Margaret and Dick   


August '06: Our own Da Vinci Code mystery


Somewhere in the late 1990s, an aspiring author visited the nearby village Rennes-le-Chateau to research a local legend, something about Mary Magdalene having taken refuge in the south of France to protect and raise a child fathered by Jesus.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Author Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame may have a drawer full of stories about our own little mystery village and the unexplained rags-to-riches transition of local priest Abbé Saunière at the turn of the 20th century. 

I first learned about our local mystery through gifted chef and friend Jean-Luc Robin.  He was attracted to Rennes initially as curator of the home of the enigmatic Abbé (Abbott) Saunière.  Jean-Luc still runs a restaurant there, but his time is increasingly taken up with writing and meeting with researchers on the mysteries of the Abbé and the treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau.  In his book, Rennes-le-Chateau, the Secret of Saunière, Jean-Luc summarizes the history and the various theories.  Last week I went up to Rennes for a seminar at Jean-Luc’s restaurant.  He expounded and then moderated discussion among a group of researchers and their fans.  I joked with him that this is his moment to make the family fortune while The Da Vinci Code is pulling the train.

For the last sixty years, the tiny hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau has attracted visitors crazed with the secret of Saunière and his treasure.  Successive waves of treasure-hunters armed with pick and shovel – and the occasional stick of dynamite – have arrived over the years.  They carry local maps, annotated with mystical pentagonal shapes that connect otherwise unrelated local holy sites, to help them locate that special spot.  Saunière himself was rumored to dig secretly by night in the cemetery.  He also found secret papers hidden in a pillar of the church, the locals say. 

What started this buzz?  A poor parish priest with no known source of funds, Saunière suddenly began ornate renovations of the village church that conspicuously feature images of Mary Magdalene.  He then built a palatial residence – in undisputed poor taste – whose elaborate tower, la Tour Magdala, is dedicated to Mary Magdalene.  He refused to reveal his source of funds to the local bishop and was eventually encouraged to resign his post before he got fired.  He resolutely stayed on in Rennes in his private chateau.  At Saunière’s death in 1917, the secret was known only to his housekeeper/mistress, Marie.

Housekeeper Marie was later befriended by the Corbus, a family of outsiders attracted to the beauty, mystery, and relative safety of the remote village during WW-II.  She made them heirs to the Saunière domain, insisting that before her death she would share a secret with them that would make them all rich.  “People around here are walking on top of gold without knowing it!”  A stroke silenced her before any secret was passed.

The legend stopped being local when Corbu decided to open up a hotel at the Saunière domain.  To attract clientele to the remote village, he promoted rumors of missing treasure.  Sample headlines from 1956: 

“A tap of the pick into the pillar and Fr. Saunière brought the royal treasure to light.” 

“I saw boxes full of gold coins in a room of the chateau.”

Generations of treasure-hunters followed.  Laws were passed to prohibit digging in Rennes and the surrounding countryside.  Signs are still posted:  “Digging is absolutely forbidden in Rennes-le-Chateau.”  To no avail.

Over the years, the fervor of the treasure hunters has not abated, but the nature of the treasure has evolved.  Early decades saw a search for buried gold:

The gold that Wisigoth barbarians took from Rome when they sacked the city, which the Romans had stolen from the Temple of Jerusalem when they destroyed it several centuries earlier…or…

The ransom of Blanche of Castille, accumulated to buy the freedom of her son Saint Louis captured by the infidels in Jerusalem…or…

The accumulated wealth of the Knights Templar, for centuries the bankers along the crusade route to Jerusalem until they were suppressed by the French king…or…

The Holy Grail, probably a gold chalice, protected by the Knights Templar until hidden at Rennes…

The list goes on.

More recently the probable nature of the treasure has become information – information that Saunière discovered and was well-paid to keep secret:

Secrets of the French royal family to be transmitted to royalists who survived the guillotines…or…

An important secret, guarded by the Knights Templar, that the Roman Catholic Church wanted to suppress by any means, legal or not…

Jean-Luc Robin recounts his favorite explanation.  In his digging at the church, Abbé Saunière came across documents which the Catholic Church wanted to conceal, enough to reward him handsomely for his loyalty.  The go-between was the Hapsburg emperor Charles I, the last of the Austro-Hungarian emperors in the centuries-long partnership of royal and papal power structures.  The emperor’s family was known to have traveled nearby, and soon afterwards Saunière discretely opened bank accounts in Eastern Europe .  The theory may sound far-fetched, but consider:  the Church canonized the otherwise unremarkable emperor Charles I shortly after his death for his work in promoting – get ready, Da Vinci Code fans – the lay religious society Opus Dei that figures so prominently in Dan Brown’s novel. 

What was this secret that the Church so badly wanted to suppress?  That Mary Magdalene escaped from Palestine and came to live in southern France, carrying in her womb the baby of Jesus.  The story traces their bloodline to early French kings of the Merovingian dynasty.  The legend of Mary Magdalene ending her days in France is widespread, with pilgrimage sites on the Mediterranean coast and now at Rennes-le-Chateau. 

The thesis that the Holy Grail was not a gold chalice but a line of holy blood was expounded in the 1982 book about Rennes, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Henry Lincoln, Michael Baignent, and Richard Leigh.  References to their book and to Rennes-le-Chateau (RLC) and are sprinkled throughout The Da Vinci Code (DVC):

DVC:  Saunière, curator at the Louvre, keeper of a mysterious secret

RLC:  Saunière, parish priest with a mysterious fortune


DVC:  Bézu Fache, detective

RLC:  le Bézu, a tiny hamlet just south of Rennes

DVC:  Leigh Teabing, rich Grail expert

RLC:  authors Leigh and Baignent (rearrange to spell Teabing)


DVC:  Priories of Sion and Opus Dei

RLC:  Hapsburg money and Opus Dei


DVC:  Marie Magdalene brought the blood line of Jesus to Southern France

RLC:  Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982) proposed this secret as the source of Saunière’s wealth

So now this tiny town of less than 100 inhabitants is being besieged by over 100,000 visitors each year.  The local newspaper recently ran a story under the headline “Rennes-le-Chateau has finally found its treasure – The Da Vinci Code.”  The mayor proudly speaks of his town becoming a grand religious attraction likeLourdes or Mecca.  Sensitive locals like chef Jean-Luc Robin bemoan the town’s transformation into a Saunièreland that needs parking for bus-loads of tourists.  No longer seeking gold, visitors now seek Mary Magdalene’s gravesite. 

PS from 2008 -- See Going out at the top for a sad followup to this story.

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