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Holy Blood, Holy Grail

Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln

New York: Bantam Dell, 1982; ISBN: 0-385-33845-7; Pp. 489

Review © 2004 Branislav L. Slantchev

You know it's bunk but you can't help it. Have you ever had the compulsive need to read a book knowing fully well that it's fiction badly masquerading as legitimate history? Well, it happened to me and it was this book.

Many have heard of Baigent & Co.'s opus now or if they have not, they have been exposed to its most preposterous claims through Mr Brown's best-seller The Da Vinci Code. Briefly, the basic idea goes like this: Jesus was a mortal man, lineal descendent of the House of David, and therefore true King of the Jews. Of course, David had usurped the throne many years earlier from the tribe of Benjamin, so to cement his royal claim, Jesus married Mary, also known as the Magdalene, who happened to be from that tribe. As a rightful claimant to the throne, Jesus presented a political threat to the Roman Empire, which quickly saw to snuff him out in complicity with the Sadducees who were enjoying the good life under the conquerors' rule. However, Jesus and his family thwarted this by bribing Pilate who helped them stage a mock crucifixion. Jesus then sired children with Mary who left Palestine and settled in France. There, the progeny of the royal line intermarried with the Germanic Franks to produce the Merovingians, who ruled in France for a while before getting dethroned by their rival Carolingians with the connivance of the Catholic Church. However, the Merovingian bloodline survived to this day, and its secret is closely guarded by the shadowy organization by the name the Priory of Sion, which claims as its Masters people like Leonardo, Newton, and Jean Cocteau.

Where was the Church in all this? Well, since Jesus loved Mary so much, Peter and the other disciples got badly upset. Not to mention that they were not told about the fake death of their teacher. When the first Church was being established, it sought to suppress any mention of the royal blood (to avoid antagonizing the Romans) or Jesus's mortality (to help create the new religion). The Church persecuted all heresies, especially the Gnostic one, in order to suppress the secret. When the Roman Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea, the Christian leaders established the orthodox version of the Bible, pronounced Jesus divine "by a vote," and excised all mention of the truth for all texts. However, some sort of proof survived buried under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, and then the people who would form the order of the Temple (Templars) were sent there to uncover them. They did so under the flimsy pretext of protecting the Christians en route to the Holy Land. The documents were then used to blackmail the Vatican to grant the Order all sorts of exemptions and privileges, but eventually the Templars ran afoul of the French Crown, which liquidated them. But not before the Priory of Sion had split from the Order and concealed said documents.

Ever since, the Priory has been quietly manipulating world events to restore the Merovingian dynasty to its rightful position of preeminence in Europe, and perhaps elsewhere. They have helped establish, or at least encouraged, various sects (Cathars) and secret societies (Freemasons), but they have been thwarted repeatedly by intervening and unforeseen events, like the pesky French Revolution. But they are undeterred and still working toward that goal. To this end, they have begun preparing the public for the grand revelation of the truth by depositing obscure manuscripts in French libraries and publishing conspiracy books that hint at that truth. Fortunately for all of us, Messrs Baigent & Co. have pieced together all the elements of this puzzle in this book.

How do we know all of this is true? Well, there's no evidence that it is not true. Huh? Anyone reasonably versed in history would see many, many problems with various parts of their story, the connections between pieces being so thin as to be virtually invisible. This is the sort of "proof" that one is carefully taught to avoid using in school: just because we have no solid evidence that something did not occur does not mean that in fact it did occur. Historians use a confluence of evidence to establish what happened in the past, that is, they look for a causal story that accords for all known historical facts. Each single fact may be too small and insignificant to establish the veracity of a particular version, but the totality of facts usually point to one commonly accepted story. Few historians spend their time challenging the basic veracity of well-studied stories, they usually add detail and context, or emphasize different aspects of it, but in the end they essentially tell the same thing. Is this a conspiracy? No, it's just called an honest evaluation of the evidence.

Needless to say, Messrs Baigent & Co. do no such thing. Instead, they present a deeply engrossing but ultimately misleading grand tour of selected events from the last two thousand years, repeating well-known conspiracy theories and drawing some additional links where our written record fails us. It involves a tendentious reading of Grail romances, a spurious account of the Templar history, and outright falsification (e.g. the Priory of Sion disappeared long ago and an organization that was recently (in the 1950s) established took that name and placed forged documents in French libraries to buttress its ridiculous claims). It would take too long to enumerate the mistakes in this book, and many have already done so at great length (see, for example The Da Vinci Hoax, which critiques Mr Brown's book but is quite relevant to this one as well, or, if you are truly interested in the Templar story, read The Murdered Magicians, where Mr Partner traces the evolution of the Templar myth and lays to rest many of the stupefying claims made in the present book; any standard reference on the history of Christianity would help quickly dispel the accounts of the early Church and Nicea peddled here too). Where do the authors get most of their evidence? From documents said to belong to the Priory of Sion, most of them conveniently placed at their disposal even if they have to wait a couple of months to retrieve a book from a French library (that event is quite funny actually: basically they could not get the book for a while, and of course, they detected a conspiracy to prevent them from acquiring it---ok, happens to me all the time, there's also a conspiracy to deny me access to one particular history of the Korean War---but why would the unseen guardians of the Truth deny them access after placing a book in a library so people would find it?).

The whole conspiracy approach is unfalsifiable, and so provides a convenient explanation for everything you can think of. Why haven't we heard about these things? The Church suppressed the truth. Why haven't others written about it? They have, but their works have either been destroyed or are hidden. Why hasn't the Priory come out with the truth? They are waiting for the right time. What is the right time? When they come out with the documents. Where are the documents? Nobody knows. Do they exist? Absolutely. How do we know that? If they didn't the Church would not have suppressed the people guarding them. How do we know the Church suppressed anything? They killed, or helped kill, a lot of people, so these people must have been up to something. And so on... it's an ever-widening circle that always retains its circular closed form, thereby preventing any sort of evidence from failing to conform to that reality. It does take some ingenuity to create it, but that's all there is to this: ingenuity and reliance on the near-total ignorance of the readers.

As I said, however, Holy Blood, Holy Grail is fascinating. Although it can be quite tedious at times, it is a nice read and the authors are genuinely erudite even if they use their erudition to get their readers drunk and ready to accept whatever crazy idea they throw at them. I was particularly fond of the constant protestations of innocence of intent: the "facts" guide them, actually drag them, toward their conclusions, and they are constantly reluctant to accept them, just like they know most of their readers would be. This lends an aura of authenticity to the book and must have helped people swallow the message. So it's nice. It also goes a long way in exposing the side of the Western public that would turn Mr Brown's fictional novel into a huge best-seller years later. Of course, we already knew that, what with the enormous success of the Umberto Eco novels and everything. But at least Mr Eco did not claim he was writing nonfiction.

September 12, 2004