The Rennes-le-Château Affair

Lectures in Rennes-les-Bains: an example of interpretative delirium

by Georges Bertin [1].

During my third summer holiday in the charming spa-town of Rennes-les-Bains, which is located several crows' flights away from Rennes-le-Château, I found myself – along with a good hundred other summer-visitors and some inquisitive locals – grabbed by the short and curlies by certain advertisements put out – with the support of the village council, who had agreed to sponsor the event – by a certain Jean Sinet, who described himself as the president of a local research association currently being established in Paris (!) [2].

At the first lecture in this series, given on 23 July, there appeared, along with the aforementioned Monsieur Sinet, someone called Christian Doumergue, who introduced himself as an ‘archivist’ without us being told what vantage-point he was speaking from or what his institutional affiliation and scientific training were. Doumergue spoke – under the title ‘Marie-Madeleine, la reine oubliée’ (Mary Magdalene, the forgotten queen) – about the alleged relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene via the ‘Sang Réel’ (the ‘true blood’, otherwise known as the Saint Graal) [3]. This theory, which is partial in both senses of that term, is essentially a faithful retread of the ideas elaborated between 1939 and 1943 by the Nazi Otto Rahn. It is a detailed elaboration of an imaginary scenario of blood and race and/or a supposedly pure Arianist religion establishing the line of French sovereigns of the Ancien Régime as a ‘sacred race’. According to the two speakers their work, aided by the discovery of the treasures of the Razès, would help restore Christianity to its original purity, but when they were questioned – in the light of their billing as specialists – on the known sources or reception of the legend of St. Mary Magdalene, who is honoured at Les Baux-de-Provence (therefore rather a long way from Couiza), they were forced either to admit their complete ignorance or embark on elaborate discursions which did not have any real links with the subject-matter, since for Monsieur Sinet the Holy Grail had its origins among the Visigoths, a position which is completely at variance with a century of learned historiography. We will overlook the lecturers' silence regarding Bollandist sources or the ethnographic writings on the subject. As for the work of American academics (e.g. Elaine Pagels) it was suspicious that this was largely ignored.

But for a really dazzling display of historical, theological and epistemological approximations, consecrating a purely imaginary scenario disconnected from all the developments proven to have taken place in the social reality of the historical period under consideration, and capable of misleading weaker intellects into a regression whose effects are difficult to assess (though the muteness of the audience was reminiscent more of a church congregation than an intellectually alert lecture-room) we had to wait until 3 August, once again in the village-hall in Rennes-les-Bains. This was a lecture by Monsieur Sinet (the same person as we mentioned above, who pointed out that he was using an assumed name for security reasons!) and Pierre Jarnac (alias Michel Vallée [sic]), who was introduced to us as an historian, although in a lecture lasting two and three-quarter hours we hardly heard him speak! The subject? “Rennes-le-Château in the ‘Da Vinci Code’, 60 years of research”. We will overlook the fact that The Da Vinci Code is not a work of research at all but a popular detective novel.

Given the title we were expecting a report on the subject of the treasure of Rennes-le-Château up to the time of its most recent incarnation in The Da Vinci Code via (or so the publicity material promised us) the work of Lamy on Jules Verne and Patrick Ferté on Gaston Leroux. However, we heard nothing about these two authors, which meant that the whole lecture was devoted to the Rennes-le-Château-Da Vinci Code nexus. Since Sinet, after pointing out that The Da Vinci Code had had a worldwide sale of 30 million copies, dismissed the book as a cheap paperback “for the beach or even to read on the toilet” it was obvious that we could not expect any in-depth analysis from the speakers. The fact that The Da Vinci Code is just a detective novel was more or less glossed over, as if this literary mind-game by a master of the manipulation of social and cultural codes, though never referred to as such in Professor Brown's academic publications [4], should be regarded as Gospel, albeit a Gospel with a slightly Gnostic flavour.

As for the approach adopted by the novel itself, apart from a brief mention of Brown's supposed sources (ranging from the semi-Nazi Plantard to the Englishman Henry Lincoln, via the unavoidable self-styled scholar Gérard de Séde), a mention which did not include any sort of analysis of those sources from any point of view, we heard nothing. Just showing slides of the covers of the books they were discussing was not, as far as we are concerned, any substitute for literary, historical or ideological analysis. When dealing with documents of any kind you must always first submit them to internal and external criticism – but, of course, methodology is hardly the strong point of our two authors.

All that remained therefore was for us to hear the lecturers talking about the Rennes affair and its origins, and about the alleged role of the treasure(s). This was described at length and with emphasis in a unidirectional discourse which was actually slightly paranoid, the whole thing being based, as regards form, on carefully-phrased remarks of the type “if one accepts the assumption...”, “we can assume that...” or “probably...”. And so we were treated – much to the delight of connoisseurs of this sort of lecture, which leaves one speechless in the face of the almost monomaniac obsessions of the speakers and their unstoppable verbal diarrhoea – to a series of historical counterfactuals which were presented as if they were axiomatic. We shall mention just a few of them:

• The Arianist Visigoths first appeared in the area in the 5th century and possessed the Treasure of Solomon which was hidden in the Razès. This statement was made without the speaker providing any scriptural, archaeological or linguistic evidence in support. The Visigoths were alleged to have survived in the form of the Cathars. The speakers seemed to be unaware of (or deliberately ignored) the work of professional historians, who abandoned the Arianist links of the Cathars more than 20 years ago for perfectly valid reasons [5]. Unfortunately, when the Visigothic-Arianist link is put forward by a monomaniac as the sole explanatory factor for the whole history of France and its neighbouring countries from 450 AD to the present day then all historical criticism with any claims to seriousness can only fall mute. Incidentally this is not the only questionable link to be found in this context, as our five trips to the Languedoc between 1987 and 2005 to investigate the foundations of the local contemporary historical imagination have enabled us to discover on many occasions.

• According to Sinet, the Templars were founded in the 11th century near Rennes-le-Château by the Benedictines, who themselves were infiltrated (as is well known?!) by the Arianists, and it is in the Languedoc and not in Champagne that we must seek their origins. But historians have spent decades shedding light on the roles of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and several heads of his family in this context during the early years of the 12th century. And we know that in 1118 Bernard's relatives Hugues de Payns and G. de Montbard [sic - should read André de Montbard] were summoned to the convocation.

• Blanche de Castille (and her treasure, allegedly preserved in the environs of Rennes-le-Château at a spot yet to be discovered) was “of Visigothic origin”, whereas history has always taught us until now that she was the granddaughter of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II Plantagenet, her mother having been baptised by Achard de Saint Victore at the collegiate church of Saint Symphorien in Domfront in 1171.

• Fouquet and Louis XIV could have built Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles in the 17th century thanks to gold from Rennes-le-Château found by the Hautpoul family. If this is true, and the treasure was all spent back in those days, then why look for it again now? Proof of this “fact” lies in a fresco in Vaux-le-Vicomte which shows a mountain (therefore for our authors obviously the Pyrenees), a cave (i.e. that of Bugarach) and a fountain (to be chosen from the numerous sources of waters to be found in the region). The lecturer's reference at this point to the Freemasons related to their skills as composers of rebuses, blithely ignoring the fact that speculative Freemasonry only made its appearance almost a century after the events in question (1717 in London) and even later in France. On the other hand the conditions under which the work was produced, those of its reception, the intentions of its creator within its artistic context were not examined.

Unfortunately even our best decryption programs cannot make much sense of all this, because it confuses hypotheses with theses. Let us mention some of the choicest examples of this phenomenon from this “conference”:

+ the Celts brought the treasure of Delphi to Razès;
+ the mystery of The Man in the Iron Mask is finally solved because it is linked to the treasure of Rennes-le-Château;
+ ditto the mystery of Atlantis;
+ an entire [sic] UFO is hidden under Bugarach and is predicted by a story of the Devil's treasure dating from the Middle Ages;
+ to round things off nicely, in the mountains of the Aude there are Jewish agents from the Belgian cell of the Mossad as well as members of the French and American secret services, all dedicated to discovering the most important secret of humanity.

Here we are obviously a long way away from any sort of structured scientific approach. Instead we find ourselves at the mercy of a form of discourse which is designed to prove a belief that everyone is obliged to sign up to or risk becoming one of the “enemy” – the enemy of those blessed with superior insight who happily suspend all critical thought.

It is such a shame that so many young researchers, including many talented graduates working with methodologies well established in social anthropology, linguistics, history, the history of religions and ethnology at nearby universities in Montpelier, Perpignan, Toulouse and Pau, and who ask only to be able to communicate their findings, see such nonsense being put forward, with official support, as almost Gospel.

Any approach to the sacred requires, first of all, silence, humility, hard work and a willingness to accept a challenge, and it thrives on disciplinary and interdisciplinary interplay. It is in fact the very epitome of epistemological doubt.


[1] Georges Bertin: doctor of social sciences at the Centre de recherches sur l’Imaginaire (GRECO CRI), Angers.

[2] Admittedly, filing the articles of association at the Sous-préfecture in Limoux would not have carried the same prestige or been as “cool”!

[3] For more details, see our book La quête du Saint Graal et l’Imaginaire, Corlet, 1997. Preface by Professor Gilbert Durand. [Georges Bertin, La quête du Saint-Graal et l'Imaginaire: Essai d'anthropologie Arthurienne, ISBN 2-85480-636-0]

[4] In the same genre we prefer the great, genuinely learned and in the true sense literary novel by Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum.

[5] On this subject see, among other serious works, the remarkable synthesis: Les cathares devant l’Histoire, mélanges offerts à Jean Duvernoy by Anne Brenon and Christine Dieulafait, edited by Martin Aurell, Cahors: éditions de l’Hydre, 2005, 457 pages.