RANT: “The Da Vinci Code”

Allow me to preface this rant with a clarification: I have no problem with The Da Vinci Code as a work of fiction. My problem stems from the fact that so many people apparently think it’s based on fact, either because they’re stupid or because Dan Brown wrote a convincing book. Either way, it is the source of my rage.

As you know, the movie based on the wildly popular book The Da Vinci Code hit theatres last Friday. That’s fine. Enjoy the film! Hell, I’d even go see it myself, but the missus has no interest in seeing it and lately I just haven’t been in the mood to go to the movies by myself. Anyway, there apparently are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people out there that seem to think Dan Brown’s work is real… as in “based on fact”. If you’re one of those people, this rant is for you:

The vast majority of Dan Brown’s book is ripped wholesale from another book: The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln (it’s known as Holy Blood, Holy Grail in the United States). So much of Brown’s book came from Holy Blood that Baigent and company attempted to sue Brown for millions (the case was recently thrown out). Holy Blood, Holy Grail purports to be a “non-fiction” book, but this assertion is hobbled by two major flaws in Baigent and company’s thinking: an astonishing ignorance of Catholicism and a belief in what I call “Occam’s Anti-Razor”.

Baigent and company aren’t completely ignorant of Catholicism. Indeed, they know far more than many of my friends reared here in the Protestant South. But they do tend to drop the ball with Catholicism whenever it’s needed most. For example, in one passage they describe the funeral of one of their story’s main characters, real-life Rennes-le-Château parish priest Bérenger Saunière. They tell of how the villagers brought scissors and knifes with them to the service, and how those villagers snipped off pieces of Saunière’s funeral clothing as they passed him. Breathlessly, they asked someone what this was about and how it got started. The source replied that they didn’t know, and Baigent and company accepted this as some great Saunière-specific mystery. However, even one with a pedestrian knowledge of Catholicism would know that the villagers were creating their own “third-class relics”.

Relics, in canon law, are divided into three classes: first class, second class and third class. First class relics are “items directly associated with the events of Christ’s life (manger, cross, etc.) or the physical remains of a saint” while second class relics are “items that the saint wore” or “an item that the saint had, for example, a crucifix, or book”. Third class relics are defined as (wait for it…) “a piece of cloth touched to the body of a saint after his death” or “a piece of cloth brought to the shrine (or site of the vision) of the saint”. It’s well known by almost any parish priest (or historian for that matter) that upon a pope’s death, the College of Cardinals would order multiple funeral clothes for the pope… because the faithful would snip off little pieces of his clothes as souvenirs or relics. And while the Church has a complex set of rules involving first- and second- class relics (they cannot be sold, nor can they be sent via mail) there are no restrictions on third-class relics. Any historian worth a damn could have told Baigent and company that there was a huge trade in third-class relics during the Middle Ages… but they apparently neglected to ask.

My second complaint – that Baigent, et, al. used “Occam’s Anti-Razor” to write most of their book – is much more serious. Occam’s Razor is the general belief that the most simple and logical answer to a question is usually the correct one. However, Baigent and crew usually go 180 degrees in the other direction. According to them, a loud noise heard in your house in the middle of the night couldn’t possibly be the air conditioning turning on, it’s a meteor landing in your backyard! This kind of thinking comes up over and over again in the book. If the mysterious Dossiers Secrets they’re always talking about are missing from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris… it’s not because some jackass has kept them checked out for weeks past their due date… it’s not because some careless librarian misplaced the book… it’s because the Pope’s secret army invaded the library and stole them! I mean, isn’t it that obvious? This would be bad enough for just one fact, but the case they make – like a house of cards – is built on logic like this. If Mary Magdalene could have fled the Holy Land for France, she must have done so. If the Old French word for “holy blood” could have been mistranslated as “holy grail” (and thus, a holy bloodline rather than a mythical cup existed), then Baigent and company must assume that it was mistranslated. Obvious facts also get left out when it’s convenient to do so. I once saw a special on the Discovery Channel in which Henry Lincoln asserted that Templar castles and churches were built in perfect lines with another as some kind of “hidden message”. Of course, poor Henry forgot to mention that it’s pretty easy to do so when you’re building said castles on a straight stretch of mountain ranges, but I digress.

No, the worst part about it all for poor Baigent and crew is that the whole thing is simply a myth. Saunière’s true wealth was but a fraction of what it was asserted to be. And while they make a lot of noise about Saunière spending £21 for postage in his second year as parish priest of Rennes-le-Château – a figure which was over three times the priest’s salary – they ignore the obvious: that the postage was the actual means by which Saunière made money. Yes folks, Saunière was an early practitioner of a black art… the black art of using the postal service to raise money to refurbish his church. It’s so telling that they go out of their way to mention the £21 figure for postage, yet ignore what that must have meant. Moreover, the “secret documents” that Saunière allegedly found – those that allegedly gave him the source of his “massive wealth” – were allegedly found in a “hollow Visigoth pillar” during a renovation of Saunière’s church. However, the pillar is on display at the Saunière Museum in France, and it’s obvious to anyone with eyes that the pillar is not, in fact, hollow. It’s also apparently obvious to anyone with a degree in Visigoth history that the pillar is not Visigoth, either, but I’ll have to defer to the experts on that one. Most crucially though, is that fact that most of the Rennes-le-Château “mystery” was invented by one Noel Corbu, a man that purchased Saunière’s estate in 1946. He opened a restaurant on the property and cooked up some tall tales to get the restaurant going. Those tales were picked up by the French media in January of 1956 and a legend was born. Corbu would later meet Pierre Plantard – the man listed as the current Grand Master of the “Priory of Sion” – and both of them (as well as Plantard working alone) expanded the myths. Plantard’s close friend Philippe de Cherisey would even create some authentic looking parchments to back up Corbu and Plantard’s story… including the ones that were central to Baigent and company’s story… the ones that Saunière allegedly found.

In short… it’s all one big practical joke people. Don’t take it so damn seriously!

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