The History Channel in Canada broadcast “The Real Da Vinci Code” as a two hour show last night (March 23/05). Actor, journalist and politician Tony Robinson was the narrator and he brought a comic and sarcastic presence, honed in his appearances as Baldrick in Rowan Atkinson’s “Blackadder” shows, to his role as debunker of modern myths.
The show was originally broadcast in Britain as part of a Channel 4 series called “Weird Worlds”, which is devoted to debunking claims of magic, fantasy, fiction and the paranormal.
It starts with a clip of Dan Brown, the author of the wildly successful novel “The Da Vinci Code” being interviewed during a promotional tour claiming that while his story is a work of fiction, the underlying history of the Grail, secret societies and suppression of the truth about the Holy Grail by the Catholic Church was true. Brown still makes the same claims on his web site, in a somewhat circumscribed way.
Channel 4 has a page for “The Real Da Vinci Code” which summarizes the program’s answers to Dan Brown’s historical claims. There is a savage review of the novel and its historical claims at salon.com (unfortunately only an excerpt but fun)and a thorough article at the ever-useful Wikipedia.
The Grail was originally supposed to be the goblet used by Christ at the Last Supper, which had been found in the Holy Land and transported to Europe, where it became the object of quests by knights – a sort of religious purpose within an essential martial pursuit. The idea first turned up an 11th century work of adventure fiction – about knights on holy quests – and it became a popular story line in medieval literature and art. The Templars were a real group of military men who organized themselves as a quasi-monastic religious organization. They became bankers and shippers, although their main work was providing security for Christian pilgrims in the Holy land. They were suppressed by King Phillip of France who confiscated their lands. Phillip accused them of heresy. Corrupt French Inquisitors supported his accusation, which held off any intervention in defence of the Templars by the Papacy or the so-called Holy Roman Empire (in medieval times the Pope used to crown a European monarch as Emperor of the new Roman Empire – but this is getting a little far from the story). The accusation was false. It was contrived to cover up the King’s campaign to eradicate a powerful group and steal their money. They disappeared in fact, but not in myth. One of the myths was that the Templars had the Grail and went underground to hide the Grail for various mystical purposes. The Priory of Sion is a 20th Century hoax. The idea that Leonardo da Vinci was part of the original hoax. The idea that there are coded messages in his paintings seems to be Brown’s own idea.
Brown obviously took his facts about the Grail, the Templars, and the Priory of Sion from the 1982 “history” called “Holy Blood – Holy Grail”, especially the idea that Grail is the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magadalene, who settled in Southern France and founded the Merovingian dynasty. Robinson interviewed Michael Baigent, one of the co-authors and asks him to defend and support his claims, and he just sits there and says that he trusts his research. One of the key sources for the theories in “Holy Blood – Holy Grail” was the archive of the Priory of Sion, which was a hoax. Robinson didn’t delve into Baigent’s credentials as a historian, which might have been really funny. Baigent writes what my friend Mike, in his days in the book trade, called loon books. I haven’t found a home page for Baigent on the Web but he has author pages at Random House and Penguin UK, and the search engine at Amazon will find just about anything. He has written or co-written on astrology, pyramids, Atlantis, the Templars, Secret Societies etc. His defence of his work in a documentary on Brown’s claims is not surprizing – the success of Brown’s book has created interest in Baigent’s books which have been reprinted since the publication of the Da Vinci Code, and he seems to be seriously devoted to trying to establish that his discoveries and insights are true and that there is some kind of world conspiracy of religious leaders and historians devoted to suppressing the truth.
Brown wouldn’t submit to an interview and it’s hard to get a sense of whether he came to this material as fodder for a thriller, or whether he came to it with a real belief in its accuracy and authenticity.
The TV show was smart, informative and entertaining. Robinson’s performance in interviewing reliable historians, nut authors, kooks and obsessives was fun to watch. He seemed to treat the common people, even the marginally kooky ones with respect, saving the sarcasm for Baigent, Brown and the other grandiose and fraudulent historians. There was scene near the Louvre in Paris where he got several American woman – all seemingly in that famously sensitive, spiritual, affluent and self-indulgent 35-50 demographic – to comment on the book. They were tourists, visiting France on a Da Vinci Code tour, having a great time with their friends and with new people on the tour. None of them seemed to know anything about the history of the Templars, Da Vinci, or any of the books other historical premises. They seemed to assume that Brown was offering a serious interpretation of real facts. That scene was a little sad. They enjoyed the book, they thought it was reliable, they were excited by the grand ideas – and they just didn’t have a clue.