Before turning to writing, Dan Brown was an unsuccessful painter. His second novel was the sensational Da Vinci Code. Like a candle for a moth, Dan Brown lured the readers by implying that his book was based upon fact. Instead it comprised various implausible fantasies and conspiracy theories which were barely credible. Yet they had the effect of fixating the masses. Why are the theories propounded in the novel even more preposterous than believed with not a shred of evidence to substantiate any of them?
The Da Vinci Code is an amalgam of a raft of conspiracy theories in one novel. Apart from one, the cryptex, which is a pure figment of Dan Brown overactive imagination, the rest of the conspiracies have been peddled in various books and forums over the years. The only one of this genre which attained acceptable publication figures was one which is even in my personal library entitled Holy Blood Holy Grail on which Dan Brown’s book is based.
Main picture: The authors of the book Holy Blood Holy Grail claim that it must have been Mary Magdalene on Jesus’ right as their relative positions form an M for Mary.
As a callow youth I was fascinated at the possibility – albeit remote – that these fantasies could be true. Then after reading a few, including this one, I was struck that the far-fetched assumptions was probably a figment of the authors overact imagination or their desire for book sales.
What finally became the nail in the coffin of my credulity in these theories was an interview with one of these conspiracy theorists some 15 years ago. The topic of the interview revolved around whether Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene & whether she bore him any offspring.
The author’s line of reasoning went as follows:
- Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Last Supper with a female on his right
- The only female that the Bible speaks about is Mary
- Jesus was a Jewish male
- Mary Magdalene was a female
- As Jewish males had to get married at 19 years of age and Jesus was by then 27 years old, Jesus was married
- Because Mary Magdalene had been married to Jesus for at least 8 years, they would had had children
How puerile? Infantile
But believed by millions as irrefutable “proof”
Yet at their core, this is how many conspiracy theorists justify and explain how they derived their conclusion.
Providing further justification for the “fact” that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene relates to the Leonardo Da Vinci’s mural The Last Supper in the Sistine Chapel. It is claimed that the person to Jesus’ right has the appearance of a female. Hence according to this logic, it must have been Mary Magdalene. How would Da Vinci have known that a women was sitting on Jesus’ right hand side when nowhere in the New Testament does it state that fact. Rather I contend that it is Da Vinci’s depiction of John who was invariably portrayed as having feminine features. During that period it is the conventional way of depicting John. Judas was displayed as grasping a bag of silver and in breaking with tradition, none of the supper guests are depicted with halos. The “corroborating evidence” for the conspiracy theorists that the person had to be Mary Magdalene was that by leaning to the right, Mary and Jesus form an M which in their fetid brains was a “code” implying that the person must have been Mary. According to their version of events, this was a code deliberately created by Da Vinci to inform the laity that he was portraying Mary Magdalene! Rather I contend that the author had been smoking the “heavenly herb” the night before.
All of these examples highlight a key attribute of conspiracy theorists: their penchant for linking disparate events however spurious into a narrative which fits their story line.
Today I will rather sheepishly admit that I had been conned. On realising my gullibility, I vowed never again to accept glib linking of disparate facts together to produce a plausible story.
The Story behind the book Holy Blood Holy Grail and ultimately The Da Vinci Code.
Enter Pierre Plantard
One of the most shameful episodes in the Da Vinci Code which embellishes and already tenuous tale is Dan Brown’s use of the fraudulent assertions of Pierre Plantard, a French Fantasist, neo-Nazi and fraud. As a child Plantard resided in a fantasy world imagining himself as being more important than he in fact was.
As the basis of Dan Brown’s contention that Jesus’ offspring were none other the French Royal family, he relied upon the intricate fantasies of a deluded Frenchman by the name of Pierre Plantard. Ironically his theory of the Priory of Sion on which Jesus’ supposed lineage is based, is thoroughly discredited in France.
The story of how Plantard duped everybody for decades with his preposterous and unsubstantiated statements is in my view worthy of a Nobel Laureate for Mendacity. Moreover it is the basis of the supposed non-fiction work Holy Blood Holy Grail and ultimately the basis of Dan Brown’s account of a Mr Langdon as he uncovers the modern lineage of Jesus.
A History of Lies and Deceit
In the 1940s he [Pierre Plantard] founded two small, anti-Semitic, anti-Masonic groups – the Rénovation Nationale Française and the Alpha Galates – and published a short-lived anti-Jewish newsletter called Vaincre. Around this time Plantard began calling himself ‘Pierre Plantard de France’ and started to try to convince people that he was the true heir to the French throne.
In the post-War years Plantard quickly reinvented himself as a Resistance hero rather than an anti-Semitic Nazi collaborator. Sometime in the mid-50s Plantard met Noël Corbu, who had created his own fantasy about one of his forebears, the priest of the tiny village of Rennes-le-Chateau. According to Corbu, the priest, Abbé Bérenger Saunière, had become fabulously wealthy thanks to treasure he had discovered via some ‘parchments’ hidden in a hollow pillar in his church. This was pure fiction, as the priest’s wealth had actually come from money paid to say fake masses for the dead that Saunière never performed, a fraud that led to his dismissal by the Church authorities. But the legend of Rennes-les-Chateau took on a life of its own and continues to be believed by esoterics to this day.
Inspired by this story, Plantard teamed up with an eccentric aristocrat with a taste for surrealism, Phillipe de Cherisey, and faked the parchments supposedly found by Saunière. Linking these to a genealogy which purported to support his claim to the French throne and which detailed a secret society called (not coincidentally) the ‘Priory of Sion’, Plantard and De Cherisey lodged the fakes – the so-called Dossiers Secrets – in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris as a way of bolstering Plantard’s increasingly elaborate fraud.
Plantard and De Cherisey then teamed up with author, Gérard de Sède, to give the Priory of Sion/Rennes-le-Chateau hoax greater publicity. De Sède published a book based on the Dossiers Secrets detailing the whole fantasy in 1967. But Plantard and De Cherisey soon fell out with De Sède over royalty payments from the book, L’Or de Rennes. As a result of the disagreement, De Cherisey publicly revealed that the Dossiers Secrets were actually fakes and the whole story was a fraud. Plantard then admitted the same thing to French investigative researcher, Jean-Luc Chaumeil; though he later changed his story and said that the documents were fakes, but they were based on genuine originals. Largely thanks to Chaumeil’s exposes and Plantard’s increasingly erratic, ever-changing and patently silly stories, interest in the whole affair had faded in France by the late 1970s.
The Priory of Sion Rises Again – Holy Blood Holy Grail
The whole bizarre story could easily have ended there, but these weird frauds and fantasies have a tendency to take on a life of their own. Attracted by the various versions of the Rennes-le-Chateau story, two British amateur occult researchers, Michael Baigent and Henry Lincoln, teamed up with a fiction author, Richard Leigh, to produce a highly speculative BBC documentary on the tale of the Rennes treasure. Intrigued by what they found, and driven by an approach to history which could be best described as ‘credulous and weird’, the trio went on to publish Holy Blood Holy Grail in 1982.
Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s book became a sudden bestseller. Just as the whole Priory of Sion hoax was dying in France, the two Englishmen and their New Zealand collaborator gave it a new lease of life in the English-speaking world. Unaware, unconcerned by or simply ignoring the clear French evidence that the whole business was a series of hoaxes and fantasies, Holy Blood Holy Grail took the story to heights of fancy that even Plantard had not claimed.
Not content with perpetuating Plantard’s fraud regarding the fictional Priory of Sion and the faked Dossiers Secrets, Baigent et al added a whole new layer of speculation, tenuously linking the Priory and its supposed Merovingian ancestors to a ‘bloodline’ of Mary Magdalene and Jesus. The authors used a ‘historical technique’ they called synthesis. Essentially, this meant that if one element in the story could be imagined to be connected to another, then it was worth assuming that there was a genuine connection. Working on that (speculative) assumption, they would then move on to another possible connection, to see if that led to a third and so on. Using this hopelessly flawed ‘technique’, Baigent et al were able to construct a vast, elaborate and detailed alternative hidden ‘history’, were each layer of speculation and wild hypothesis supported the next. In the end they had managed to link Jesus to Plantard, the Templars to the Cathars, the Masons to the European Union, Leonardo to the Essenes and a great deal more besides.
Critics and historians regarded Holy Blood Holy Grail as a ridiculous joke, but the book sold rapidly and soon spawned a string of sequels and a host of spin-offs and imitators. Soon a whole popular genre of paperback speculative pseudo-history arose, each new book vying with the next to reveal new ‘ancient secrets’ and ‘amazing hidden truths’ obscured by centuries of ‘secret societies’ and ‘high level cover ups’. Genuine academic historians regarded the whole genre as a something of a joke – much as scientists regard the genre of UFO books. The Italian academic and novelist Umberto Eco wrote a witty and erudite parody of the whole phenomenon, Foucault’s Pendulum, where a group of editors construct a ‘Priory of Sion’ hoax as a joke, only to find occult believers taking them seriously, with deadly results.
Less credulous readers regarded Holy Blood Holy Grail as a piece of silly entertainment, and many commented at the time that, if it had been written as a novel rather than ‘non-fiction’ it would have made a good story. Little did they know that someone was about to do just that.
Enter Dan Brown and ‘Teabing’
By the 1990s Holy Blood Holy Grail and its sequels and imitators had taken their place on the bookshelf beside books on UFOs, ancient astronauts and yetis. While it had been briefly popular in its heyday, the book was never more than a brief cult hit with a certain type of reader.
But one of those readers was Dan Brown. He says he first became ‘aware’ of the Priory of Sion and its supposed connections with Leonardo da Vinci when ‘studying art in Seville’. Holy Blood Holy Grail was to become the backbone of The Da Vinci Code, and Brown has made it perfectly clear in interviews that he takes its claims and ‘evidence’ absolutely seriously.
There is some evidence, however, that Brown realises that the book is far from wholly reliable and that Plantard was even less reliable still. There are few references to the ‘mystery’ of Rennes-le-Chateau in the novel, though the fact that he names Sophie’s grandfather ‘Saunière’ – an obvious reference to the priest Abbé Bérenger Saunière – indicates that he is aware of this part of the legend. Pierre Plantard, the unsavoury anti-Semite and convicted fraud, also gets barely a mention; just a fleeting reference to the ‘fact’ that the Plantards are descendants of the Merovingian kings.
But the bulk of what Baigent et al promulgated in Holy Blood Holy Grail is to be found in the ‘secret’ that The Da Vinci Code ‘reveals’ and Brown is on the record as insisting that it is not fiction, but fact. Much of the ‘Priory of Sion’ myth is presented to the novel’s reader by the character Leigh Teabing, who refers directly to Holy Blood Holy Grail in his discourses with Sophie. As many have noted, even his name ‘Leigh Teabing’ is a none-too-subtle reference to Richard Leigh while his surname is a highly unlikely anagram of ‘Baigent’. Brown has Teabing distance himself slightly from Holy Blood Holy Grail – “To my taste the authors made some dubious leaps of faith in their analysis,” he tells Sophie, “but their fundamental premise is sound, and to their credit they finally brought the idea of Christ’s bloodline into the mainstream.” (Chapter Sixty, p. 254).
Despite this, Holy Blood Holy Grail is the main foundation of The Da Vinci Code. Brown follows it so exactly that in October 2004 Baigent and Leigh issued a writ against Brown’s publishers claiming that ‘the whole jigsaw puzzle’ in their book had been lifted and used in Brown’s novel. In 2006 they lost their case, which attracted intense media scrutiny, though the judge made it clear that, while Brown’s novel was not technically plagiarism, it was firmly based on Baigent et al’s book.
Exit Pierre Plantard
After Baigent and Co gave his fantasy a new lease of life, indeed, a life of its own, Pierre Plantard continued with his outrageous claims. But not for long – in 1983-84 Jean-Luc Chaumeil made new revelations about Plantard’s sordid past, including his conviction for fraud and the six months prison time he served between 1953 and 1954 and, worse still, allegations of child abuse.
Plantard attempted a comeback in 1989, launching a new series of claims about the Priory of Sion; this time saying that it had been founded in 1681, with a new list of Grand Masters. But this new fantasy proved the old fraud’s undoing.
The new list included Roger-Patrice Pelat, a war-time friend of French President Francois Mitterand. In 1993 Pelat was murdered and the subsequent investigation uncovered financial irregularities which caused a political scandal. Because Plantard had repeatedly insisted that Pelat was a Grand Master of (the newer version of) the Priory of Sion, Plantard himself suddenly found himself under the scrutiny of a high-powered legal and political investigation.
Judge Thierry Jean-Pierre decided not to take any chances with Plantard’s claims, as bizarre as they seemed, and he ordered a search of Plantard’s apartment. Documents regarding the supposed Priory of Sion were seized and Plantard was ordered to testify before the investigation. With his decades of fraud and fantasy finally dragged into the cold light of day, Plantard meekly admitted that the whole ‘Priory of Sion’ was a fraud and that all the ‘genuine’ parchments and documents were either fakes or figments of his imagination. Plantard was regarded as a harmless crank – ‘an idiot’ in the words of one investigator at the time – and let off with a severe warning.
Despite all his wild claims and Holy Blood Holy Grail’s dark mutterings about his vast political ambitions, Pierre Plantard died alone in 2000 having achieved nothing at all.
Little was he to know that Dan Brown was about to give his nonsense the biggest boost he could ever imagine. The Priory of Sion myth has now grown well beyond anything Plantard – fraud, embezzler and fantasist – could ever have dreamed of thanks to Dan Brown. Now millions of readers believe the Priory of Sion is ‘FACT‘ and a few may even have noticed the surname ‘Plantard’ in one passage of the book. It is now estimated that there are at least twelve organisations claiming to be the ‘real’ Priory of Sion. This is a remarkable fate for a local government pressure group founded by an anti-Jewish butler’s son prone to elaborate lies.
I have no quarrel with Dan Brown writing a novel about the supposed descendants of Jesus and that he was married to Mary Magdalene but to allude to the fact that it is based upon fact when all of the so-called facts are casually dismissible as deceitful.
The falsehoods peddled by Plantard have subsequently been used in a “non-fiction” book as the basis of a libellous accusation. The alleged expose about the genuine source of the priest’s – Abbe Bérenger Saunière – fortune was a “bribe” paid by the Pope in order to silence the priest as he was on the brink of providing definitive proof that Jesus was in fact married to Mary Magdalene.
Society cannot protect people from their own gullibility. Dan Brown’s book has spawned a whole Da Vinci Code Industry with tours to place like the Louvre, Rosslyn Chapel, Rennies-le-Chateau et al.
What I often wonder is whether Dan Brown’s support for the theory’s plausibility is merely a marketing ploy to provide credence to the book or are they the deeply held beliefs of a fantasist in the footsteps of the arch-fantasist Pierre Plantard himself.
Movie: The Da Vinci Code
Book: Holy Blood Holy Grail
Wikipedia on Pierre Plantard: http://www.historyversusthedavincicode.com/chaptertwentythree.htm