David Rossoni, L’Histoire Rêvée de Rennes-le-Château: Eclairages sur un Récit Collectif Contemporain, pages 35-61 (“The Dreamed Story of Rennes-le-Château: Shedding Light on A Contemporary Collective Narrative”; Books on Demand Editions, 2010).


“You take a text, reject its obvious meaning, inject into it some sort of ‘occult’ significance, and then stand up and triumphantly exclaim: ‘Right, now prove that what I've just said is impossible!’ [...] As a result the most innocent texts become highly suspicious and the clearest ones imbued with an air of mystery”
Henri-Irénée Marrou (Les Troubadours, Threshold, 1971).

“To Hell with the historical truth – isn't it better to dream?”
Guy Mathelié-Guinlet (Rennes-le-Château – Le mystérieux trésor de l'abbé Saunière, Aubéron, 1997).

“Stay in a state of happy dissatisfaction then if you want to. Don't even bother to ask how Gérard de Sède could present a shapeless lump of stone as the head of King Dagobert II of Austrasia, in the confused hope that an historian as ignorant as you yourself are will come along and either deny or confirm it.”
Philippe de Chérisey (Pierre et papier, 1971).

Nowadays practically all scientific disciplines have a pseudo-scientific ‘Doppelgänger’. Historiography is no exception. ‘Pseudohistory’ – also known as parahistory, parallel history or alternative history – ‘deals with events of debatable factual status which are alleged to have occurred before or in parallel with the official historical record’ [60]. Just as history has its ancillary disciplines, such as archaeology, palaeography, sigillography, etc., pseudohistory has an accompanying archeology based on romance or the imagination, which the rationalists call fantasy archaeology, archaeomania, fictitious archaeology or para-archaeology. These para-archaeological offshoots include sacred geometry, dowsing and so on. In a sense, history and pseudo-history have always co-existed. Herodotus, for example, was alternatively presented as the ‘Father of History’ (Cicero, De legibus) [61] and the ‘Father of Lies’ (Plutarch, On The Malice of Herodotus, end of 1st century AD; Aelius Harpocration, On The Lies of Herodotus, 2nd century AD; Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, c. 150 AD, etc). Lucian of Samosata (c. 125-c.192 AD) also severely criticised certain ‘bad historians’ for littering their ‘histories with fables, eulogies and other forms of excessive flattery’, things that were of course so prolific in his day.

Researchers in the social sciences have however generally taken the professionalisation of historiography towards the end of the 20th century as their starting-point. In their eyes, one can only really speak in terms of pseudohistorians after the appearance of professional historians organised within an institutional framework and equipped with a professional training and specific methods and discriminatory procedures, such as thesis panels, specialist committees, peer-review committees, etc.

As for para-archaeology, the professional archeologist Jean-Pierre Adam similarly locates the first manifestations of this phenomenon in remote antiquity: “Even if archaeological science is itself a very recent creation – the first great archaeological event was the discovery of Pompeii in 1748, followed, in 1798, by Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt – archaeomania seems always to have existed. [Its] various phantasms were already finding expression in Antiquity in the form of a mythology intended to explain achievements that were already at that time archaeological. Thus for example we see the Ancient Egyptians conferring divine powers on the architect and minister of King Djoser, Imhotep (c. 2700 BC) who, because of his exceptional knowledge, is made into a son of the god Ptah. Later on, the Greeks ascribed to the Cyclops the construction of the enormous enclosures of Mycenae and Tiryns [...]. And in our own country the Devil has been given the credit for many interventions, such as the construction of bridges with arches that boldly span deep ravines.” [62].

The anthropologist Wiktor Stoczkowski, on the other hand, locates the emergence of archaeomania in comparatively recent times, in fact to the 19th century where, “in parallel with the quite recent emergence of academic archeology, we see a truly occult archaeology also emerging” [63]. Even so, the status of these first occult archaeologists does seem to have been rather ambiguous: in their day, Etienne-Charles Brasseur de Bourbourg (1814-1874) or Augustus Le Plongeon (1825-1908) for example enjoyed a certain reputation as learned Americanists, and some of their work is still of interest. Nevertheless, the whimsical character of some of their theories and their many blunders – mistranslations, mistakes in names and dates, misinterpreted quotations etc. – had already marginalised them in these same learned circles even during their lifetimes [64].

The sociologist Claudie Voisenat, for his part, ascribes an even later date to the emergence of archaeomania, directly linking its appearance to that of a professional archaeological community (i.e., in the case of France, shortly after the Second World War). The controversy between the two only really began in 1975, following the publication of Archéologie face à l'imposture, “a violent denunciation” of “archeomania” by Jean-Pierre Adam. By his own criteria however we should really date the beginnings of archaeomania to the start of the 1960s and the Gisors affair, which saw professional archaeologists and historians protesting against the ill-considered excavations of the castle-mound which were directly inspired by the pseudohistorical writings of Gérard de Sède, to the extent that the final excavation-campaign had to be entrusted to the Army (see chapter 9)! We should also not be too quick to overlook the events at Glozel in the Allier, which led to a particularly nasty controversy in the inter-war years between the ‘glozéliens’, composed mostly of amateurs, and the ‘anti-glozéliens’, in which party, after a period of vacillation, most of the experts were to be found. This controversy and its numerous after-shocks would lead to the drafting of the Law of 27 September 1941 regulating archaeological excavations, which is still in force today.

Even so, direct confrontations between professional and ‘alternative’ researchers have remained few and far between. In fact, these two worlds seem largely unaware of one another. Indeed, the strategy most generally adopted by self-styled ‘researchers’ is to quietly ignore or dismiss anything that contradicts their ‘theories’, e.g. by pejoratively describing the authors of such contrary theories as ‘historicists’, ‘positivists’, devotees of ‘scientism’ or, quite simply, ‘materialists’.

As for the various ‘deniers’ and conspiracy-theorists, these show a marked tendency towards so-called ‘hypercriticism’, a method of argument ‘related to sophistry’ which involves ‘the systematic criticism of the smallest details of a contrary statement. [It] generally involves a questionable analysis loaded with unimportant or irrelevant details of a subject in order to rebut a contrary theory, even though the evidence adduced by this theory is not of negligible importance.’ [65] This alternative strategy proves all the more difficult to rebut since it is not always possible in the historical field to adduce totally conclusive evidence. Sometimes, as we have seen, we have to make do with a ‘better hypothesis’.

Conversely, many historians, prehistorians or archaeologists imitate their colleagues in the exact sciences by considering it a waste of time (or even counter-productive) to try to refute assertions that appear to them to be simply improbable or utterly whimsical. To enter into public discussions where belief plays a major part is often seen as a waste of time and resources. This position, which was the broadly dominant one until recently, may however be changing. The European Association of Archeologists, for example, devoted part of its 2008 Congress to the problems raised by fictitious archeology. The affair of the Bosnian pyramids (natural geological formations which the para-archeologist Semir Osmanagic claims are prehistoric human constructions, and which were subsequently hijacked for nationalist political ends) acted as the trigger for this choice of theme.

Jean-Paul Demoule, the former president of the French national institute for rescue archaeology, is pleased that “finally, professional archaeologists are dealing with [...] fictitious archeology. In France [...] the majority have considered it to be fraudulent, [...] to be something of no interest, and therefore something that could safely be ignored. [...] This awakening has occurred because these phenomena were assuming [...] political significance in the Balkans.” His colleague Nathan Schlanger on the other hand sees this development as a sign of “a broadening of the horizons of archaeologists, who are starting to transcend the purely scientific aspects of their work.” He feels this development needs to be accompanied by a desire to “propose scenarios and historical narratives that are more securely anchored [...] in phenomena that are of interest to everyone, and not just experts”. [66]

In France the parahistorical and para-archaeological literature (a subset of which we are dealing with here) has displayed considerable development ever since 1960, the year of publication of Morning of the Magicians, a mega-bestseller by Louis Pauwels (1920-1997) and Jacques Bergier (1912-1978). Various reasons of a sociological nature, supported by arguments of varying merit, were adduced to explain the breadth of the book’s appeal at the time, in particular the emergence of a new social class which straddled highbrow culture and mass culture. The fact that the book appeared in Gallimard's ‘Collection blanche’, which at that time brought together the cream of contemporary French literature, also gave it a certain legitimacy in the eyes of the cultivated public, if not those of scientists.

In essence, Pauwels and Bergier aimed at nothing less than a “rebuilding of the foundations of the social sciences. In fact, they were in a sense behind the times in that respect. Whereas quantum physics had already introduced the notion of the fantastic to the very heart of scientific reality, the social sciences were still constrained by the chilly rationalism of the 19th century. Declaring a debt to the Surrealists and to, in particular, Charles Fort, the author of the Book of the Damned, a collection published in 1919 of strange and inexplicable facts ignored by science, Pauwels and Bergier proposed exploring new ways of knowing, opening oneself up to all possibilities, launching a movement which would try to reconcile the most recent discoveries in the sciences with the knowledge to be found in the world's oldest traditions, and in doing so lay the foundations for a new esotericism. [...] The method thus proposed would crystallise over decades and until our own days the image of an [archaeological] discipline which was propped up by its own certitudes and which systematically rejected, without even examining them, any suggestions that were likely to undermine the established edifice of 'official' truth. This would lead to a whole rhetoric of conflict between professionals and amateurs which is still very evident today on the Internet.” [67]

Morning of the Magicians covers various subjects – such as secret societies, alchemy, ancient astronauts, Unknown Superiors, etc. – and resorts to certain practices (vapid suggestion rather than clear assertion; the invention of facts; the quotation of fictitious conversations, etc.) which will also be found in the works of Gérard de Sède and his disciples in their writings about Rennes-le-Château, Gisors or Stenay.

The great public success of this manifesto of ‘fantastic realism’, which has now fallen into the memory-hole, gave rise to prolific publishing enterprises specialising in ‘Fortean’ subjects, such as the magazine Planète launched in 1961 by Pauwels and Bergier themselves, as well as the ‘Enigmas of the Universe’ series published in 1963 by Robert Laffont, who in the same year also published L'histoire inconnue des hommes depuis cent mille ans by Robert Charroux, and in 1968 the Aventure mystérieuse collection in the J'ai lu series, in which appeared in particular the paperback edition of L'Or de Rennes, renamed for the occasion Le Trésor maudit de Rennes-le-Château.

The common feature of the themes and explanations put forward in these publications is a desire “to extend the limits of official science by broadening man's physical horizons (e.g. submerged cities, intraterrestrial travel, voyages predating the Great Discoveries), temporal horizons (e.g. arguing for the existence of homo sapiens well before man's official appearance, or broaching the subject of time-travel) and the horizons of knowledge (e.g. 'higher' knowledge or the alleged parapsychological powers of ancient civilisations)” [68].

The 1960s and 1970s were therefore the Golden Age both of ‘proper’ historical writing and of that form of literature that ‘comes into direct competition with archaeological and historical knowledge, which lays claim to the same scientific status of that form of knowledge’ but which, ‘through the radical position that it occupies in modern thought’, cannot be directly compared ‘with traditional beliefs or superstitions’. [69] It was against this cultural background that the Rennes-le-Château affair would develop.

5. Rationality/irrationality: what do the social sciences have to say about them?

“To try to substitute a rational explanation [...] of some form of behaviour or belief for the ‘irrational’ explanation that common sense has every chance of ascribing to it is one of the paramount tasks of the social sciences and one of their principal sources of legitimacy [...] That does not mean that irrational explanations of modes of behaviour and beliefs are always illegitimate – it would be absurd to claim that – but only that common sense (like the social sciences, which, on this point, have had some difficulty in escaping from its influence) often tends to abuse irrational explanations.”
Raymond Boudon (L'Art de se persuader des idées douteuses, fragiles ou fausses, Seuil, 1992).

The ethnologist Christiane Amiel, who is herself from the Aude and who was able to consult the files received by the archaeological department of the DRAC in Montpellier, notes that in the case of Rennes-le-Château “the researchers attention is focused on religious monuments and sites that are associated with secret histories, primitive sanctuaries, a certain place where the secret of ‘the origin of all religions might be hidden’, a stone-alignment composing the word RHEDAE that is visible only from the sky, and the tombs of mysterious people, such as the mausoleum of the Roman Emperor Constans I, assassinated in March 350…” [70]

In the same way, David Wood thinks that Telamones of extraterrestrial origin could well have built, in prehistoric times, the largest temple on our planet in the area around Rennes-le-Château. Elizabeth Van Buren argues that an underground kingdom, Agartha, could be hidden beneath the apparently peaceful mountain of Bugarach, which dominates the local landscape. Pierre Silvain for his part claims to have located the tomb of Christ in the surrounding countryside…

Strange claims of this kind generally inspire mockery, followed by explanations that depreciate their originators to a greater or lesser extent, e.g. ignorance, stupidity, madness, regression to a primitive mode of thought, a desire for material gain, etc. Thus Judge Thierry Jean-Pierre, who heard Pierre Plantard's testimony during the enquiry into the Pelat affair (see chapter 27), simply regarded Plantard as ‘insane’; subsequently Marie-France Etchegoin and Frederic Lenoir claimed he was ‘schizophrenic’ [71], whereas those who actually knew him, even if they agree with the comments about his bizarre appearance and preoccupations, have never considered him to be mad strictly speaking – only an inveterate liar and manipulator.

All these beliefs are also currently seen as being the pathological symptoms of a society in ‘crisis’. It is therefore very tempting to wrap up the argument by simply invoking the intrinsic irrationality of human beings, which of course would find unreserved expression in this abnormal context.

Since the middle of the 20th century however the basic trend in the social sciences has been to reject this traditional opposition between rationality and irrationality, which is often considered to be a sterile one. To escape from it, various researchers have proposed broader definitions of the concept of rationality and/or have distinguished several types or levels of rationality.

The ethnologist Emmanuel Desveaux for example summarises what he sees as a major step forward, one to which his colleagues, and especially Claude Lévi-Strauss, have made a major contribution: “For Montaigne, irrationality was everywhere. For Lévi-Strauss, rationality is everywhere. [...] At the end of a long history we, as Westerners, [are] able to recognise rationality everywhere, in all human groups, in all human civilizations.” [72]

Lévi-Strauss devised the concept of ‘savage thought’ to describe the ‘natural’ mode of functioning of the mind of Homo sapiens and not to specifically qualify that of ‘savage’. This mode of thought is already ‘rational’ in that, by relying on analogies, contrasts and oppositions, e.g. wet/dry, raw/cooked, it classifies (as many ethnographic examples show) the elements of the natural and social world on the basis of their perceptible qualities, such as form, colour, texture etc. The bizarre beliefs to which ‘primitive societies’ adhere consequently appear to be the fruit of a mode of reasoning that is still used in our societies in parallel with the one that we term scientific and which can be seen in various forms of artistic expression and popular knowledge.

For his part the economist Herbert Simon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, has proposed the concept of subjective or limited rationality [73]. Simon postulates that every human being exhibits rational behaviour, but that his or her rationality is limited by the cognitive capacity and information available to them. Placed in a situation of uncertainty or confronted with a complex choice the subject will make his or her decision as soon as they find a solution that is satisfactory to them, without seeking to explore all the possible courses of action and therefore find the best alternative.

For the sociologist Raymond Boudon, who accepts Simon's basic argument, “the paramount task of the social sciences is to reveal the reasons – objective and subjective – for behaviours and beliefs that common sense has a tendency to see as devoid of reason, and to abandon this category of reason in favour of other types of causes only when we are absolutely convinced, on the basis of methodical analysis, that it is impossible to do otherwise”. Boudon takes care to make clear that this postulate of rationality is only “a methodological principle and not an ontological assertion”. [74]

Irrational (in the cognitive sense) explanatory theories attribute beliefs to vague causal factors which are beyond the individual's control, e.g. to a ‘primitive’ or ‘prelogical’ mentality, ‘magical thinking’, ‘social pressures’, ‘unconscious psychological needs’, etc.. ‘There is really no reason to believe that A is the cause of B, but…’ However, to explain a belief it is generally sufficient to understand each individual's reasons for endorsing it. Every normally constituted human being decides and acts on the basis of reasons which appear to them to be coherent and sound, although they may be objectively debatable, or frankly bad. This leads Boudon to make a distinction between a good reason and an objectively-based reason. The existence of these ‘good reasons’ would explain why a false belief can in fact be shared by many people and so become a ‘collective belief’.

In a general sense, each of us forms for himself opinions on a multitude of subjects by marshalling all sorts of theories, principles and conjectures which are dubious but plausible, and on the basis of prejudgements of various kinds – logical, epistemological, ontological, linguistic, etc. For Boudon, who is a cognitive sociologist, mistakes of causal inference for example are in no way characteristic of alleged ‘magical thinking’, but ‘arise from the interference of implicit prejudgements, the presence of which is essential for the current functioning of thought’. Many false beliefs are therefore simply derived from the inopportune application of postulates that otherwise allow us to cope cognitively in everyday situations, e.g. ‘every effect has a cause’, ‘we have to accept what we see with our own eyes’, etc.

Nevertheless, ‘for this substitution of a rational explanation for an irrational explanation to be possible we need to define the concept of rationality in a way that is not too narrow’. For a rationalist, ‘a mode of behaviour is rational when it is based on objectively-founded reasons’. In its broader meaning, as defended in particular by the philosopher Karl Popper, any mode of behaviour ‘is rational when it is based on reasons, whatever the nature of those reasons’. Boudon, following Herbert Simon, adopts an intermediate definition, whereby “any mode of behaviour is rational if one can explain it in the form, ‘X had good reason to do Y, because…’ ” [75]

On this basis this author manages to distinguish several types of rationality, including utilitarian or instrumental rationality, e.g. ‘… since Y meets the interests (or preferences) of X’, cognitive rationality, e.g. ‘… because Y follows from theory Z; X believes in Z and has good reasons to believe in it’, and axiological rationality, which is a pendant of the preceding one and applies to situations involving values and beliefs, e.g. ‘… because Y follows from the normative principle Z; X believes in Z, and has good reasons to believe in it’.

For the anthropologist Wiktor Stoczkowski also, there is no proof that the objectively-unfounded beliefs that continue to flourish in modern societies arise from individual causes of a poorly-defined nature or from exceptional and critical historical circumstances rather than from reason.

Since he himself is also inspired by the results of experimental cognitive psychology he substitutes for the ‘generally agreed’ opposition between scientific rationality and parascientific irrationality the conceptual doublet of powerful rationality and impoverished or circumscribed rationality. The latter, even if it most noticeable in our own culture among occultists and pseudoscientists, is also that which ‘ordinary people’ display in everyday life, while the ‘powerful’ rationality of speculative science would on the contrary suggest the possession of a somewhat specialised way of thinking designed to collect information about the world around us:

Level of
Circumscribed rationality Powerful rationality
of diffusion
‘Widespread in the occultist tradition and its parascientific offshoots, but seen also in the approach adopted by many researchers’ (p. 383). It is actually found “as much [among] ‘ordinary people as [among] scientists who display poor reasoning power”. “The so-called institutional criterion alone (‘a good level of rationality is that which is to be found among qualified scientists’) therefore proves insufficient”. This ‘rare form of rationality’ is ‘mastered by some scientists’ and ‘reveals its qualities through the practical achievements to which science has contributed’ (p. 383).
of validity
The ‘everyday world’, where ‘it is sometimes necessary to make decisions according to hypotheses based on approximated evidence, and which may even be partially false, but which do not mislead us unduly, while giving us a sufficient grasp of reality to avoid certain lethal dangers and satisfy several elementary needs’ (p. 392). ‘It would only be in an ideal and unfortunately non-existent world in which the life of society would be based on tested knowledge that powerful rationality could become an absolute and inviolable value.’ Thus, ‘it is sometimes rational [to] abandon cognitive effectiveness in favour of social effectiveness’ (p. 391)…
Intellectual approach Axiomatic – a method adopted long ago by those other parascientifics, the theologians: “Without demonstration or evidence’ certain ‘postulates’ are admitted as ‘axioms’ and become ‘articles of faith which serve as a starting-point for deducing other theses, which therefore deserve to be called ‘theorems’. Produced in great quantity, the theorems are then used to interpret objects, explain events, reconstruct the past, predict the future and judge the present.” (p. 323) Scientific, i.e. operating in accordance with a process of moving backwards and forwards between observed facts and theoretical assumptions.
Principal criteria
of distinction
Because of a ‘basic incomprehension of the way in which knowledge is elaborated’, these are seen as resulting from an ‘accumulation of observed data gathered independently of any hypothesis’ or as ‘simple opinions that each person chooses arbitrarily, according to his or her predilections or whims, and which no argument could influence’ (p. 384). It ‘accords equal importance to observed data and to speculative conjectures, but the former intrigue him insofar as they resist or agree with the latter, and the latter are of concern to him insofar as they can be used to test the former’ (p. 385).
It is ‘subjugated to non-negotiable principles, which one refuses to give up whatever the cost’ (p. 386): ‘This certainty establishes a conceptual space within which various concurrent hypotheses can be generated which are susceptible to debate but which should not be opposed to the initial postulate’ (p. 303). ‘Explanatory ideas are above all conjectures intended more for critical examination than for admiration and enthusiastic contemplation.’ (p. 386)
It places ‘excessive trust in intuition [its ‘first criterion of epistemological evaluation’], while thus increasing the risk of remaining a prisoner of commonplaces’. It ‘prefers to judge ideas in the light of their conformity to observed data’ (p. 387).
It is polarised ‘on the search for confirmations’, which represents its favorite method of validating hypotheses, while at the same time there is no idea ‘so aberrant that it cannot find at least some facts that seem to support it’. Observed data can even be invented intentionally to help confirm the starting-axioms. It “shows an equal interest in inconvenient facts and ‘confirmations’” and “favours ideas to which the observation of reality awards the maximum number of votes in favour and the minimum number of unfavourable testimonies” (p. 388).
It “takes good care not to take any notice of ideas that compete against its preferred theses” (p. 389). “In this approach one not only tests ideas against reality but also compares them at the same time with other ideas.” (p. 389)
Factual evidence is used “as a secondary illustration of the validity of the theorems derived from the axioms, and not as a means of testing those axioms” (p. 324); for this reason, those adhering to these views can at one and the same time “be relaxed about the multiplication of ‘evidence’” and “willing to give up” those deficiencies in their theories to which their attention has been drawn (pp. 287-288). “Adhesion to a theory is related to the preliminary acceptance of the evidence.” (p. 58)
Examples “Theosophy, Ancient Astronaut theory, Jungian analysis, Eliade's approach to the history of religions, or the Monism of Haeckel.” “The occultists ramble on about nuclear weapons, warn us against vaccines, speculate about the possible uses of cloning, or reinterpret the theory of the Big Bang, but they themselves did not discover nuclear weapons, vaccines, cloning or the theory of the Big Bang.” (p. 382)

Source: Wiktor Stoczkowski, Des hommes, des dieux et des extraterrestres: ethnologie d'une croyance moderne, Flammarion, 1999.

However, other researchers in the social sciences dispute this (in their eyes unfounded) rejection of traditional distinctions. The anthropologist Paul Jorion for example criticises the ‘premature’ abandonment of the ‘normative idea of rationality’ and wonders whether what characterises the Ancient Astronaut theory (and other related hypotheses) studied by Stoczkowski is not precisely the kind of irrationality that his colleague thought it best to reject.

For Jorion “the intellectual approach [as adopted by the principal architect of Ancient Astronaut ‘theory’ – to take an example] is actually quite easily analysed. Von Däniken takes as his starting-point a set of enigmas located in the very remote past [...]. He thinks that the mystery of all these enigmas could be solved if one postulated as an explanation of each unexplained fact a visit in ancient times of travellers from distant worlds. Since the hypothesis to be discerned in each one of these many cases is, if not particularly enlightening, at least plausible and capable of dissipating some of the shadows that surround the subject, Von Däniken infers its probability: the fact that extraterrestrials could have been present in each one of these circumstances (in which they form the ‘efficient cause’ that is otherwise missing) manages, through its recurrence, to achieve the status of proof. In this one process will of course recognise a blatant example of inductive reasoning.”

This inductive method of reasoning shows its “weakness when we try to establish a reasonable level of proof: a certain number of very old events are selected, only a negligible part of the exact circumstances of which are known, e.g. the building of the pyramids, and extraterrestrials are assigned to it as the ‘efficient cause’ of whatever seems problematical. [...] However, such an argument has only weak demonstrative value, since there is an almost infinite range of available alternatives to explain the inserted premise, a majority of which would provide no comfort whatsoever to a researcher who was trying to explain the phenomenon in terms of alien visitors.”

The para-archeologist Von Däniken also employs a dialectical manner of reasoning, which is less rigorous and less effective than the analytical method, and which “makes recourse to the methodology of proof applicable to the practice of science: the analytical method progresses knowledge by generating unquestionable conclusions on the basis of valid premises, while the dialectical method is content to advance common opinion by showing which of two opinions (the basic opinion and its contrary) is the more likely through being compatible with a premise and a conclusion that are generally held to be true”. The use of such persuasive techniques means that “his views derive more from opinion than from unquestionable science”.

Moreover, “by locating his speculations in antiquity, even prehistory, Von Däniken exploits the inevitable over-determination that is associated with explanations of the past: the more ancient the facts about which one is speaking, the less one knows about the exact circumstances. [...] The less one knows about an event that one is discussing – and its very antiquity guarantees that this will be the case here – the easier it is to imagine premises being inserted to explain its causes in which ‘nothing is impossible’”.

Finally, according to Jorion, “the epistemological gap between the scientific approach and the thought of Von Däniken is not to be found in reason, but in emotion [...]. An enigma [...] presupposes an exercise of will rather than of reason. Every mystery implies a project, and is the result of an intention, and if its significance cannot be read from the surface of things then it is because someone's will is refusing that it be recognised as such: the intention remains hidden because that is the will of its author.” [76]

As we can see, achieving consensus about what rationality really is remains problematical. If we fall back on a purely operational definition then a mode of behaviour can be considered rational if it is suited to the objectives being pursued by the subject. If the present goal is to discover the ‘factual truth’ (with as many quotation-marks as one likes!) then scientific or ‘powerful’ rationality is certainly the form of rationality to adopt. However, historical truth only has validity for those who really desire it.

6. The question of demarcation criteria

“The boundary between scientific history and pseudohistory is hard to discern.”
Jacques Le Goff (‘Comment on devient historien’ in: Marc Guillaume [editor], L'Etat des sciences sociales en France, La Découverte, 1986).

Even if certain topics – such as the Druids, the Cathars, the Templars or Joan of Arc – provide seemingly inexhaustible seams for French pseudohistory to exploit, the books on Catharism by, for example, Jean-Louis Biget or Anne Brenon are not seen as emanating from that part of the spectrum. It is more the way in which author deals with these subjects that determines (or at least, should determine) whether their work will be accused of being pseudohistorical. [77]

Alan Sokal says the same: “[...] The term ‘science’, in the sense in which I am using it, is not confined to the natural sciences, but includes any investigation that is aimed at acquiring an exact knowledge of factual phenomena involving any aspect of the world by using rational and empirical methods similar to those of natural science. The practice of ‘science’ in the sense in which I understand it is therefore shared not just by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers, and by every human being in certain aspects of their daily life. The same is true of the term ‘pseudoscience’: it can take any aspect of the world as its subject. The distinction between science and pseudoscience does not relate therefore to their subject-matter, but rather the method that is employed and the reliability of the knowledge (or alleged knowledge) obtained.” [78]

For the archaeologist Jean-Loïc Quellec the ‘essential’ difference between pseudo-archaeology and scientific archaeology is also of a methodological nature: “Devotees of pseudo-archaeology select from the archaeological record a handful of elements that are likely to support their preconceived ideas, while practitioners of ‘proper’ archaeology take into account the whole of the evidence, which leads them to unceasingly modify their interpretative models according to the new data that they are constantly gathering on the ground. There is a world of difference between using facts (real or alleged) to illustrate an intangible belief that has been accepted a priori and constructing a posteriori a theory intended to explain certain observations that are, at best, merely documented, and therefore potentially modifiable.” [79]

However, according to Sokal, “the fact that we can distinguish (quite easily in most cases) true science from pseudoscience does not necessarily mean that we can establish a clear line of demarcation between them – and even less a demarcation that is based on rigid criteria such as those that the philosopher Karl Popper proposed. We should rather think in terms of a continuum [...] beginning, on one side, with firmly-established science [...], passing via avant-garde science [...] and speculative science [...] [...], and then, much further on, reaching fabricated science [...] and ending, at the end of a long trajectory, with pseudoscience. If there is no precise place on this line where we can locate a demarcation there is nevertheless a radical difference between established natural science and the pseudosciences in terms both of method and of empirical confirmation. In the final analysis, the fact that temperature is a continuum does not mean that the words ‘heat’ and ‘cold’ do not have any meaning or that there is no difference between boiling water and ice.” [80]

The famous falsifiability criterion, or criterion of refutability, as formulated by Popper, which is often presented as impossible to circumvent, encounters the following problem: “either falsification is intended in too vague a sense ‘to eliminate’ the pseudosciences, or it is intended in too strict a sense to ‘retain’ the sciences” [81]. In the present case it is nevertheless still possible to establish a whole series of ‘warning-signs’, none of which, taken in isolation, seems to be sufficiently decisive to enable this very necessary line of demarcation to be established but which, taken as a whole, can help us locate various works and statements within the continuum mentioned by Alan Sokal, while obviously being aware that even the best works in the social sciences will never attain the degree of scientific solidity of the most thoroughly-tested physical theories:

External criticism:
- The title of the study already contains words that suggest exploitation of alleged ‘faults’ in historiography and/or a conspiracy-theorist view of the world, e.g. ‘secret’, ‘mystery’, ‘enigma’, etc.
- The author hides behind a pseudonym, does not sign his work, or attributes it to another author, is credited with imaginary degrees or titles or expertise in unrecognized specialities, etc.

Internal criticism:
- Critical analysis has not been correctly performed: sources are not quoted and/or are distorted (accidentally or fraudulently) and/or are interpreted out of their historical context and/or are assigned an abnormal level of importance while others are ignored, etc.
- Extremely daring explanatory hypotheses, e.g. intervention of supernatural or extraterrestrial agencies, planetary catastrophes not recognised by science, mega-conspiracies, etc., are privileged while more parsimonious explanations already proposed by specialists in the field are ignored or arbitrarily brushed aside. [82]
- The principal facts adduced in support of these hypotheses are derived from mythological and/or oral and/or anonymous sources and/or apocryphal books, etc., or are even pure speculations presented as facts.
- The burden of proof is reversed, with the author demanding in essence that those who reject his hypotheses/speculations are, in doing so, giving evidence of their own inadequacy.
- The author makes recourse to fallacious arguments, e.g.:
- the argument of ignorance: everything that is not perfectly understood and explained is regarded as grist for the author's mill.
- the argument of authority: the opinion of an authority who is extraneous to the issue is used to support their statements.
- the argument ad hominem – criticisms against their hypotheses or speculations are motivated by purely ideological considerations, etc.
- The author does not explore the logical implications of his own conclusions.

Contemporary pseudohistorians adhere to practices that are similar to those of the Romantic school of historiography, i.e. practices that were current before the rules defined by the ‘methodical school’ of historiography were imposed. In addition to their penchant for the Middle Ages and the Merovingians they also have in common the fact that, to compensate for the deafening silence of their sources, they readily assign a ‘place to intuition and imagination when they are not actually in an hallucinatory trance’, use and abuse ‘metaphors to transmute by the magical power of words an analogy into a proof’ [83], adopt processes of dramatisation from Romantic technique and, all in all, take as their motto that of Prosper de Barante (1782-1866), taken from Quintilien: Scribitur ad narrandum non ad probandum (‘You write history to tell a story, not to prove things’).

Georges Bertin, who holds a doctorate in social sciences and is affiliated with the Centre de recherches sur l'Imaginaire in Angers, and who notably is the author of La Quête du Saint Graal et l'Imaginaire (1997), attended conferences on the Rennes-les-Château affair in the summer of 2005 which illustrate quite well some of the faults that we have just discussed. The Rennies behind the conferences were introduced as follows: Jean Sinet was described as the ‘president of a local research association currently being established in Paris’ while admitting that ‘he was using an assumed name, for security reasons’ (!), Christian Doumergue was described as an ‘archivist’, ‘without us being told what vantage-point he was speaking from or what his institutional affiliation [and] scientific training were’, while Pierre Jarnac, alias Michel Valet, had the title of ‘historian’ bestowed on him even though he does not have a relevant degree. The first two speakers defended a relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene which fed upon, in fine detail, ‘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’, and argued that their work, ‘thanks to the discovery of the treasures of the Razès', [would help] ‘restore Christianity to its original purity’.

As for the conference that was organised a short time afterwards by the same Monsieur ‘Sinet’ assisted by Monsieur ‘Jarnac’, this was ‘a dazzling dispay of historical, theological and epistemological approximations, consacrating a purely imaginary scenario disconnected from all the developments proven to have taken place in the social reality of the historical period under consideration’. The fact that The Da Vinci Code, to which the conference was partly devoted, is, ‘only a detective story’ [84] was never taken into account. In particular, no ‘literary, historical or ideological analysis’ of Dan Brown's sources was suggested, whereas ‘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’.

The speakers then started to discuss the Rennes affair itself, sustaining ‘a unidirectional discourse which was actually sightly 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 accumulating ‘many historical untruths which were presented as if they were axiomatic’. Their talks were larded with lapidary statements ‘without any signs of any scriptural, archaeological or linguistic evidence’, with interpretations, taken completely out of context, of various material artefacts, such as ‘this fresco from Vaux-le-Vicomte who 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)’, without ‘any questioning of the conditions under which the work was produced, those of its reception, the intentions of its creator within its artistic context’, and with various anachronisms, such as turning the Freemasons into ‘compilers of rebuses’, whereas ‘speculative Freemasonry only made its appearance almost a century after the events in question’, all the while being sublimely ignorant of or deliberately concealing the ‘works of genuine historians’, who for example ‘abandoned the Arianist links of the Cathars more than 20 years ago for perfectly valid reasons’… [85]

To sum up, the general procedure for the construction of these pseudoscientific edifices seems to follow three stages:

- An individual – ‘a bad’ scientist, a self-proclaimed researcher, an ‘ordinary Joe’ confronted with a phenomenon which he cannot explain, or an inveterate liar guided by his own reasoning… starts by making a ‘monstrous’ induction, i.e. he builds a whole thesis on just one case, a simple clue, a mistake in interpretation, or a forgery… He privileges analogical reasoning, i.e. thinking via the association of ideas, over analytical reasoning. Preconceived ideas are intuitively connected to elements that are taken out of context. An ‘enigma’ is thus invented. As long as the ‘discoverer’ has some small talent for writing or for setting the scene, or is able to use the services of a third party to do that for him, the central thesis will appear plausible in the eyes of non-specialists. After all, when one does not have all the data to hand it is certainly not always a simple matter to distinguish between truth and falsehood.

- To the extent that this initial postulate – attractive but not proven – forms a solid support for the imaginary scenario it leads to a cascade of all kinds of analogies and deductions and to all kinds of gratuitous speculations being offered as so many ‘lines of enquiry’ by the small knot of authors who are determined to get the ‘extraordinary’ accepted as fact. The initial inductive process has established a framework by offering a multiplicity of combinative possibilities, the exploitation of which by those whom Stoczkowski calls the incarnateurs (the ‘embodiers’) gives rise to various alternative theories.

- These derivative speculations alone are then discussed ad nauseam within the community of ‘members’ which has been formed, while the basic induction, which has now become an axiom, is shielded from any real investigation [86]. The criticisms enunciated within this circle are not intended to dispel the ‘mystery’ but, on the contrary, to sustain it as far as possible by constantly relaunching the narrative in new directions, connecting it incessantly with other topics, providing new testimonies etc. Such pseudoresearchers can therefore accumulate, with the passing of the years, an enormous mass of information on their favourite subject without ever drawing any logical conclusions from them. Among these ‘members’ are also to be found the simply inquisitive, people who reason perfectly correctly but who start from false premises, as right from the outset they have had no access to sound information.

In our view, we have identified a basic distinction: unlike the scientist – professional or amateur – who genuinely wants to know, a pseudoscientist has a greater psychological need for a lasting mystery than for an explanation, which in any case will not generally correspond to his expectations. The scientist therefore seems to be motivated by finding an answer to his questions, while the pseudoscientist keeps the question or questions permanently on the boil so that he can continue to produce an endless stream of rich inferences. [87]

The pseudoscientific approach is therefore unscientific, but nor is it strictly philosophical. In the ultimate analysis it is ‘gnostic’, as the philologist and specialist in Gnostic literature Jean-Pierre Mahé emphasises: “Philosophy at root does not seek to preserve mystery [...], it seeks to explain it, while for the Gnostics it was not a matter of dispelling mystery but of interiorising it. And to interiorise the mystery you must first adhere to the mythical discourse. That is the essence of Gnostic discourse. [...] Myth, in appearance, is a cosmic projection of interior states, but it is deployed in the opposite direction: [...] you start with this cosmic projection and you then explore the depths of your consciousness, and that is precisely why it is important that, on each occasion, new echoes, new resonances, are discovered.” [88]

The hard core of pseudohistorians, para-archeologists, ufologists and other parapsychologists are therefore the Gnostics of our age.

7. Some major pseudohistorical axioms

“[...] There is a big difference between the act of identifying conspiracies in history and the act of considering that history is, in reality, just a conspiracy.”
Richard Hofstadter (The Age of Reform, Random House, 1955)

“Chance is generally an unwanted guest in human thought and one that, in particular, is inadmissible when confronted with misfortune or tragedy – and conspiracy theories are, above all, a denial of the existence of chance.”
Gerald Bronner (Nos représentations du hazard, Vuibert, 2008)

The speculations that are born and reborn each year on the nature of the ‘secrets’ surrounding Rennes-le-Château naturally fall within a field of study that is delimited by the great axioms of the mythological history. The meme of the Golden Age is found within traditional mythology (variations on the theme of a Lost Paradise are numerous) and during the modern period it is found within various political myths in the form of references to the purity of human origins and to ideas of brotherhood as values that have been polluted by historical evolution. Among ‘alternative’ historians and archaeologists this Golden Age is generally symbolised by an extraordinarily brilliant civilisation that has since disappeared (e.g. Atlantis, Mu, etc.). This is sometimes seen as being extraterrestrial in origin, and one from which ancient ‘known’ civilizations, e.g. the Sumerian, Egyptian, etc. are derived. In ‘Rennology’ the attempts to highlight a sacred geography via remarkable alignments of sites which have formed, since prehistoric times, vast geometrical figures with a mystical connotation around ‘the vaulted hill’, such as the pentacle, have also played their part in this quest for a primordial human harmony.

Belief in a supernatural plan to save humanity is an especially fertile scheme for explaining the course of history. In Christian mythology history is clearly oriented, with a beginning (Creation), an end (Last Judgment) and a path between the two which is illuminated and supervised by a God Who intervenes directly via miracles or indirectly via ‘providential’ human beings. From St. Augustine (City of God, 415-427) to Bossuet (Discours sur l'histoire universelle, 1681), this historical providentialism has dominated the West almost without challenge and has continued to do so until our own times. The theme of the Lost King, the Grand Monarque, as prophesied by Nostradamus, and introduced into the history of Rennes via the Priory of Sion, fits into this framework.

Conspiracies, for their part, occupy a privileged place in the contemporary world as a form of ‘lay’ social explanation. They seem to be the new engine of the mythological school of human history. They also give an illusion of understanding everything at a single stroke and providing some sort of meaning in random events, something that offers a certain psychological satisfaction.

The Rennies in particular have used this key idea as the basis for their inferences. The decipherment of complex ‘enigmas’ is deemed to lead to the revelation of ‘secrets’ capable of calling into question the ‘official’ version of the history of our civilisation. Their speculations initially focused on a political conspiracy – in particular, a dynastic usurpation to the detriment of the Merovingian line – before the Anglo-Saxon authors reoriented themselves towards a plot by the Catholic Church aimed at hiding from the Faithful the true nature of Christ, His true destiny, etc. Unsurprisingly, the revelation of the fraudulence of the Priory of Sion, far from putting an end to the conspiracy theories, has, on the contrary, opened up the way for yet another conspiracy designed to lead researchers astray. The current trend is to visualise a secret or at least discreet society hiding behind Saunière, who financed it with some obscure aim in mind, the majority of authors no longer being able to ignore the fact that his financial resources derived primarily from a frightfully prosaic traffic in mass-fees (see Chapter 14).

A conspiracy theory is defined as “an explanation of an event, a succession of events, or even of the whole or part of the history of a country or the world which relies on the dissembled, coordinated and malevolent actions of a restricted number of people (the ‘conspiracy’), whereas historical studies propose other explanations” [89]. Four great principles provide this type of belief with some structure: nothing happens by accident; everything that happens is the result of hidden intentions or desires; nothing is what it appears to be; and everything is interdependent, but in a hidden way. [90]

In France, the Revolution of 1789 – the founding-event of political modernity – formed the ideal framework for the spread of such theories (a ‘Masonic conspiracy’, ‘a plot by the Bavarian Illuminati’, etc.). The topics on which contemporary pseudohistorians focus are characterised simultaneously by their predisposition to develop conspiracy theories and by their politico-religious dimension. The arrest and trial of the Templars or the Albigensian Crusade are fertile soil from this point of view. In their tragic destiny the Templars and the Cathars do indeed seem to have been just the playthings of the ‘cold monsters’ of the Church and State. The conspiracy theme therefore opens up a very rich field of possible inferences, all the more so as it has an interface with religious concepts, which have the ability to trigger within our brains systems of inferences “that control our most intense emotions, model our interactions with our peer-group, give us a sense of values, and help us to organise social groups” [91], all things that, in Levi-Strauss's phrase, are bons-à-penser (‘things that are good to think with’).

Until a short while ago we were restricted to simply noting the existence of this tendency of the human spirit to spontaneously privilege the hypothesis of a ‘hidden hand’ to explain salient events. However, a series of experiments recently carried out by two American psychologists [92] has made it possible to better understand the circumstances in which people preferentally adopt conspiracy theories. Jennifer Whitson, of the University of Texas at Austin, and Adam Galinsky, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, have shown that when people are placed in a situation of loss of control they display an increasing propensity to see structures, patterns, links or trends where none exist. They detect coherent and significant relationships in a collection of stimuli that are without interrelationship. They also tend to imagine (actually non-existent) causal relationships between various actions and subsequent events, and suspect that conspiracies are lurking behind ambiguous narratives, etc.

The absence of any control over the events triggers a spontaneous need for order (even an imaginary one) in order to minimise the degree of uncertainty. Controlling and organising the resources of one's environment so that they facilitate one’s survival and procreation are the fundamental motivations behind human behaviour and the basis of what we call politics. The fact of seeing an organised will behind a specific event, whatever it may be, restores a form of comprehension of one's environment and the hope of rediscovering a certain power of intervention and control. Superstitions and protective rituals meet the same needs.

If each and everyone, in certain circumstances, can therefore be led to adopt such a mode of behaviour then there must be other (non-pathological) subjects who are biologically predisposed to it by virtue of their personal ‘cocktail’ of neurotransmitters. Peter Brugger, a neuropsychologist at Zurich University Hospital in Switzerland, has actually shown that significant levels in the brain of one such neurotransmitter, dopamine, affects the propensity to find significance in events which for other people are mere coincidences, and to identify pertinent elements or sequences where none exist. [93]

Current research in the neurosciences suggests that a ‘paranoid’ vision of the world and an attraction to certain types of beliefs are two facets of the same phenomenon. They seem in any case to offer the most promising line of enquiry for a better understanding of the beliefs of occultists and conspiracy-theorists.

8. The role of human testimony in the pseudosciences

“We know relatively little, in the final analysis, about Bérenger Saunière. Indeed, in the France of the Belle Epoque, a provincial priest was not an especially important figure. There is therefore nothing surprising about the fact that documents describing his actions are quite rare, since first-hand witnesses died a long time ago. In short, to try to understand the priest's complex personality, researchers and journalists the world over have been able to place their faith only in the testimonies of his descendants: of Saunière and his contemporaries there remains only that what their children can remember.”
Yves Lignon (Les Enigmes de l'Etrange, First, 2005)

Noël Corbu (1912-1968) drew abundantly on oral sources to ‘invent’ the legend of Rennes-le-Château. Subsequently, investigators of every kind have made massive demands on the memories of the locals, whose knowledge of history rested mainly on family legends. In those days, before mass-tourism and the ravings of the occultists, the villagers’ tongues were readily untied. For the oldest inhabitants, to be reminded of the days of Saunière was also, and especially, to be invited to talk about the days of their first flush of youth.

Local historian René Descadeillas (1909-1986), who began his investigations shortly after the Rennes affair first burst onto the scene, states that the ‘information’ he was able to gather ‘was provided by very different people, some of whom had personally known Abbé Saunière, while others, the majority, could only testify according to statements their parents or forefathers had made’. He then compared the vaious accounts in order to cross-check them [94]. A close reading of his successive texts leaves one somewhat sceptical, especially regarding the crucial point of the alleged discoveries in the church based on multiple testimonies derived from recollections a long time after the fact.

After the stonemasons, former child-members of the choir and other foster-sisters of Saunière's maid [95], all of whom were allegedly actors in or witnesses of these discoveries (see chapter 15), the Rennies garnered contributions from various occupational groups: ‘The oral tradition within the social circle of generations of grave-diggers in Rennes-le-Château says that somewhere in the cemetery there is a place where you cannot dig more than six feet without the perimeter-wall collapsing. There must be a strange hole in the ground there.’ [96] And the same author, a little later on, writes: ‘Rumour has it that the priest dug more than ten feet down and was sieving the soil all night, with the faithful Marie Dénarnaud holding a torch’ [[97]].

The post-office on the other hand steered their enquiries in a different direction: ‘The post-mistress in Couiza remembered the impressive number of postal-orders that arrived daily’ [98]; ‘the postman of the time complained about the weight of the mail addressed to the Abbé’ [99].

The local teachers provided somewhat different information. In 1974, after the broadcast of a Television documentary on the enigmas of Rennes-le-Château, the village-schoolmistress in the second half of the 1920s, then a Mademoiselle Taillau, remembered, according to Pierre Jarnac, that “the villagers of the time were convinced that the Abbé and his maid had taken advantage of being told about an underground passageway connecting the church to the castle. They were convinced that there were many underground chambers which radiated outwards and that each one of these galleries contained treasure. In the village there was no doubt that Saunière and ‘Mademoiselle Marie’ had then found ‘gold coins and objects encrusted with precious stones’. There was even talk of a crown… Popular belief claimed that they had uncovered by digging, starting from the presbytery, the entrance to an ancient burial-ground. These hollows filled with small treasures which the priest came across as he progressed were explained by the vaults that he upset and emptied of their contents.” [100] Since Marie Dénarnaud with whom she shared the presbytery at that time and other adult villagers had little to say on the subject, the schoolmistress got her information from the children, who reported to her the conversations that they had overheard.

One of her successors in the pre-war period, a Monsieur Guilhem, stated that the former maid had told him: “The villagers will tell you that the priest found a treasure; but that is not true. It was some women who sent him money.” [101]

Questioned in her turn, Madame Vidal confirmed that her friend Marie had once confided in her:
“With what the priest left, Marie told her, you could feed the whole of Rennes for a hundred years and there would still be something left over!”
“But if he left you so much money, why do you live you like a pauper?”
A aquo ni tusti pas!” exclaimed Marie (i.e. “That is something that I never touch!”).” [102]

New testimonies have continued to emerge until very recently. In 1988, Gérard de Sède recounted the self-styled ‘memoirs’ that were communicated to him in 1971 by a Madame Baron regarding life in the Saunière-Dénarnaud household during the Belle Epoque: “I believe I am one of the last people still living to have known Abbé Saunière and Marie Dénarnaud at all well: I knew them very well because the door of the presbytery was largely open to us; my sister and I felt at home there. Mademoiselle Marie ran the house, while the Abbé, who was very hospitable, was happy to meet all the expenses, and those were considerable I can tell you. I can see the two dogs Faust and Pomponnet now, as well as the two monkeys Capri and Mora, the kitchen-garden, the large terrace, the rabbit-hutches full of lots of rabbits of all kinds, the birds and the fishes, and the orangery where we spent some pleasant moments learning a sentimental song that the Curé taught us about a dying soldier writing a final letter to his fiancée.” [103]

Ten years on Germain Blanc-Delmas would report in writing (from memory?) some remarks attributed to her late adoptive father, who was a native of Rennes, on the situation in the village about a century before:

“We didn't really have anything to do with what the priest was up to. We had plenty to do in the fields. [...] At the time in question, when I was about 12, I was already working, and when the priest was doing his building work the young people, who were just a little older than me, were mowing, harvesting and generally slaving away. [...] We would get a good view of the priest when he went to wait for Marie, who would return from the factory by going up the road to Estons. [...]

“When Saunière got rich we started to see barouches struggling up the hill, which was difficult to climb because it only had a gravelled surface. We saw men in frock-coats and top hats accompanied by smart ladies all dolled up in their crinolines and sheltering under broad-brimmed hats or parasols. [...] Marie was pretty and along with her foster-sister did not lose much in comparison with all these smart ladies straight out of a fairy-tale. All this made their friends in the village a bit jealous, because it meant they were reduced to ‘walk-on parts’ as it were. But us boys, it didn't worry us at all. [...] We quickly realised that it was all just a fairy-tale which was really none of our business. […]

“The priest was respected and was one of the local notables along with the mayor and the schoolteacher. It was unthinkable, even in the case of a life as busy as his was, to try to understand the how and the wherefore of his activities. Admittedly, when he finally his luck he came into conflict with the municipality because he was trading on his neighbours' toes. [...]” [104]

We could extend immeasurably the list of such testimonies, which were collected decades after the alleged events occurred. Scientific research has unfortunately shown that human memory is far from being able to form a sort of instantaneous photograph of an initial stimulus. This does not necessarily mean that every old memory is false but, without cross-checking with other sources, it is simply not possible to reliably sort out various items of communicated information.

In a recent book devoted to the famous legend of the crash-landing of a UFO at Roswell Gilles Fernandez, who holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and is a former lecturer at L'Université René Descartes (Paris V), clearly highlights the biased approach of the ufologists – statements that apply equally to their colleagues, the Rennies:

“Everything adduced derives above all from witness-statements. However, the first disturbing and disconcerting fact is that there are no individual chapters or valid argumentation to address the hypothesis in the light of false memory syndrome and psychosociological contamination either in respect of the first-hand witnesses or the even more delicate subject of the indirect witnesses to the event. The subject is either not tackled at all or just dismissed with a sweep of the hand.”

“For some investigators [...] it seems that human testimony is infallible and non-refutable. This is undoubtedly because witness-statements are often the only foundation for their arguments. For want of anything better human testimony then acquires the status of evidence. This is an annoying and fallacious manoeuvre when considered in the light of what scientific research on memory or even criminology has revealed.” [105]

In all the parascientific disciplines human testimony – whatever the age and/or exceptional character of the alleged facts – is readily advanced as evidence. Typically, to dispute its reliability is tantamount, for the average parascientist, to insulting the witness in question, to implicitly describing him or her as a liar, as insane, a drunkard or an old fool. That a person who is sincere and has all their mental faculties can be mistaken does not seem possible to them. Consequently, simply to show sincerity seems to be treated as a necessary and sufficient condition for validating the entire content of their testimony. For that purpose there is generally simple recourse to the argument of authority, which involves presenting the witnesses “as being of good faith and being credible by virtue of the simple fact of their profession, their level of education or some other characteristic automatically seen as positive. This psychological bias, which has been well documented in cognitive psychology, produces what are known as ‘halo effects’. This is the tendency that individuals have, when confronted with a human characteristic deemed to be positive [...], to give a more positive account of all or part of the other characteristics of that person, and of their opinions, discourse, statements etc., sometimes even without knowing what they are in advance.” The statements of such witnesses, thus ‘qualified’ for all types of reports, then become factual data.

Moreover, in such micro-environments “the mode of collecting these testimonies is not standardised, but is simply ‘journalistic’ and sometimes deliberately biased. It is thus methodologically fallacious, in the sense that it induces or can induce certain tendencies to create ‘false memories’ by suggestibility as has been demonstrated in experimental psychology. The testimonies produced and the facts that people recount can therefore be explained by a so-called ‘conformity bias’ in memory, retrospection, the inflation of imagination, errors of attribution, etc., something which has also been well documented in the scientific literature.” Such explanations must be given consideration in all cases before making recourse to more elaborate explanations.

In the final analysis, “if these investigators base the majority of their opinions on remembered testimonies then they should logically be interested in the validity of the remembered testimony as considered scientifically, and, at least, should use a standardised data-collection technique in this context such as is found for example in criminology (the ‘cognitive interview’). The serious investigator should address the phenomenon of false memory in general, asking whether this has not occurred in respect of their own witnesses, as would be the case with any witness who tried to remember events going back 30 years or more. Sometimes false memories are found in connection with events going back just one week. This should be sufficient to cause [the investigator] to at least consider the possibility, in order to be able to decide whether to accept or reject this type of counter-argument within the context of the hypothetico-deductive reasoning that leads to his conclusions.” [106]

Even more than the alleged witnesses of Roswell, those of Rennes-le-Château were questioned on very remote events by interviewers who, consciously or not, acted suggestively and insistently on certain points rather than others. In both cases also these witnesses were questioned at a time when the surrounding culture had already internalised the historical events in question [107], which might suggest to them that their help was being sought in respect of something extraordinary, and that the investigator had already formed a personal opinion about it, which he could communicate, deliberately or not, to his witness. But suggestion and suggestibility are the principal explanatory factors in false memory syndrome, which is the Achilles' heel of human testimony, accompanied as it is by an inability to produce accurate physical estimates of such things as distance, size, speed, etc.


[60] Wikipedia, ‘Pseudohistoire' [on line], 27 July 2009. Available at
[61] Cicero himself conceded however that the work of Herodotus contained ‘innumerable purely imaginative narratives’.
[62] Jean-Pierre Adam, Le Passé recomposé: chroniques d'archéologie fantasque, Seuil, 1988, pp. 20-25.
[63] Wiktor Stoczkowski, op. cit., p. 202.
[64] The case of Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901), the author of the very famous Atlantis (1882), testifies to the relative inconsistency that still prevailed at that time: even if his work was greeted right from the start with great scepticism by the learned world it nevertheless enabled him to be admitted to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
[65] Wikipedia, ‘Méthode hypercritique’ [on line], 19 July 2009. Available at
[66] France Culture, Le Salon noir, 8 October 2008.
[67] Claudie Voisenat, “L'expérience archéologique, une introduction”. In: Claudie Voisenat (ed.), Imaginaires archéologiques, Editions de la Maison des sciences de l'Homme, 2008, pp. 19-21.
[68] Jean-Bruno Renard, Le mouvement Planète: un épisode important de l'histoire culturelle française, Politica Hermetica, n° 10,1996, p. 156.
[69] Claudie Voisenat, op. cit., p. 22.
[70] Christiane Amiel, “L'abîme au trésor, ou l'or fantôme de Rennes-le-Château”. In: Claudie Voisenat (ed.), op. cit., p. 76.
[71] Marie-France Etchegoin and Frédéric Lenoir, Code Da Vinci: L'enquête, Laffont, 2004, pp. 50 and 67.
[72] France Culture, 28 November 2008.
[73] Herbert Simon, Models of Man: Social and Rational, John Wiley and Sons, 1957, p. 198.
[74] Raymond Boudon, L'Art de se persuader des idées douteuses, fragiles ou fausses, Seuil, 1992, pp. 380 and 403.
[75] ibid., pp. 379 and 404.
[76] Paul Jorion, “La verité (anthropologique) sur les extraterrestres”, L'Homme, No. 157, 2001, pp. 201-214.
[77] According to Anne Brenon, in practice, and in spite of everything, there are within the historical field certain ‘accursed subjects’ which are ‘so mythologised that they put off people with good intentions’. As an historian who specialises in one such subject herself she feels that the simple fact of being interested in these subjects is enough for you to be regarded as ‘somebody not quite serious’ (Radio Suisse Romande, 19 October 2008).
[78] Alan Sokal, Pseudosciences et postmodernisms…, p. 43.
[79]Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, Des Martiens au Sahara, Actes Sud/Errance, 2009, p. 23.
[80] Alan Sokal, Pseudosciences et postmodernisme…, pp. 46-47.
[81] Jean Bricmont, “Pour un usage nuancé de Popper”, Science et pseudo-sciences, No. 254, October 2002.
[82] The scientific approach also implies a preliminary adherence to certain principles, including methodological naturalism, i.e. the idea that no phenomenon can be explained by a supernatural cause, and to the principle of the economy of hypotheses, i.e. the idea that the explanation that involves the fewest ad hoc assumptions should be privileged until evidence to the contrary is adduced.
[83] Charles-Olivier Carbonell, op. cit., p. 87.
[84] A point that one can on the other hand legitimately dispute, the exceptional success of the novel owing much to the fact that its author manges to make the reader believe, by fictional means, that he is revealing certain hidden truths.
[85] Georges Bertin, “Conférences à Rennes-les-Bains: du délire interpretative” [on line], 8 August 2005. Available at http://imaginouest.metawiki.com/Rennes-le-Château
[86] The fundamental axiom of ‘Rennology’ is that something extraordinary was (re)discovered at the end of the 19th century in the area of Rennes-le-Château, while that of parapsychology is that psi actually exists, and that of Ufology that the UFO phenomenon is original and irreducible to everyday explanations, etc.
[87] The human spirit “needs and generally has a way of organising information in order to impart sense to what has been observed and learned. That enables man to go beyond the information collected or, in the jargon of the psychologists, to generate inferences on the basis of the information gathered. It is this which explains the complexity of cultural transmission. Information is not duplicated but inferred, i.e. spontaneously created on the basis of other information.” (Pascal Boyer, op. cit., p. 46)
[88] France Culture, 20 September 2008.
[89] Wikipedia, “Thérie du complot” [on line], 14 September 2009. Available at
[90] Pierre-André Taguieff, L'imaginaire du complot mondial, Mille et une nuits, 2006, pp. 57-60.
[91] Pascal Boyer, op. cit., p. 135.
[92] Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky, “Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception”, Science, n° 5898, 3 October 2008, pp. n5-117.
[93] Helen Philips, “Spookiness is in the brain of the beholder”, New Scientist, No. 2353, 27 July 2002, p. 17.
[94] René Descadeillas, Mythologie du Trésor de Rennes, Collot, 1991 [1974], p. 11.
[95] Actually, girls born of different parents but having had the same wet-nurse, in this case Madame Dénarnaud.
[96] Jean-Jacques Bedu, Rennes-le-Château, autopsie d'un mythe, Loubatières, 2002 [1990], p. 50.
[97] Ibid., p. 52.
[98] Jean-Jacques Bedu, Les Sources secrètes du Da Vinci Code, Editions du Rocher, 2005, p. 185.
[99] Laurent Buchholtzer, Rennes-le-Château, une affaire paradoxale, Oeil du Sphinx, 2008, p. 112.
[100] Pierre Jarnac (Michel Valet), “I knew Marie Dénarnaud”, Terre de Rhedae, No. 8, October 1994, p 18. The distorted memories of real events – the ‘tidying up’ of the cemetery in 1894-1895, when Saunière ‘[...] reorganised, lifted up or pushed everything into a corner’ against the advice of many of the villagers, the discoveries of certain ossuaries in the 1900s, associated with certain items of furniture, including one realised by a friend of Saunière (see chapters 19 and 20) – seem to have been amalgamated here with the imaginary stories of underground passageways surrounding the old castle to produce a single legendary narrative. We can guarantee that each of the intermediaries would have made his or her own small contribution to the finished canvas.
[101] Raymond Sagarzazu (under the pseudonym Alias) [on line], 4 September 2006. Available at http://www.renneslechateau.com/forums/viewtopicphp?t=93&start=3o&sid=626f651fc2eba5n4400lcdfd4716ocf
[102] Claire Corbu and Antoine Captier, L'Héritage de l'abbé Saunière, Bélisane, 1985, p. 12. Perhaps the old woman was referring here, in an exaggerated manner, to the money Saunière deposited at the beginning of the century with the Bank Veuve Auriol & Fils and never recovered (see chapter 20).
[103] Gérard de Sède, Rennes-le-Château, Laffont, 1988, p. 43.
[104] Germain Blanc-Delmas, Chronique sur Rennes-le-Château, Envolée, 1998, pp. 234-236.
[105] Gilles Fernandez, op. cit., p. 12.
[106] ibid., pp. 12-13.
[107] The oldest testimonies relating to the discovery in the church in Rennes of certain objects (other than the ‘flagstone of the knights’) were collected after the publication of this alleged fact in the press by the owner of the hotel in the village. However, experiments have shown that presenting falsified evidence to subjects can also contribute to the development in them of false autobiographical memories and false beliefs.