- The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln
Cape, 445 pp, £8.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 224 01735 7
- The Foreigner: A Search for the First-Century Jesus by Desmond Stewart
Hamish Hamilton, 181 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 241 10686 9
- Satan: The Early Christian Tradition by Jeffrey Burton Russell
Cornell, 258 pp, £14.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 8014 1267 6
In 1891, Bérenger Sauniere, curé of Rennesle-Château, a remote village in the Cevennes, discovered hidden in the structure of his church four parchments, two of them written in the 18th century and partly in code, two earlier and containing genealogies (still not published). There were references to Dagobert II, the Merovingian king, to Sion, and to treasure said to be Merovingian. The consequences of the discovery were odd. Saunière was sent to Paris with the two documents, and came into contact with some leading figures in the literary and artistic world, all of whom were interested in the occult. He became suddenly very wealthy: shortly before his death he was visited by a Hapsburg Archduke who transferred to him a large sum of money. Accused of simony by his bishop, he was exonerated by the Vatican; on his death-bed he was refused extreme unction. In the 13th century this part of the Cevennes had been the centre of the Cathar or Albigensian movement, and the Cathar fortress of Montségur with its reputed treasure – in some accounts said to have included the Grail – was not far away; a neo-Cathar movement had sprung up in neighbouring Carcassonne and Saunière was in touch with it. It was clear that more than treasure was involved. There was a mystery of interest to a number of different people, and it looked as if Saunière was an agent for some group.
This story, the subject of a paperback in France by Gérard de Sède and of a Chronicle film for BBC Television by Henry Lincoln, is the starting-point of the present book. In their investigation of the problems posed by the story, Lincoln and his co-authors begin with the Cathars, and the Cathars lead to the Templars (already the subject of another Chronicle film by him). From there the trail leads on to René d’Anjou, to the Hermetists and Rosicrucians of the Renaissance, to the Freemasons, and, beyond, to an existing secret society in France. The book is not just a loosely-connected assemblage of historical enigmas and occultist movements: each stage of the argument is closely linked with what precedes. The writers are as a rule at pains to distinguish between facts, tradition or gossip, and speculation, of which there is a very great deal; there is a sizable bibliography and references are given in the notes to many of their sources, so that the reader often has the opportunity of checking both their facts and their hypotheses. They have read widely and sometimes critically, and they even assure us that they have reached some of their more sensational conclusions with reluctance. The field they cover is vast, and there is one drawback of a work of historical detection on this scale from which they are not exempt. A fresh and inquisitive eye may on occasion observe something which those more familiar with a subject have missed, but where a highly complex topic, such as the history of the Knights Templar or of Christian origins, is got up for a specific purpose, with the research carried out, as it largely must be, at second hand, it is none too easy to get its feel and setting, and the risk of making major blunders increases with the anxiety to find quick answers to questions that arise. In respect of the only corner of the field with which I can claim familiarity, the book falls into both traps.
One of their sources, central to their whole undertaking, calls for comment. In recent years there has been a spate of papers and tracts, some privately published, most pseudonymous, together with one or two books, relating to Rennes-le-Château and the problems associated with it, and to some of these writings (which the authors call collectively the Prieuré Documents) it appears that the Bibliothèque Nationale is unaccountably reluctant to give access. The most important element in this collection of writings is the Dossiers Secrets, dated 1956, the content of which appears to vary from time to time, some papers being removed, others added. The Dossiers contain, inter alia, historical material in the form of lists and genealogies which is not, it would seem, available elsewhere and the sources for which are not stated. It includes a list of the Grand Masters of the Temple: for reasons they give, the authors are convinced that this list is fuller and more accurate than any hitherto known.
Because they had found this list convincing, the authors turned their attention to another list which at first they had regarded with total scepticism – a list of the Grand Masters of the Prieuré de Sion. They had found grounds for thinking that some other institution lay behind the foundation both of the Templars and the Cistercians, and this they tentatively identified with the Prieuré de Sion, an order whose headquarters was the Abbaye de Notre Dame de Mont Sion in the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem at the beginning of the 13th century. That there was such a body in the Middle Ages seems certain; it is certain, too, that a body exists under that name in France today. That the Prieuré existed in the intervening centuries, though not always under that name, seems probable enough: heterodoxy is a constant element in it, and hostility, at times implicit, at times explicit, to the hegemony of Rome.