In a small village not far from Carcassonne in the Aude, a priest collapses, struck by a possible heart attack, at the age of 65 while he is in the tower that adorns his property! His maid, Marie Dénarnaud, finds him and in despair and horror has him transported to his bed where he will agonize for 5 days before dying on 22nd January 1917.
Bérenger Saunière died leaving behind the secret of his fabulous wealth. Only Marie Dénarnaud knew the secret & she promised to reveal it to Noël Corbu on her deathbed. She said that the secret would make him very powerful.
Sadly she died without divulging that secret in 1953.
Speculation was rife after her death regarding the source of the priest's money. Was he a common law criminal and fraudster - selling masses illegally, for which he was finally exposed and 'struck off' as a practising priest? Or could it be, given the local history, that he had found a colossal archaeological treasure, perhaps the legendary lost Visigothic gold? Or had Saunière been blackmailing the Church with some terrible secret? The evidence that points to the last possibility is Saunière's confession on his deathbed - so shocking that the priest of Esperaza who heard it allegedly denied him absolution and last rites. He then went on to build a very strange terracotta full life size representation of the historical Jesus Christ in his tomb - still alive!
A village 'elder' later also confirmed that, when young, he had attended Sunday school in the village where Marie Dénarnaud gave Bible lessons to the local children about Catholicism. According to the elder, after one hour of Bible class, when she had finished, she closed her book, looked at the children and said, ‘My poor kids, if you only knew’.
What ever did she mean?
Like Saunière, his colleague in that other village of Rennes - Henri Boudet - also talked of a great mystery. He admitted spending his whole life trying to 'penetrate the secret of the local history 'of the village, finally writing a supposed encoded book.
Descedaillas, a researcher who was fascinated with the affair and who spent years looking into it, wrote;
"For centuries there existed in the county of the Aude a tenacious tale which writer Labouisse-Rochefort, in his Voyage to Rennes-les-Bains, wrote about in 1803. The tale reappeared in another form and moved from Rennes-les-Bains to Rennes-le-Château. This move favoured the priest of Rennes-le-Château, Bérenger Saunière, since he was then able to set up a smokescreen in the shelter of which he could in all tranquility pursue his actions. He did what he could to maintain the tale and fortify it. Well then, Bérenger Saunière had a devil carved, mouth open, wings outstretched, with bright eyes, which he placed at the entrance of his church to support a holy water font. With this he inspired a superstitious fear".
Descedaillas finally came to the conclusion that "the treasure of Rennes does not exist. But the secret of the priest of Rennes remains. And it is with him that the mystery lies". And what indeed of the tale of the gold kept by the Devil? Real or fake?
The histories of the two villages are entwined. Rennes-les-Bains' history mainly starts during Roman times but Rennes-le-Château has a history pointing back to the Paleolithic. Both sites sit in a magnificent ancient landscape, overshadowed by the majestic mountain of Pech Cardou. The landscape has given up many bones, skeletons and artefacts from antiquity.
The whole area was also once home to the famous medieval Cathars and the wandering Troubadours. The enigmatic Cathars were ruthlessly burned at the stake in 1244 by the Catholic Church for refusing to renounce their beliefs. They reputedly sang that they would return 700 years after their demise. Taking them at their word this return would date to 1944 - well into our era! In fact it coincides with Hitler searching for the Grail treasure and the escapades of Otto Rahn who searched for the Grail very close the two Rennes!
Even before the Cathars and the Troubadours this area - once called Septimania - was home to the ancient Visigoths. The Visigoths were less barbarians of eastern Germania - they plundered Rome in 410AD and established a kingdom in Southern France - than they were Foederati - meaning people were bound by a treaty, known as a foedus, with Ancient Rome. In the Imperial Roman period the term was used also to describe barbarian tribes to which the Roman Empire provided benefits in exchange for military assistance. Rome betrayed the Visigoths once too often and consequently lost Visigothic trust and good will. It lead to the fall of the Roman Empire in 410AD!
The 8th century - after the demise of the Visigoths - saw Septimania ravaged by the Saracens and the area laid waste. Later the Carolingians moved in, allowing the Carolingian renaissance to take route and flourish, with centres of learning associated with famous monasteries built in old Septimania. Associated with these monasteries were monks and hermits of a Visigothic inheritance that later had important links to theories and legends in the later tale told of Bérenger Saunière.
Even earlier than all of these populations famous Roman battle legions took up residence such as the Seventh Legion and the Tenth legion. The Romans themselves would have achieved this by taking over enigmatic Celtic towns and sanctuaries - turning them or assimilating them into Roman religious practices.
And of course, this magical landscape would be incomplete without the presence of those mysterious Templars of the Roussillon and the Knights Templar.
Even into our modern times we must remember that the likes of Déodat Roché, himself an eminent specialist in the history of the Cathars [and friend of René Nelli], personally knew Saunière. During their time there was a great revival in the religious teachings of the Gnostics in the old land of the Cathars and while still a student in Toulouse Roché met Louis-Sophrone Fugairon. Fugairon published the idea that Mary Magdalene, when she went to Provence, brought back with her the body of the historical Christ. Fugairon intimates that the members of the then Gnostic Church undertook to find the tomb of the Saviour ... and various private correspondences suggest the nature of the investigations - "As for the body of J.-C. why would it not have been "stolen" like many followers? Catholicism uses a little too much of its magic to convert or hold under its yoke the faithful ... " writes the "Cathar of Arques".
A history such as this surely means that the two Rennes were destined to become some kind of sacred land to modern observers of the past, perhaps even to the modern descendants of those same Cathars who once lived here.
To these heirs is left the cryptic landscape which so obviously whispers to them. Legends of the area have researchers judging between landscape and painting, parchment and text, cryptographic code and decipherment, geography and geometry, building & menhir, astronomy and geography. All involve traditions about the Templars, the Cathars, the Rosicrucians, early Christians - and all are called in some way to try to light the lantern of those who seek.
“Sometimes a land of struggle, the Upper Aude Valley was also a land of convictions with the Good Men - those “Cathars" and the Knights with White Coats - those "Templars". Our roots are deeply rooted in their story, between the Myths and Legends, with each ruin and landscape never ceasing to remind us of it. And [also in our roots is] water, Creator of life, it springs, flows, sings in all its forms: thermal and hot water, mineral water, white water, salt source, waterfalls and torrents, lakes and rivers, here the water abounds! And a nature sometimes wild, sometimes sweet, it brings serenity and well-being to those who discover it. It surprises us from one valley to another, revealing its multiple faces which illuminate our stone villages”.
The idea of the sacredness of any particular piece of land or a particular landscape comes from seeing that we today are part of one big whole and in some respects a continuation of the past. Palmer said the way in which humans create sacredness is when "... communities decide upon a site that is holy to them, and then build a church, chapel, synagogue, mosque or temple.....[or when a] sacred place has been made holy by history or legend” [Sacred Land: Martin Palmer 2012, pp 4-6]
For the researchers into the Rennes Affair this second definition probably has some resonance with them. The land of the two Rennes’ has been viewed in some ways as sacred because that land has been made holy by history and legend. It is the allure of a treasure mystery and the strange goings on of a priest which has made the land a kind of ‘holy grail’ destination. Again, Palmer; "All ... types of sacred places tell us something about ourselves in relation to a greater story, a purpose greater than merely our individual lives...[...] They are sacred because they link us to the divine and give us a sense of meaning ...they add significance to what lies around us ....[...] Believing that some places are sacred means that we do not see ourselves as mere selfish genes … but as part of a greater narrative within which we have the opportunity to play a part.' [Sacred Land: Martin Palmer 2012, pp 4-6]
In this respect there are two categories of researcher interested in the Rennes-le-Château mystery. Both categories are convinced that Saunière tried to direct their research thanks to the many clues given by his unusual decoration of the church and surroundings. The first category of researcher are base and materialistic treasure seekers. For them, Saunière discovered something that made him very rich: perhaps the treasure of various kings, that of the Visigoths, the Merovingians and others. Or perhaps it is the fabled Cathar or Templar treasure? Was it a combination? They seek the treasure for fame and fortune. Others for the noble cause of the history of our human race.
The second category are the secret and personal researchers. For them, on the contrary, Saunière found something that relates to the Christian religion or the French monarchy: some of the hypotheses concern the true tomb of Christ, and/or the tomb of Mary Magdalene or else the proof of Jesus' descent through the Merovingian lineage. For them they are embarking on some kind of spiritual awakening and personal pilgrimmage.
The legends involve traditions about the Templars, Freemasons, Rosicrucians and the mysterious Vatican and church history - but all are, in the end, being called to try to light the lantern of those who seek. An imagination of someone who starts off searching for the truth regarding the mysteries of Rennes-le-Château and Rennes-les-Bains more or less can be turned from a gold -panning treasure hunter into a seeker of historical truth.
That search - equivalent to perhaps the search for the philosopher's stone - and of the Rennes Affair is a much more modern quest - a quest which is long and difficult and one which requires discipline and dedication. As Fontenelle once wrote [1657-1757] - "It is true that one cannot find the philosopher's stone, but it is good to look for it. For in that search, there are beautiful secrets to discover...."