Michael Wood

Jeux d’esprit

The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail

By Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln

 Jonathan Cape 480pp £9.95 order from our bookshop

Someone was obviously producing this material, but their real object remained unclear. At times we nearly dismissed the whole affair as an elaborate joke, a hoax of extravagant proportions. If this were true, however … and if one invests so much time, energy and resources in a hoax, can it really be called a hoax at all? In fact the interlocking skeins and the overall fabric were less a joke than a work of art – a display of ingenuity, suspense, brilliance, intricacy, historical knowledge and architectonic complexity worthy of, say, James Joyce.

So the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail sum up the arcane ‘documents’ out of which they spin the tale of ‘the single most shattering secret of the last two thousand years.’ The secret is, briefly, that Christ escaped the cross, married Mary Magdalene and had children whose decendants have maintained his ‘blood royal’ across the intervening centuries. In the Dark Ages they married into the Merovingian royal family. In the thirteenth century they were protected by the Cathars. Now, it is alleged, they constitute a powerful secret society to which the great temporal lords of our day still pay respect. The Second Coming, in short, will be the presentation of Jesus’ lineal heir.

This book has raised fury among learned reviewers and occasioned a spate of apoplectic letters to the Times. Some critics have even been so unkind as to suggest that a reputable publishing house should not have printed such a ‘farrago’. This is rather ingenuous, as the book’s first appearance in the best-seller lists was at number one. It is also surely unfair on our three authors who have exercised such ingenuity in their quest. Any work which manages to weave into one narrative the Cathars, the SS, the Freemasons, Leonardo, Hugo, Cocteau, Barabbas, Debussy, Newton, the Holy Grail, Childeric’s bees and the lost treasure of Jerusalem – not to mention Jesus and Mary Magdalene – gets a bonus mark in my book for sheer chutzpah. Why, even dear old Athelstan gets a look in! But breathtaking as is the plot, it pales besides the authors’ daring treatment of the commonly accepted procedures of logic. ‘The name Tafur,’ we are told, ‘could with one letter change, be an anagram of Artus, a ritual name’. Such examples could be (and are) multiplied endlessly. These are, after all, authors who ‘discover’ ‘original’ documents in nineteenth-century printed texts; whose primary sources include an (alleged) scrapbook called the Dossiers Secrets compiled in the 1950s and treated as authoritative on twelfth-century history; for whom the Sutton Hoo treasure is an example of Merovingian civilization; who have the bizarre idea that Merovingian kings were ritual (that word again) figures who never had anything to do with the day-to-day business of rulership but rather ‘had many things in common with modem constitutional monarchs’.

But it would be churlish to chide our gallant sleuths over boring old historical facts in such an imaginative tour de force. Particularly as they have had almost unbelievable bad luck in their ‘research’ (a word used throughout this book) into the archives. I counted at least eight occasions in their footnotes where key sources are ‘lost’, ‘deliberately destroyed’ ‘in private archives’ ‘disappeared’, and so on. This has apparently prevented their missing contents from being cited, and proves a conspiracy to conceal their contents: ‘the Dark Ages, we discovered, had not been truly dark. On the contrary it quickly became apparent to us that someone had deliberately obscured them.’ It is then no wonder that Mr Lincoln fails to give us a reproduction of the mysterious coded document which set him off on his own private search for the Grail; in fact it is entirely understandable in view of the fates which have befallen previous researchers who delved before the indefatigable Mr Lincoln: one pushed off the Paris-Mainz train, three hanged, one vanished. This is real M R James stuff (the fiction, of course: not the scholarship). Indeed, although reviewers have taken this work seriously, some of the authors’ footnotes are so hilarious that one is forced to conclude admiringly, that this was not intended as a work of mere history, but a jeu d’esprit, a punning satire on academic modes of inquiry, a jesting tilt at the ivory tower with spurious footnotes in the manner of Borges’ Fictions or K in the Glass Bead Game. If only the authors hadn’t spoiled it for us all by giving the game away in the passage quoted at the start of this review.

No doubt HBHG will be well received in France where a section of the haute bourgeoisie has long been crying out for news that they still do have a royal family (and what a pedigree). There too, the story of the survival of the Merovingian bloodline has always had a certain pull in the occult book market. So, apart from laughing their way to the bank, the authors can console themselves that they are unlikely to be prosecuted for being ‘irresponsible with History’ like the luckless and foolish M Faurisson. I leave the last word with them. Commenting on what is – by their standards – a relatively uncontentious theory, that Czar Nicholas II was ritually murdered by a Jewish cabbalistic conspiracy, they opine gravely: ‘to see this type of illiterature (sic) still being published in 1965 is somewhat disconcerting.’ Well, time has moved along a little, but I could not have put it better myself.

Royal Shakespeare Company


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