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Beyond "The Da Vinci Code": What is the Priory of Sion?

di Massimo Introvigne

imgIn The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown claims that the Priory of Sion “is a real organization”, “a European secret society founded in 1099”: “In 1975 Paris Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci”. All this in a preliminary page under the title FACTS (as opposed to fiction). Considering the cavalier treatment in the novel of early Catholic history and the Opus Dei, one may raise some questions about the Priory of Sion, too. And rightly so.

The Priory of Sion is an esoteric order legally established in France in 1956 by Pierre Plantard (1920-2000), yet claiming great antiquity. Legends connected with the Priory of Sion have generated great interest through the years, particularly as a result of the publication in 1982 of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by British journalists Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. The story starts with Father Berenger Saunière (1852-1917), whose last name is also borrowed in The Da Vinci Code, who in 1885 became the parish priest of Rennes-le-Château, a small village in the French region of Aude, near the Pyrenees Mountains. Saunière, it seems, was a rather strange character, deeply interested in symbolism; he also had a penchant for building a number of constructions around his parish church, including a bizarre neo-gothic “Tower of Magdala”.

These construction projects obviously cost a good deal of money, while Saunière was known to come from a poor family, and one did not normally become rich in 19th century France by being a parish priest in a mountain hamlet. Rennes-le-Château lies at the heart of the area once inhabited by the Cathars, and rumors spread that Saunière had found a treasure buried in the Middle Ages by the persecuted heretics. The fact that Saunière was also an archeology buff, and had found some old artifacts whilst digging in the vicinity of the parish church, added fuel to the fire of rumors. The priest did his excavations at night, in order to remain the sole owner of his findings (which, according to French law, he should have given to the State).

This obviously did not endear Saunière to the municipality, and some villagers also suspected him of having an affair with his servant, Marie Denarnaud (1868-1953), who was undoubtedly fiercely loyal to the controversial priest. These rumors could not have failed to attract the attention of the local Catholic Bishop, and having investigated the matter he concluded that, rather than having found a Cathar treasure, Saunière had made his money from “trafficking in Masses”, a not uncommon wrongdoing among 19th and early 20th century priests. In the Catholic Church, Masses can be celebrated for the benefit of a specific soul, in the hope of helping a deceased loved one to ascend from Purgatory into Heaven. Masses can also be said for a specific aim for the benefit of living persons (for instance, for healing purposes). Prior to Vatican II, for each Mass, priests received a stipend, i.e. a fixed amount of money for each Mass they said. “Trafficking in Masses” meant, in practice, that priests advertised their willingness to celebrate a great number of Masses for both the dead and the living. Advertising in this way was regarded as a kind of unfair competition towards other priests, and was condemned by the Church as illicit. The matter became even worse, of course, when priests failed to celebrate the Masses requested, despite having received the appropriate stipend.

The Bishop traced advertisements placed by Saunière in Catholic magazines throughout France, and even abroad, and quickly determined that he could not possibly have celebrated all the Masses he had received payments for, thus in fact defrauding his “clients”. In 1909, the Bishop asked Saunière to leave Rennes-le-Château; the priest refused, and was suspended from his priestly duties and privileges (a lesser sanction than excommunication, but a painful sanction nonetheless, which ended Saunière’s ecclesiastical career). He decided to remain in Rennes-le-Château, however, and the ownership of his buildings (Tower of Magdala included) did not pass to the diocese, because Saunière had taken the precaution of transferring their ownership to Marie Denarnaud.

Although the Bishop had concluded that trafficking in Masses was enough to explain Saunière’s suspicious wealth, rumors about buried treasures (and alleged contacts with the Paris esoteric milieu) continued until his death in 1917, and even in the years that followed. The rumors resurfaced again in the early 1950s when Marie Denarnaud, who was still the owner of all the properties, in her old age, was trying to sell them. She probably thought that rumors of buried treasures would raise the value of the properties. One buyer was Noel Corbu (1912-1968), who in 1956 started spreading the Saunière treasure legend through the local press, in the hope of attracting clients to the restaurant he had opened in one of the buildings. The rumors did spread largely, thanks to friendly contacts between Corbu, some local reporters, and members of the Paris esoteric milieu.

Pierre Plantard, who had been the leader of a minor occult-political organization known as Alpha Galates, told an even taller story about Rennes-le-Château, firstly to selected friends from the late 1950s, then to the esoteric author Gérard De Sède, who in 1967 published a book entitled L’Or de Rennes (“Rennes’ Gold”). It was De Sède who in turn interested the three British journalists, Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln, in the story, and they jointly saw to it that Rennes-le-Château became a household name throughout the English-speaking world, thanks to a BBC TV series based on their reports, as well as several popular books.

In short, the story told by Plantard to De Sède, and later popularized by the British journalists, was that Saunière did indeed discover a buried treasure, and that it included much more than valuable antiquities. Buried in Rennes-le-Château were documents confirming the old Southern French legends that Jesus Christ, rather than ascending into Heaven, had come to live in France with his wife, Mary Magdalene. Plantard added that the divine couple did indeed have children in France and that they initiated a dynasty, which eventually became known as the Merovingian Kings of France. This, Plantard suggested, was the true meaning of the Grail legends: the Holy Grail, in French Saint Graal, was in fact the Sang Réal, which in Medieval French means “Holy Blood”, i.e. the blood of Jesus Christ himself flowing in the veins of the Merovingians.

When the Merovingian dynasty fell from power, Plantard continued, their descendants went underground and a secret organization, the Priory of Sion, has preserved their holy blood even since. Cathars and Knights Templar, as well as early Freemasons and various literary and artistic figures (prominent among them being the painter Nicholas Poussin, 1594-1655), were all said to be connected to the secretive Priory. Plantard gradually started to imply that he was himself not only the current Grand Master of the elusive Priory, but also the last descendant of the Merovingians and the current vessel of Christ’s holy blood.

Plantard’s tale, if true, would of course have turned Christianity on its head, and inspired a whole new interpretation of world history. Historians remained understandably skeptical, regarding the Priory of Sion as nothing more than a figment of Plantard’s imagination (although a Catholic religious order known as “Priory of Sion” did exist in the Middle Ages, they note, it did not survive and certainly it had nothing to do with the Merovingians, the blood of Jesus Christ, or Rennes-le-Château). Millions of readers of popular books about Rennes-le-Château took the story quite seriously, however, and many in the esoteric milieu were happy to join the Priory of Sion after Plantard legally established it in 1956, and the more so after secret documents able to confirm the story allegedly surfaced from the National Library of Paris in 1975. The documents, however, were not discovered by the Library staff, as The Da Vinci Code seems to imply, but by confederates of Plantard, i.e. by the same people who had planted them in the Library in the first place. No serious scholar has ever regarded the documents as anything else than a 20th century fabrication.

Be that as it may be, the Rennes-le-Château saga became an integral part of international popular culture through novels and movies; Preacher and The Magdalena (recently joined by Rex Mundi) were among the popular comic book series which also focused interest on the subject. The Priory exists today after Plantard`s death as a small occult organization, combining themes from several pre-existing occult orders, and an endless source for novels and movies, but no one in the scholarly world would seriously maintain that the legends created by Plantard and others are factually true.

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