In December last year, the "BBC News Magazine" site [bbc.co.uk/news/magazine) published an article titled "Why don't French books sell abroad?" Although his question was not entirely senseless, the writer had - unwittingly or not - omitted a number of facts and trends which would have brought the issue into a better perspective. However, the article was judged sufficiently derogatory by a number of French critics to spur a flurry of comments on literary websites, which - in turn, ironically and most probably - never reached the targeted readership across the Channel. I submit the same goes for French publications about Rennes-le-Château. As a member of a somewhat endangered species of bilingual French-English researchers in that particular field, I have been struck, over a period of now almost 20 years, by what appears to be a gap, nay a chasm, between the British and the French perception and understanding of what the "affair" is all about.
It is commonly accepted that most English readers became aware of Rennes-le-Château through the immensely popular book "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail" written by Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. Published in 1982, it has sold over 2 million copies to date. I dare not omit Dan Brown's blockbuster "The Da Vinci Code" which has now sold over 40 million copies, as well as the 2006 eponymous movie, both based on the premises set forth in "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail", although "The Da Vinci Code" never mentions once Rennes-le-Château.
However appealing for its daring religious conspiracy theory, the historical pretences of "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail" were fundamentally flawed inasmuch as they basically relied on a cunning fiction concocted some 15 years earlier by master deceivers Pierre Plantard and Philippe de Chérisey, thereafter orchestrated into crispy prose by Gérard de Sède in 1968 under the title "L'Or de Rennes ou la Vie Insolite de l'Abbé Bérenger Saunière", republished the following year as "Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château". From the outset, much of the book was subjected to criticism on both sides of the Channel and the Atlantic for not being credible or verifiable.
In a 1982 television interview, Pierre Plantard himself denied having ever claimed to be a descendant of Jesus. In 2004, prominent British historian Richard Barber dismissed the book's argument as being "...an ingeniously constructed series of suppositions combined with forced readings of such tangible facts as are offered". In 2005, Arnaud de Sède, son of Gérard de Sède, stated categorically that his father and Plantard had made up the existence of a 1,000 year-old "Priory of Sion".
Even Henry Lincoln now candidly admits that the claims made in "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail", especially the supposed marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and their possible off-spring eventually begetting the Merovingian kings, were mere "hypotheses". Notwithstanding, whether it be through various lectures I gave over the years, through dedicated forums such as Andrew Gough's "Arcadia Discussion Zone" or through personal e-mails, I realised that a large number of British and American Rennes-le-Château aficionados still took de Sède's and/or Lincoln's claims for granted, although both are founded on a common fabrication by Plantard.
The most widespread of these misconceptions are:
- the so-called Priory of Sion as a 1,000 year-old, still active, secret order devoted to the protection of the Bloodline of Christ ("Sang Réal");
- the purported monetary fortune amassed by Saunière, either by receiving payments from the Priory of Sion, or by blackmailing the Church over the disclosure of some sinister religious secret, or by plundering some treasure trove (the usual suspect being the Visigoth loot from the sack of Rome);
- the role played by the ever-looming Abbé Boudet as financier of his colleague Saunière's renovation works in Mary Magdalene's church.
On top of this, it appeared quite clearly that the history of Rennes-le-Château - let alone that of the Languedoc as a whole - went largely missing (the ubiquitous Templars filling conveniently most of the gaps), but this is also the case for the French public in general. No wonder, since very little has has actually been written on the history of the Languedoc before the Albigensian Crusades in 1209, a period in time which is still largely the province of academic investigation. It was not until 2009 that a few explanatory panels in French, English and Italian were put up in Rennes-le-Château's museum, at the initiative of Antoine Captier, Mariano Tomatis, Christian Doumergue and myself, Henry Lincoln adding a helping hand for translations.
I felt sorry for my listeners and addressees, who - despite the critical reviews published in English or aired on British and American TV shows - were also unaware of the wealth of information dug out by a number of French researchers who had long since debunked those falsehoods. Needless to say that their work, most of which issues not from hollow speculation but from long hours spent leafing through documents in public and private libraries, went largely unread by the Anglophone readership.
How could I blame them? If only 1 % of French novels get translated into English, why should their books, articles, websites, blogs and other Internet-based communiqués - let alone the narrowness of the subject - deserve to be translated? On the other hand, would it be reasonable to ask the Anglophones to speak French, since the French themselves are the more reluctant Europeans to learn a foreign language ?
To put the issue in a broader perspective, it is interesting to note that if you are a French novelist, you will start to get media attention when your book sells over 10,000 copies. If you are British or American, you'll need to sell at least 100,000 copies to get the same treatment. Remember that the potential worldwide readership for a novel written in English is about 450 million, whereas in whereas in French it is only 80 million.
It is not my purpose in this short article to review the items that have been missed by my Anglophone friends. I shall simply mention a few researchers and the gist of their work.
As early as 1964, René Descadeillas, at the time curator of Carcassonne's municipal library, published a seminal essay titled "Rennes et ses Derniers Seigneurs". This book - currently available in reprint - is an absolute must for those who wish to understand the historical and economic background of Rennes-le-Château at the time of François d'Hautpoul and Marie de Nègre (1730 to 1820).
In 1968, René Descadeillas published "Mythologie du Trésor de Rennes", a rebuttal of Gérard de Sède's "L'Or de Rennes" which came out the same year. Again this is essential reading since Descadeillas' position allowed him unlimited access to a vast historical documentation. Needless to say that both men came at loggerheads and continued feuding until Descadeillas' death in 1986.
In 1978, Franck Marie published an essay titled "Rennes-le-Chateau - Etude critique". This was four years before "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail" flurry, and dealt with events of a time when Rennes-le-Château was still a Franco-French affair. Although somewhat passé, the book has its merits. Unfortunately, it has been out of print for years. Unless you are very lucky, you will find it only in libraries. With Claire and Antoine Captier's special authorisation, Laurent Buchholtzer (aka Octonovo) has spent years rummaging through Saunière's papers, especially his letters, bills and receipts. Among his many conclusions: - Saunière did not live off a treasure trove, nor were there large sums of money at his disposal at any time. He lived from a constant - although irregular income derived from trafficking in Mass honoraria on a large scale and from donations.
We owe Christian Doumergue for having brought to light that a prominent donator was the "Cercle Catholique de Narbonne", a fund raising organisation set up by wealthy catholic and royalist families to help deserving members of the clergy. Alfred Saunière, Bérenger's brother, was a member of this circle. One needs to bear in mind that since the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801, all members of the clergy were salaried by the government. However, in Saunière's time, the political winds were turning. The left-wing anti-clerical Radical party, who advocated separating the Church from the State, had made spectacular strides forward in local elections. Secular priests and congregations feared for their livelihood and thus started looking for alternative means of income. They found support in the royalty, the nobility and the catholic bourgeoisie, all traditional allies of the Church under the Ancien Régime, who also feared the consequences of social reforms which an impending left-wing government might bring about.
Those fears were fully justified. Following the parliamentary elections of 1902, a leftist coalition came into power, and by the end of 1905, the law separating the Churches and the State had been voted. As a follow-up, all salaries and allowances to the clergy were suspended in 1909.
- Saunière's problems with Monseigneur Beuvain de Beauséjour did not stem directly from his trafficking in Mass honoraria or his unexplained wealth, but from an internal investigation led by the archbishop into the dealings of his predecessor, Monseigneur Billard, who had plundered the priests' retirement funds managed by the bishopric. What caught the attention of Beauséjour were receipts found in Billard's papers for Mass wine and other liquors procured by... Saunière!
In the course of his ministry, Saunière wrote thousands of letters to hundreds of correspondents. Not one was addressed to his counterpart in Rennes-les-Bains, Abbé Henri Boudet, nor did Saunière ever invite Boudet to his parish. Quite simply, both men ignored each other. Therefore, Boudet never acted as Saunière's mentor, nor did he inspire or design the interior decoration in Mary Magdalene's church, and even less donated "large sums of money" to Saunière or his maidservant Marie Dénarnaud.
In "Le Prieuré de Sion", published in 2012 and 'Le Secret Dévoilé", published in 2013, Christian Doumergue has delivered what seems to be a definitive account of Pierre Plantard's life. Picking up from Laurent Buchholtzer, Doumergue shows how Plantard's thinking was influenced by Geneviève Zaepffel, a renowned Parisian clairvoyant in the thirties and forties. This goes a long way to explain his later penchant for esoteric and mythical creations, foremost of which the the Priory of Sion.
- There is no evidence of any Priory of Sion having existed before Plantard and friends registered a non-profit organisation under this name in 1956. Its pretences as a chivalric order founded by Godfrey of Bouillon to guard the bloodline of Christ are - quoting Arnaud de Sède - mere "piffle".
In 1993, a Priory of Sion letter dated March 8th 1989 and allegedly signed by Pierre Plantard was delivered to judge Thierry Jean-Pierre who was investigating a political scandal involving Roger-Patrice Pelat, a friend and protégé of then French François Mitterand.
The letter announced the death of Mr Pelat on March 7th 1989 (fact) and also stated that - at the time - he was grand master of the Priory of Sion. The letter proved later to be a forgery, but at the time judge Jean-Pierre immediately ordered Plantard's home to be searched and brought him in for questioning.
The official records show that Plantard, whilst denying having signed the letter (which is probably true), admitted that the Priory of Sion as a 1,000 year-old chivalric order was a fake, and that the list of grand masters from Godfrey of Bouillon to Jean Cocteau was a figment of his imagination.
This should once and for all settle the issue.
Nonetheless, a couple of years after Plantard's death in 2000, the Priory of Sion seems to have risen from its ashes under the new guidance of Gino Sandri, who claims to have been Plantard's secretary. Wouldn't you be surprised to learn that Mr Sandri draws his monthly income not from occult sources, but as a trade unionist ? In real life, the self proclaimed current Grand Master of the Priory of Sion is the treasurer of SNFOCOS (Syndicat National Force Ouvrière des Cadres des Organismes Sociaux), the social security branch of FO, one of the top 3 trade unions in France !
To balance what I said earlier about the French having trouble with foreign languages, it would be fair to note that a number of English writers fail in such simple checking techniques as looking up a dictionary when confronted with French literature. A book by Keith Laidler titled "The Divine Deception - The Church, the Shroud and the Creation of a Holy Fraud" (Headline Book Publishing - 2000) provides a dismally striking example.
On page 4, the author introduces the Charnays as owners of the Shroud, then goes on as follows: "When Geoffrey I's son, Geoffrey II de Charnay, died in 1398, the Shroud passed to his daughter Margaret [...] In a deposition Margaret claims that her title to the shroud rested on the fact that the relic was 'conquis par feu Messire Geoffrey de 'Conquis par feu' ? The most likely translation for this phrase is 'conquered by, or through, fire' [...]
In short, could Margaret had been referring to an earlier Geoffrey de Charnay, to the Templar Preceptor of Normandy, roasted to death [...] in 1314 ? She is telling us that Geoffrey de Charnay conquered through the flames, [...] that he won the right to hold the Holy Shroud by enduring the fire without revealing the sacred secret of the Order."
275 more pages followed on the assumption that Geoffrey de Charnay had "conquered the Shroud through fire", while the correct translation of "feu Messire Geoffrey de Charnay" is "the late Sire de Charnay". I simply dropped the book on page 5! Have we now progressed on the "entente cordiale" front ? Perhaps not much. Far from suggesting we set up a FARCE (French Academy for Rennes-le-Chateau English), let us hope that in a very near future, more and more intelligent computerised protocols will be available over the Internet to translate online and instantly any document written in any language. Anglophones shall then have no trouble translating such French twisters as "attaché-case", "sexy", "strip-tease", "disc-jokey", "bulldozer" or "airbag", while Francophones will stop biting their nails at such English idiosyncrasies as "cherchez la femme", "hors d'oeuvre", "au pair", "coup de grâce" or "concierge" !