Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Knight out on the Town | Stoking the fires of conspiracy | Chapple in Paris in 2004

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Just as the wave of 2014 St Patrick-related posts and tweets was coming to an end there was a slight spike in social network posts of another kind – Jacques deMolay. March 18th 2014 marked the 700th anniversary since deMolay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar was burnt to death on the orders of King Philip IV of France. Admittedly, it’s only exactly 700 years if you ignore the changes from the Julian to Gregorian calendars etc. … but what’s a few days between friends? In reviewing the several comments posted on my Facebook page afterwards, I was reminded that – in some circles at least – deMolay is a character who still excites passions. To some, he’s an anti-establishment icon who challenged the authority of the church. To others he is seen as the head of a sinister organisation whose name is synonymous with the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and any other group (real or imagined) credited with pulling the strings of power behind the scenes. In a sign that he remains an adaptable and malleable icon, it was even suggested to me that his demise might be a fitting template for dealing with the bankers responsible for the economic downturn. One newspaper column even suggested that this date should be reimagined as a ‘national day to remember former members of the armed forces’.

It’s something of an understatement to say that I’ve a bit of an obsession with the Knights Templar. I have an early memory of watching one of Henry Lincoln’s TV documentaries in the 1970s about Rennes-le-Château and the possibilities of the Templars having been involved in hiding something in that corner of France. I remember being filled with a thrill at the idea of these apparently ‘lost’ or suppressed narratives being uncovered through historical research and the application of imaginative reason … or at least what was being passed off as reason. Although utterly fraudulent, I bought into it in a big way. I still have my hardback first-edition of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail [Free PDF version available: here]. Although first-editions of this book go for considerable amounts of money, mine is not in that league … my copy is dog-eared, battered, and covered in my scribbled notes and underlinings. While it’s easy to look back on the web the authors spun as a collection of inaccuracies, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, faulty logic, poor research, and pretty much any criticism you wish to throw at the work, it was very influential to me personally. Quite apart from anything else, it was one of my chief childhood influences that engaged my latent interest in history and all things ‘ancient’. Without HBHG I’d probably never have ended up in archaeology – make of that what you will! Admittedly, taking on a more serious attitude to history and archaeology is what eventually led to my understanding that the book – and the entire field of popular publishing that it spawned – is an intellectually flawed endeavour. If you want eloquent proof of the lack of robustness of this enterprise, look no further than the BBC’s 1996 Timewatch documentary ‘The History of a Mystery’. The show amounts to a point-by-point take-down of Andrews & Schellenberger's book The Tomb of God, and the whole Rennes-le-Château industry with it. For all that, I still enjoy reading pseudo history and I still spend quite a bit of time dressing up as a Templar.

The author as a Templar ... though my glasses wont fit under the helm
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about today. I wanted to talk about Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code [Free PDF: here]. I had originally ignored it when it was published in 2003, and it was only when it came out in paperback the following year that I began to pay it any attention. By that point, it had infiltrated the popular consciousness in ways that neither HBHG and its flock of sequels and imitators had ever achieved. Even Umberto Eco’s literary masterpiece Foucault's Pendulum – tackling much the same subject matter – never inspired such popular flurry and book sales. In much the same way as when your favourite underground band is suddenly catapulted up the charts to stardom and household-ubiquity, some of their sheen appears to dissipate for the long-term fan. This was how it was for me. I unexpectedly found myself surrounded by large numbers of people, all of whom had opinions as to just what had been found by the Templars in Jerusalem, what was buried in Rennes-le-Château, or the true origins of Freemasonry. Maybe I just hung out with the wrong people! Like Flann O’Brien’s comment on those who spoke Irish when it was ‘neither popular nor profitable’, I had nothing but distain for these newcomers, lately arrived to the twin fields of esoteric investigations and heavy-to-industrial-strength pseudo-historical speculation. When my late father finally persuaded me to accept his copy of The Da Vinci Code, I was horrified to discover that it was a terrible disappointment – poor prose broken up by interminable lectures from the author on all things historical and esoteric. Dull, dull, dull. I’ve never reread the book, but in parsing sections of it to check facts for this post, I feel that my low opinion of the writing is justified. That said, fair play to Dan Brown – I may not like his work, but I love his book sales!

Absolutely none of this was on my mind in 2004 when my wife and I decided to head to Paris for a holiday. Ah, those halcyon days before we became parents! We booked in for a week at the delightfully named ‘Hotel Garden Opera’. I see that they now have a picture of the actual building on their website. Back then, they had one photo on the website and it was of the remarkably beautiful Palais Garnier, the Paris opera house. We only realised this when we attempted to reconcile the images we’d seen of this fantastically opulent masterpiece of French Second Empire excess with the anonymous concrete block we found ourselves standing outside. The hotel was situated in what I came to term ‘the African hairdressing quarter of Paris’ with numerous establishments on both sides of the main thoroughfare leading into the city centre dedicated to this art. In the evenings, when the hairdressers had shut up shop for the night, and put out their refuse for collection, offcuts of human hair would blow along the street, propelled by the light breeze. These would coalesce into sizeable balls, gathering up leaves and assorted street debris, to form impressive ‘tumbleweaves’, often travelling at some velocity and making noise as they went. I took quite a fright the first time one shot past me, thinking it was a giant rat. Shock quickly turned to disgust on the realisation that this was a vast collection of human hair from multiple sources, apparently moving of its own volition – such are the things that nightmares are made of! Of the hotel itself, the rooms were tiny, Spartan, and the main door couldn’t fully open because the bed was in the way. On the positive side, the staff were lovely and the breakfasts were excellent … and all within walking distance of the centre of the city. We did quite a few of the touristy things you’d expect … or at least those that you’d expect an obsessive archaeologist to be attracted to. We hit Père Lachaise Cemetery, the Paris catacombs; the Roman ruins under Notre Dame; the tapestry masterpieces at the Musée de Cluny; the house of Nicolas Flamel (who was a real person & not just a character in the Harry Potter novels); and the Eiffel Tower. Admittedly, in the case of the latter, I had forgotten the vast scale of the construction and insisted that ‘there’s no need to go by Metro … it’s just over there!’ Several hours later, back at the hotel (via a stop at a chemist to purchase ibuprofen cream to soothe tired, flayed feet) a quick perusal of the map I’d left behind indicated that I’d taken us on a forced march of approximately 7.5km (c.4.6 miles) through the highways and backstreets of the city. We used the city’s Metro with much more frequency after that.

The Paris Catacombs
Somewhere in amongst these cultural meanderings, punctuated by frequent stops for lunches, dinners, beer, numerous bowls of French Onion Soup, and strong, sweet Parisian coffee, we found ourselves outside the doors of the church of Saint-Sulpice. What with all the other archaeological and historical delights to sample around the city, it wasn’t even on my cultural horizon as a place to visit. But … now that we’re here … I suggested to my wife that I’d like to go in for a look about. She eyed both me and the building with something approaching suspicion and asked ‘what’s so special about this one? Paris is filled with churches like this!’ Time to come clean! “Well … it’s a scene of some action in The Da Vinci Code, but it’s also really important in the whole Rennes-le-Château affair, because this is where the priest Bérenger Saunière came to celebrate mass when he visited Paris …”. I don’t think I really got much further than that. By this stage, my wife had taken on a look of ‘not this madness again?’ She sighed and indicated that I was welcome to the dull and dusty church, but she was staying outside to enjoy the sunshine and the festival of poetry books on sale in the adjacent Place Saint-Sulpice.

Bone art at The Paris Catacombs
Today, the church of Saint-Sulpice is the second-largest in Paris (after Notre Dame). The original edifice was constructed during the 13th century in the Romanesque style. The current building was begun in the mid-17th century, under the direction of Jean-Jacques Olier, the founder of the Society of Saint-Sulpice. The west façade was redesigned in the 1730s by Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, inspired by Christopher Wren's Saint Paul's Cathedral in London. There have been additions and subtractions along the way, but what remains today is an imposing, but (to me at least) uninspiringly bland mock Classical affair.

Art Deco Masonic columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery
Dull, dusty … and definitely dark! Stepping in from the bright sunshine, I expected that my eyes should take a few moments to adjust. In that brief time of partial blindness I had anticipated a change from the hustle and bustle of the city streets to something quieter and altogether more reverend. If anything, the sound levels appeared to increase – it was louder inside the church than outside on the street. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could see that the church was packed with people. My first reaction was to back out and leave these worshipers to their service … but they weren’t worshipers and there was no cleric in evidence to conduct them in prayer. These were tourists who had either – like me – wandered in here or had deliberately sought this place out. A brief scan around the nave indicated that there were quite a few holding copies of Dan Brown’s book – in multiple translations – and there were even a few to be seen sporting thumbed paperback editions of HBHG. I was clearly among the hard-core!

One of the chief items of interest within the church is the large obelisk-like gnomon and its brass strip inserted into the floor. Although it looks out of place within a church, it is there to serve a largely christian function. The monument was completed in 1743, on the request of the parish priest of the church, Jean-Baptiste Languet de Gergy, as a means of better identifying the occurrence of the equinoxes and, thus, determining the exact date of easter, though it has been used for a number of other, purely scientific, purposes. It is often stated – without any verification that I have ever seen – that the church was saved from the wreckers and iconoclasts of the French Revolution precisely because of this connection to scientific endeavour. Certainly, the church was used during this period as a place to worship the Supreme Being. The Wikipedia article asserts (but I’ve never noticed it) that there is “a printed sign over the center door of the main entrance. One can still barely make out the printed words "Le Peuple Francais Reconnoit L’Etre Suprême Et L’Immortalité de L’Âme" ("The French people recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul")”. The church also appears in the so-called Dossiers Secrets d'Henri Lobineau, widely considered a forgery concocted by Pierre Plantard (a French pretender to the French throne) and Philippe de Chérisey (a disgraced, alcoholic, minor noble). These documents purport to be an account of the Priory of Sion, an organisation founded by Godfrey de Bouillon in 1099. Without providing the whole background to, and contents of, the documents it may be safely stated that all reputable researchers who have investigated the issue conclude that they are forgeries, concocted as part of a surrealist hoax, or ludibrium.

Jim Morrison's grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery
Between these various sources, the church of Saint-Sulpice had achieved a degree of mythic aggregation in the realms of pseudo history that near rivalled Rennes-le-Château itself, even before the publication of The Da Vinci Code. The novel gets many things wrong, including the fact that the metal strip in the floor is in some way related to the Paris Meridian (which actually passes c.100m to the east and was established nearly 80 years earlier, in 1666). In the novel, Silas, the albino monk, enters the church in search of a ‘keystone’ that will give him the location of the Holy Grail. Following the available clues, he discovers it (actually a decoy created by the Priory of Sion) in a cavity under a floor tile at the foot of the obelisk. The Wiki article on the church notes that “In the years following the publication of the novel, tourists would sometimes be seen knocking on the floor near the obelisk, searching for hollow spaces.” Had I read that line without having been to the church and seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it. Actually, I disagree with one word in the sentence: ‘sometimes’. The scene that lay before me was that of a cacophonous throng, attempting to soak up and appreciate every bit of esoteric, occult, and conspiracy-laden mysticism that had been encoded into the architecture and decoration by those likely lads from the Priory of Sion, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar … and probably helped out by the Freemasons too! It seemed that everywhere I looked there were people tapping for hollows in the floor, or making deep, meaningful sighs as they beheld the significance of the brass strip in the floor. That poor line of metal had already been polished to a high shine by two and a half centuries of pedestrian traffic by worshipers, tourists, and sundry French Revolutionaries. Now it looked like it was about to either expire or combust under the accumulated weight of gentle stroking and esoteric significance that was being placed upon it. Individuals were photographing it or sighting along it. The hand gestures used by occasional small groups – pointing or swinging a limb parallel – Indicated that a number of animated conversations were being had about it. Other people were photographing the alleged references to the Priory of Sion encoded in the stained glass, or looking at the large and ornate candlesticks on the high altar. In the latter case, one of these candlesticks is mentioned in Brown’s book as having been used by Silas to smash his way through the floor of the church. I would be wrong to paint a picture that suggested I was a lone sceptic among this throng of historical conspiracy theorists, though it did certainly feel that way at first. No more than my eyes taking some time to adapt to the lower light levels within the building, I slowly began to discern that it was not a uniform host before me. First in scattered overheard wisps of conversations, and later in a couple of chats with other visitors, I came to realise that a significant number of those there had, like me, wandered in to see ‘what all the fuss was about’. For all that, we were definitely in the minority. In making my way around the church, I noticed that there were concerted hums of activity around the gnomon and the high altar etc., all within the general background throng of floor-knockers and brass-polishers. There was, however, one distinct group – a loose knot of people, standing together in relative silence looking at something of interest that I couldn’t quite see. I made my way through the crowd, careful not to trip over any bent-kneed strip-strokers, bump into anyone ‘having a significant moment’, or the one guy who loudly proclaimed that he was there ‘To Worship Isis’. Once I got closer, I could see that there was not one object of fascination, but several. A series of small, rectangular cards were mounted on stands. Each card had a short text in one of several languages. Despite my enviable fluency in both ‘War Movie German’ and ‘Outrageously French’, I shuffled along until I got to the English version. Try as I might, I couldn’t recall any more than the general gist of it and a couple of generalised phrases. Thankfully, someone out there had the foresight to record it for posterity and include it near the end of the Wikipedia article on the church:

“(...) Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this is not a vestige of a pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this place. It [the line in the floor] was never called a «Rose-Line». It does not coincide with the meridian traced through the middle of the Paris Observatory which serves as a reference for maps where longitudes are measured in degrees East or West of Paris. (...) Please also note that the letters «P» and «S» in the small round windows at both ends of the transept refer to Peter and Sulpice, the patron saints of the church, and not an imaginary «Priory of Sion».”

Chapple on top of the Arc de Triomphe
... with fashionable Eiffel Tower decoration sprouting from top of head
This was where I took my deep meaningful breath and sighed! It was a beautiful feeling! In among all this crazy, here were a series of small signs acting as beacons for rationality and doing your research! I was about to head back out of the church, happy in the knowledge that there still existed a stout bulwark of sense and sanity to counter the massed ranks of Lincolns, Schellenbergers, Browns, and their adherents. Just as I was about to turn and go, I overheard two middle-aged ladies discussing what they had just read. Their accents indicated that they were of North American origin and they were dressed in what amounts to traditional tourist garb that included large floppy canvas hats and ‘bum bags’ (or ‘fanny packs’ in North American parlance). One held a copy of The Da Vinci Code under her arm while the other had the same squeezed awkwardly into her ‘bum bag’. Both copies of the novel were heavily dog-eared and thumbed. One volume in particular sprouted a profusion of coloured ‘post-it’ notes and sundry ad-hoc markers, many of which appeared to bear scribbled notes and jottings. Listening to them attempt to process the information from the sign was quite extraordinary. Confronted with these facts, so plainly stated, and in contradiction with the novel they clearly loved they didn’t seem to know how to react. There was quite a bit of halting, confused half sentences left trailing off into the void: ‘But … Dan Brown … just …’ or ‘I thought … that …’. I had quite a bit of sympathy for them – I had once been in a similar situation. I have tried to rationalise the difference in terms of my infatuation with The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was based around a book that purported to be genuine history, while Dan Brown’s work was very clearly a novel – a work of fiction. But that won’t wash. Both HBHG and The Da Vinci Code claim the same base set of pseudo-historical ‘facts’, assumptions, and downright lies to weave their stories of conspiracy laden alternative history. The only difference is that the novel adds a cast of fictional characters, including Prof. Robert Langdon, Sophie Neveu Saint-Clair, and the totally not based on two of the authors of HBHG, Sir Leigh Teabing. It had taken quite a portion of my childhood and teenage years, but I had read, reasoned, and researched my way out of this intellectual abyss – and now it was their turn. For anyone not already aware, the suppressed historical narrative here is that Jesus escaped the crucifixion and made it to the south of France with his wife, Mary Magdalene, where their children went on to found the Merovingian dynasty of French kings. The Merovingians survived their deposition in the mid-8th century and survive to this day as near mystical ‘once and future’ kings. The whole story has been covered up by the Catholic Church in order to preserve their business interests and maintain their orthodoxy. Simples.

A much thinner (& less grey) Chapple under the Eiffel Tower
I stood there and listened as these two tourists fumbled their way toward some uncomfortable conclusions. If there’s no Priory of Sion dedicated to protecting this secret bloodline … maybe there’s no bloodline … maybe it’s all made up! Could it really just be a hoax? In retrospect, I’m sure I could have provided some genuine assistance and support. I could have offered a metaphorical hand of reason and helped lift them from their ignorance. Turns out, I’m not that guy! Some days I’m a total asshat … this, gentle reader, was one of those days. I leaned forward, conjured up my best impression of a Clint Eastwood gravelly voice, and said: “Maybe that’s just what they want you to believe!” This had the desired effect of creating a sudden wall of sound from the two ladies … sharp intakes of breath, followed by stereo ‘Oooh!’s and then ‘Of course!’ and ‘I knew it!’ By that point I was already on my way out of the church, into the sunshine, and their voices were a receding sonic spike amongst the general cacophony behind me.

I'm a bad person - I know this! But I'm comfortable with being that guy!