold out. The book then had to be reprinted…"

Writing of the decision to reissue an edition in 1714, ServiËres reported that "an infinite number of people had written to Lyon from all over requesting copies, but in vain. It had been a long time since there had been any."

From its outset, the poem is odd, commencing with a dedication to "Madame de la Blache, Gabrielle de Levi", whose name seems to be Jewish but who is said by Pierre de Saint-Louis to come from a family descended from the Holy Virgin (Sainte Vierge).

The author warns readers that they will encounter various types of word-play and, in forming anagrams, he uses both "Magdelaine" and "Madeleine". Among his easier anagrams is one which gives Je mets ici la grande Amante, "Here I place la grande Amante", with the word Amante usually translated "Lover". Then, Freudian before his time, he presents the cave at Sainte Baume near Toulon in which Mary Magdalene is said in legendary accounts to have lived, as a "terrifying cavern" (Book XI).

In addition to history and grammar lessons, readers of La Magdeleine au Desert de la Sainte-Baume en Provence learn of an echo which, when asked how posterity would remember the weeping "Mary," replies "marrie", a word meaning "sorrowful" but which simultaneously evokes "married". Then in Book IV, a line compares the mourning to "une mer," and similarly in death she is called "La Mer morte" (Book X), the words themselves meaning "sea" and "The Dead Sea", but pronounced identically to "mother" and "deceased mother".

Individually, many of these curious matters might be "explained away," albeit with increasing difficulty as more and more of them become apparent and explanations pile upon earlier explanations. Yet one passage in Book X was contrived with such very great care that it seems impossible to find any explanation that does not call upon traditions of a royal bloodline descended from Mary Magdalene. After providing diverse references to kings of France, the author evokes the standard iconographic depiction of the Magdalene holding a "Grail Cup," the mysterious object traditionally said to preserve the Blood of Jesus. The poet then instructs:

Touchez cette Urne icy, la morte [Mary Magdalene] vous l'aprÍte,

Que ce beau pot en main, soit vÙtre pot-en-tÍte.

In English, this would read: Touch this Urn the Departed Woman has prepared for you, May this lovely pot in the hand become your pot-in-the-head (sic).

Then, likening Mary Magdalene to a Phoenix who rises from its ashes (Book X) and calling her excellente Princesse (Book XI), and passing through references to the 17th century kings of France, designated "potentates" (Book X), Mary - as the "faithful Lover …of an obscure house [maison obscure]" (Book XI) - is described as a recipient which has [dynastically?] served and re-served (Book XI). At about this point, it may occur to the reader - who will have probably derived no immediate sense from "pot-en-tÍte", whether in French or as translated - that the resemblance between "pot-en-tÍte" and "potentat" (potentate) is not unintentional.

La Magdeleine au desert de la Sainte Baume en Provence, PoÎme spirituel  ChrÍtien - whose exact title varies slightly from one edition to another - is a book which demands more than one reading. A first reading of a "Spiritual caprice" in the unnumbered introductory pages, for example, had seemed neither capricious, nor spiritual, nor inspiring, nor interesting. (One commentator called these pages "rather insipid.") Yet here and there in this sixteen-line "caprice", we find four words which have been italicised, though not for any evident reason: "…Marriage…Not… Clandestine…Fruit…". So in common with the 20th century authors but with the "deniability" required by his circumstances, Pierre de Saint-Louis had referred to the "fruit" of a once-known legitimate marriage.

At the end of his work, Pierre de Saint-Louis takes leave of Mary Magdalene, his "Vessel" about whom so much could still be said in a story that has "neither end nor beginning" and informs his readers that he has at least "exposed" its "Extract" (l'Extrait). "Extract" here might be read as "summary". But the author was far too talented to have awkwardly and pointlessly written of "exposing the summary of a Vessel." Instead, it seems that he has cautiously evoked the progeny of Mary Magdalene, the excellente Princesse who had spent the previous two hundred pages in the company of Jesus.

Pierre de Saint-Louis wrote another book-length manuscript whose publication was not authorized by the Church authorities. The reason given was that with two books from this same author, "the world would be too rich".


Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh et Henry Lincoln: The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail; revised editions which include the postscript of 1996.

Brunet, J.-C.: Manuel du Libraire et de L’Amateur de Livres, Fraenkel Cie., Berlin (1921) vol. 3, col. 1187.

Faillon, [Etienne-Michel]: Monuments inÈdits sur Sainte-Marie Madeleine en Provence…, Ateliers Catholiques du Petit-Montrouge, Paris,vol. I, col. 352 (1848).

Follard, M. l’AbbÈ, Chanoine de Nismes [=? Nicolas-Joseph Folard (b.1664 – d.1736 or later)]: "La Vie du P. Pierre de Saint Louis, Grand Carme, Auteur du PoÎme de la Magdeleine", Mercure de France (July 1750) pp.8-26; reprinted in Saint-Louis, L’…liade… (1827).

Gautier, ThÈophile: Les Grotesques, Edited and annotated by Cecilia Rizza, Biblioteca della Ricerca, Testi Stranieri, 7, ch. 4, Schena-Nizet, Paris (1985).

Reyff, Simone de (ed.): Sainte Amante de Dieu: Anthologie des poËmeshÈroÔques du XVIIe siËcle franÁais consacrÈs ‡ la Madeleine, editions Universitaires, Fribourg, Switzerland (1989).

Saint Louis, le P. Pierre de: La Magdeleine au desert de la Sainte Baume en Provence, PoÎme spirituel & ChrÍtien [by "le P.Pierre de S.Lovys"], Jean GrÈgoire, Lyon (1668), (24)+212+(4) pp.; Paris, BibliothËque National, Ye.7564; Lyon, BibliothËque Municipale 811.569; British Library 11481.aa.22.

_____: La Magdeleine au dÈsert de la Sainte Baume, en Provence, poÎme spirituel et chrÈtien (late 17th/early 18th century; no date or publisher indicated) 240pp.; (perhaps a variant of the de la Lamonnaie edition of 1714).

_____: La Madelaine au dÈsert de la Sainte Baume en Provence, poeme spirituel et chretien, Jean-Baptiste & Nicolas De-Ville, Lyon (1694), (24)+214pp; Paris, BibliothËque National Ye.7567 and Ye.7596; British Library 1065b.33.

_____: La Madelaine au dÈsert de la Sainte Baume en Provence, poÎme spirtiuel et chrÈtien, Jean-Baptiste  Nicolas De-Ville, Lyon (1700), (24)+214pp.; similar but not identical to the edition of 1694.   La Magdeleine au dÈsert de la Sainte-Baume, en Provence, poÎme spirituel et chrÈtien ÈditÈ par Bernard de la Lamonnaie dans Recueil de piËces choisies…, vol. 2, von Lom, Pierre Gosse Albers, La Haye (1714) 240pp.; Paris, BibliothËque National, Z.20205. Similar but not identical to the undated edition of 240 pp. noted above; according ServiËres, (1925) de la Lamonnaie produced two near-identical editions

Saint Louis, le P. Pierre de La Madelaine ou Magdeleine au dÈsert…, Editions whose existence could not be confirmed:

(1668); 207 pp., listed in a bookseller's catalogue.

_____ GrÈgoire, Lyon (1669), according to Brunet (1921).

_____ De-Ville, Lyon (1674) with new frontispice, indicated but not seen by ServiËres (1925).

_____ De-Ville, Lyon (1700) identical to the edition of 1694, according to ServiËres (1925).

_____ Paris editions(s) of 1700, indicated by Brunet (1921).

Saint-Louis, le R.P. Pierre de: L’…liade. ou Triomphes et Faits MÈmorables de Saint…lie, Patriarche des Carmes, poËme hÈroique divisÈ en trois chants, prÈcÈdÈ d’une notice historique sur l’auteur, par M. l’AbbÈ Follard, Augustin Pontier, Aix (1827); Paris, BibliothËque National, Ye.30102.

LE P.P. DE S.L.R.C. (= Pierre de Saint-Louis?): La Muse BouquetiËre de Notre

Dame de Laurette, Viterbe chez Pierre Martinel (1672).

Saul, John M.: “Mary Magdalene’s Secret History Encoded in a Seventeenth-Century Epic Poem” in Dan Burstein  Arne de Keijzer (eds.), Secrets of Mary Magdalene, CDS Books (2006) pp.217-224 (which is the original edition of the present text).

Sayce, R[ichard] A[nthony]: The French Biblical Epic in the Seventeenth Century, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1955) pp.134-138.

ServiËres, Jean de: "Un ProvenÁal prince de la poÈsie burlesque: le P. Pierre de Saint-Louis (J.-L. BarthÈlemy, de ValrÈas) 1626-1684?" Provincia: Bulletin trimestriel de la SociÈtÈ de Statistique, d’Histoire et d’ArchÈologie de Marseille et de Province, Marseille (1925) tome V, pp.170-228.

[Viollet le Duc]:Catalogues des Livres composant la BibliothËque de M. Viollet le Duc, L. Hachette, Paris (1843) pp.540-543.

You can access part of this poem yourself below: