The film of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code opened the Cannes film festival this week to universal critical panning. The response to the book was somewhat better, but no one argues that either version is great art.
For those fortunate enough not to have read it, the book’s central thesis is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children whose descendants are alive today, a bloodline which is the real Holy Grail. This is protected from the vengeful arm of the Vatican and Opus Dei by a 1,000 year old secret organisation called the Priory of Sion and their military frontmen the Knights Templar.
The list of the Priory’s leaders supposedly included aristocrats, alchemists, scientists and artists like Jean Cocteau and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci.
Dan Brown presents this as fact, even stating in the book’s preface that the Priory of Sion is a real organisation founded in 1099. As one of his characters acknowledges, the argument is basically the theory advanced in 1982 by another book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (HBHG).
This started with a mysteriously wealthy southern French priest called Berengar Saunière (the surname used by Dan Brown for his Grand Master of the Priory of Sion). It progressed via the Templars and mystic secrets of the Cathar heretics in the south of France, ending with Jesus and his supposed descendents.
While HBHG was the best seller, it was in fact only one of a large number of works which make up what has been called the “secret history” of the south of France in general and the Cathars in particular. This features mystic pentacles in the landscape, hidden treasure, descendants of Jesus and the location and/or nature of the Holy Grail.
The role usually played by the Cathar heretics is, in The Da Vinci Code, occupied by the heroic Priory of Sion members themselves. They are revealed as peaceful worshippers of the female principle and all round new age good guys defying the patriarchal established church.
It will come as no surprise that the theory is bunk. The frequently repeated argument for Jesus’s marriage and therefore the likelihood of his having had descendants is that all Jewish men of his time were expected to marry by their early 30s. It is true that the gospels which were chosen in the fourth century to form the New Testament suppress the role of Mary Magdalene.
But the Gnostic gospels, which did not make it into the Bible, reveal that what was suppressed was not a sexual relationship but the lack of one—the idea that men and women can live together in a spiritual rather than a physical union.
As for the poor old Knights Templar, accused of worshipping everything from heads called “Baphomets” to the “Great Mother”—they were in fact a perfectly orthodox organisation who were suppressed in the early 14th century at the behest of the king of France, who owed them a large amount of money he didn’t want to pay back.
So, does any of this matter? Isn’t it just entertainment? There is a more serious side. Dan Brown’s statement that the Priory of Sion has existed since 1099 is definitely untrue, as is HBHG’s contention that they have been manipulating European history for the last 1,000 years. However, it is probably true that in the 1970s and 1980s there were people in France who thought they were members of an organisation called the Priory of Sion.
The authors of HBHG met one of them, a man called Pierre Plantard, who claimed to be the Grand Master and a descendent of Jesus. According to HBHG, the Priory’s aim was to put him “on the throne of Europe”, and this gives a clue to its real nature—a small, obscure, French monarchist sect.
However, while the Priory itself may be minor, the conspiracy theories have been used to some effect by the right. The theories have been around since the 19th century, but they came to particular prominence in France in the Second World War.
The Vichy regime used Cathar emblems in its propaganda, and there was also peculiar activity by the Nazis around the ruined castles most associated with ideas about Cathar mysticism.
The Da Vinci Code takes a profoundly right wing position and gives it a new age gloss, as if it was a genuine opposition to the establishment. This countercultural tinge has probably helped to make it a bestseller, and leaves readers with the impression that it would be nice if there were something in its arguments.
But real resistance is never made up of mysterious organisations protecting secret knowledge from ordinary people. Dan Brown’s presentation of fringe monarchist fantasies as the answer to all modern ills is not only a badly-written thriller. It’s a con.
Elaine Graham-Leigh is a member of the Respect executive and author of The Southern French Nobility and the Albigensian Crusade.