Michael Baigent, Richard
Leigh & Henry Lincoln,
Holy Blood, Holy Grail
(Jonathan Cape, 1982; Delacorte, 2005)

There is a certain category of book that can best be characterized as "history for the credulous." It is most usually built around a conspiracy and relies not so much on research as on questions that can't be answered with any degree of certainty, and may or may not deserve to be asked in the first place. In fiction, such an approach can lead to great works of fantasy and science fiction; in nonfiction, we wind up with books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

The premises of this book are several, each more paranoid than the last: Jesus did not die on the Cross, but married and raised a family; the Merovingian kings of France were his direct descendants. A secret order has directed the course of European history for centuries, certainly since the time of the Crusades and perhaps even longer. All this information has been suppressed by orthodox institutions to keep us in the dark for reasons known (it seems) only to themselves.

There's really nowhere to go from there but down.

I'm as interested as anyone in questions that haven't been answered, and I'm usually sympathetic to researchers whose investigations lead them away from normal paths of inquiry -- I've seen many instances where accepted methodology is inadequate in addressing the issues under question. That doesn't mean that every question is worth asking, nor does it mean that inference and innuendo will take the place of evidence.

The authors spend most of their introduction justifying the book by calling into question the validity of criticisms it has received, which are legion. Great energy is expended in debunking the Bishop of Birmingham, who appeared on the British Omnibus after the original publication. The bishop, it seems, had only read the last two chapters; I admire his perspicacity; I made the mistake of starting at the beginning.

The book is filled with either/or propositions, much as creationists in the U.S. aver that if evolution is not "true," then creationism must be. Any scholar of intelligence knows that there is seldom only one answer to a question. This applies especially to those instances, such as the story of the Elm of Gisors, in which the authors cite an event that was glossed over by contemporary sources: their only answer, of course, is that the information has been suppressed. Any rational person would, probably quite rightly, conclude that the contemporary sources didn't think it was all that significant. (There is also the fact that chronicles from the early Middle Ages are sketchy, at best, and focus on what was known locally.)

Another tactic that the authors seem to have borrowed from wingnuts and cheap politicians is to ask a question, and then immediately protest that some investigators believe this to be the case, but of course, there is no evidence. It could be coincidence, of course, and probably is, but someone believes otherwise, although the authors really can't support such a statement. Now they don't have to: the question is out there. The discussion of the rise in influence of the Cistercians, founded by Bernard of Clairvaux, and the Knights Templar is a case in point: it's not hard to explain the gifts of lands and revenues to both orders in an age in which salvation was often bought by nobles who were otherwise, and often by necessity, brutal and less than saintly. Nor is it bizarre, as the authors attempt to make it, that the Count of Champagne should, in his middle age, leave his estates and take holy orders -- in this case, the Templars; if such a powerful man as the Emperor Charles V could do the same several hundred years later, it's hardly remarkable that the Count of Champagne should do so in an age in which such piety was the norm. Things like this could very well have been glossed by contemporary sources: they were not at all unusual. It is, however, much more exciting to think that it's all the result of someone's master plan.

The book continues in this vein for some 460 lavishly illustrated pages, plus appendices and notes. The main method of argument seems to be a bait-and-switch, in which a detail is investigated with the conclusion that it cannot be proven, but a few pages later the authors state "we have demonstrated such-and-such" when, of course, they haven't done any such thing.

I find myself in the same boat as those who try to debate creationist apologists: there is so much in the way of inaccuracies and misstatements (they repeatedly refer to Belial as "the Mother Goddess" of Middle Eastern mythology in order to make some connection with place names in France), faulty arguments ("plausible" does not equal "proven"), elisions and unwarranted assumptions that to refute them all would take several volumes, and in the meantime, the damage is done. There is such a wealth of myth, legend, symbolism and fascinating history in the Grail legend and the Knights Templar that it's really nothing short of criminal that anyone would undertake the time and expense necessary to research the era and then turn out something like this book. It is, of course, seamless, because a good debater doesn't really need to worry about supporting his arguments, he just needs to make them sound good.

I found Holy Blood, Holy Grail to be, more than anything else, annoying; it is, in fundamental ways, a dishonest book, with an approach to the material that is, quite bluntly, sensationalistic and a method of explication that is insulting. The authors' protests to the contrary, I find it incredible that they went, as they claim, where the evidence led them, simply because there is so little evidence presented. (They do, however, include a section justifying their flights of fancy as legitimate because the analytical method used in scholarly discourse is insufficient and specialists don't talk to each other. Another assumption that is unjustified and sadly out of date: cross-disciplinary studies have been going on in the social sciences for some time, to great effect.) It is, ultimately, a book that takes a fascinating subject and says nothing about it, and does it in the cheapest possible way.

by Robert M. Tilendis
31 December 2005

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