Joe Hendren

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Monday, May 22, 2006

The Da Vinci Code is pure fiction and based on a hoax

Finally got around to reading the Da Vinci Code in the weekend. Its a good book, but by no measure a great book, despite the large number of sales.

While I was backpacking in Europe in 2004 the Da Vinci Code was being read, or had just been read by, every second traveler I met. It is always quite fun to read about places as you visit them, and many travelers said the Da Vinci Code made them more interested in the famous paintings in the Louve and elsewhere, even if some of the interpretations might have been a bit suspect. Short chapters and the fast pace of the story also make it a good travelers book. I was regularly the only one on our bus reading actual history books, but then I am a bit of a geek!

The Da Vinci Code is full of puzzles and word plays, reminding me of Alice in Wonderland at times. Yet part of the appeal of Alice is the way Carroll uses cogent arguments to create absurd nonsense, whereas the author claims the Da Vinci Code is based on facts. In an introductory page to the book titled 'fact' Brown claims The Priory of Sion as founded in 1099 was a real organisation, and that parchments known as Les Dossier Secrets were discovered in Paris' Bibliotheque Nationale in 1975 identified numerous members of the Priory including Sir Issac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci.

The claims of Dan Brown are based on an 1982 "non-fiction" book called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. So much so two of the authors sued Brown for "copyright" infringement, supposedly the first time a writer of fiction had been accused of plagrising a work of "non-fiction". The authors of Holy Blood lost their case. And so they should, given Dan Brown quite openly acknowledged his primary source though the character Teabing in the start of chapter 60 (Teabing is an anagram of Baigent). Some of Brown's comments about "Holy Blood" are a bit snarky, and may have got the blood of the "Holy Blood" boiling a little.

"To my taste the authors made some dubious leaps of faith in their analysis, but their fundamental premise is sound, and to their credit they bought the idea of Christ's bloodline into the mainstream" (p. 339)

Given the debate over the Da Vinci Code, for Brown to accuse people of dubious leaps of faith is more than a touch ironic. Brown also follows "Holy Blood" in arguing there is evidence Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had one or more children, and those children settled in Southern France. Later their descendents intermarried with the noble families who would become the Merovingian dynasty (471 to 751AD), which was championed by a secret society called the Priory of Sion.

My immediate reaction to the link to the Merovingian dynasty was - yeah right. Even if you take a huge leap of faith and assume such claims are not simply a modern invention (as is likely), their would be strong political motives for promoting such a claim. In those days Kings claimed to rule by 'divine' right, so being descended from the big G himself would make a good case for being on the throne. In reality, the Merovingians were booted out of office by Charlemagne's father Pepin the Short, after years of ineffective Merovingian rule.

More critically for the credibility of Brown, Bagient, Leigh and Lincoln - the Priory of Sion has been shown to be a hoax. This article in Wikipedia claims (I wish they had attributed a source)

"Pierre Plantard and de Cherisey needed to create 'independent evidence'. So during the 1960s, they deposited a series of forged documents, the so-called Dossiers Secrets or "Secret Dossiers", at the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF), in Paris. Therefore, people who set out to research the 'Priory of Sion' would come across these fake documents at the BnF. One of those researchers was Henry Lincoln."

In the 2005 Channel 4 (UK) programme "The Real Da Vinci Code" looked at the main arguments of Dan Brown and those of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln. From the Wikipedia article "the da Vinci Code".
"The programme featured lengthy interviews with many of the main protagonists cited by Brown as "absolute fact" in the Da Vinci Code. Arnaud de Sede, son of Gerrard de Sede, stated categorically that his father and Plantard had made up the existence of the Prieure de Sion, the cornerstone of the Jesus bloodline theory - to quote Arnaud de Sede in the programme, "frankly, it was piffle".

Rest easy folks - the Da Vinci Code is nothing more than a work of fiction! I suspect you already knew that :) Actually I suspect the claims of 'fact' made by Dan Brown amount to not much more than a clever marketing ploy. Perhaps if "Holy Blood" had also claimed to also be a work of fiction the little court case may have been more successful!

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At 11:24 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Da Vinci Code drivel

Historian Elaine Graham-Leigh decodes the film of Dan Brown’s best selling novel and uncovers a dangerous right wing agenda
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.

At 8:18 pm, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

Thanks for that Anon - quite interesting. Do you have a link for this?

I certainly have some respect for Respect, but I hope it can become more than just George!

At 10:22 am, Blogger Rich said...

I don't see what's inherently right-wing in the "Holy Blood / Holy Grail" idea. The Nazis associated themselves with all sorts of ideas. You might as well argue that since quite a few Nazis were gay, being gay is a sign of right-wingness.

While it's probable that most of the ideas are mistaken, you could say exactly the same thing for most of traditional Christianity (or any other religion). There have been a lot of movies with biblical themes, and these aren't expected to carry a disclaimer as to their lack of demonstrable veracity.

The publicity around the Da Vinci code has apparently had a measurable effect in reducing religious belief. As someone who believes that relgion is a deeply negative reactionary concept, I think this is great!

(Sorry Joe, you aren't one of those Christian Socialists are you? - no disrespect :-)

At 7:01 pm, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

I wasn't sure about the right wing associtions either, thats why I asked for some more info on it. I have heard of Elaine Grahman Leigh before. I can see a similarity in that the Nazis promoted a whole lot of weird psedyo-paganism as part of their rejection of the enlightenment, so at least on that score there are some similarities.

"Sorry Joe, you aren't one of those Christian Socialists are you? - no disrespect :-)"

Rest easy, I don't believe in the Divinity of Jesus, which means on most definitions means that I am not a christian. I could see how my post may look like a defense of the catholic church - but it certainly wasnt' meant that way.

My interest is more in the historical record. I think a guy called Jesus did exist and he said some worthwhile things (especially about social justice), but I happen to think the story of his divinity was reinforced to a greater extent after his death, when the Romans wanted to make Christianity more like a traditional Roman religon. I also largely blame the Romans for the rampant sexism of the church, especially as it does seem at odds with Jesus's thoughts and actions.

So like any good fictional conspiracy the Da Vinci code has small elements of truth/plausabilty about it, along with a whole lot of nonsense. So I guess my concern was to debunk the nonsense before it also affected the crediabilty of others who undertake a more historically accurate appraisal of Jesus and the early Christian church.

I was going to mention this in my initial post, but I became aware it was already a bit long!

While on many occasions in history religion has been a reactionary negative concept that has held back progress and oppressed people (eg colonialism, Copernicus) I still have a lot of respect for people who attempt to put what Jesus said about social justice into practice.

At 8:50 am, Anonymous Geek said...

I think people over think this to much, it is just a story, a work of fiction, nothing to get worked up about.

At 4:13 pm, Blogger Joe Hendren said...


Perhaps. However the key point is that Dan Brown and the Baigents are attempting to claim their fiction is true - and as an old philosophy major I believe the notion of truth is always worth defending, especially from the false prophets.

There are some 'conspiracies' that turned out to be true (like watergate), but there are many more 'conspiracies' that end up detracting from the issues that ought to be looked at seriously.

At 3:28 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"excuse me, I must be confused about what a 'theory' means. I thought it meant someone's opinion. One side of the story. Maybe I was wrong, but don't Christians believe in God even though scientists claim that there is no real evidence to support it? And do a little more research, because I've read the book too and although I'm not saying that I believe all of it, I have done some other reading and some say that there is evidence that supports part of the info found in this book. And that info was out long before The Da Vinci Code was written.

At 1:20 am, Blogger the Curmudgeon said...

A "theory" is actually a bit more than just someone's opinion. At least in the original meaning of the word. A true theory is a hypothesis based on observed facts/events that would lead the observer to believe that there is a reasonable chance that the hypothesis may be true. Mere opinions don't have to even meet this standard. Modern American usage of the word "theory" by most people today probably is used to mean "opinion" however......


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