Sophia, an albino, and flowerbeds of daffodils

One of the presentations at this year’s International Medieval Congress in Leeds, which is the largest European session of paying specialists dealing with all fields of medieval culture, from dishwashing to scholastic theology, was the roundtable discussion “Da Vinci Code versus Medieval Studies: Facts, Fiction, and False Leads”. Participants in the discussion included, among others, Malcolm C. Barber, whose book on the Order of the Temple has recently been translated into Czech; Richard Barber, the author of The Holy Grail; and Andrew Prescott, director of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at the University of Sheffield. The question was evident: why does the public turn away from the academic interpretation of history and instead prefer its “alternative” version, where it cannot distinguish facts from fiction? On one hand, we should appreciate that the academic community is able to deal with something more than just academic research. On the other hand, however, the situation reminds me of a snake biting its own tail. It should rather be the sociologists, psychologists, and analysts of contemporary civilization who should try to explain the amazing success of Brown’s book.

At about the same time, a film based on The Da Vinci Code, starring Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, and Jean Reno, came to our cinemas.

[…]

Why are people so fascinated by the mystery of the Holy Grail, the Knights Templar, and witches? Everything Brown is talking about and the camera is depicting can be found in sophisticated literature, even in Czech. There is, however, almost nobody reading such literature and any round table at a congress can do nothing about it. The problem must be in the way secondary-school history books are written, at least in the Czech Republic. Students learn a lot of data which they will soon forget and are not taught to think structurally. They learn the dates of battles but are not instructed to see things in their time-space relationship. They can’t see links between “general” history and the history of literature or geography; they can’t understand physics and chemistry as historically developed subjects. They know nothing about institutions; the books don’t mention terms like “papacy” or “the Order of the Temple”. And then there is the danger that you interpret them as something completely different from the real historical existence. The books don’t include what is romantic and interesting, what is really sexy.

Brown obviously doesn’t owe his success just to the absence of quality schoolbooks. The sources of the frustration could perhaps be explained by Professor Langdon (the principal character for the male audience to identify with; another, let’s say, slightly dissociated part of the Prince Charming could be seen in Captain Fache; and still another, now highly dissociated, is hidden in Teabing). When answering the question of whether he is a believer, he replies that had been raised a Catholic. The film can be most of all interpreted as an act of disappointment of someone who was raised a Catholic and then became disgusted by some aspects of the life of the institutional Church. The Catholic Church reaps the benefits of its containment, which, to a large extent, persists. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the Church kept refusing critical Biblical studies, bullied a number of its elite scholars in different ways, and made thousands of thinking people go into opposition. Their feelings for the Church are marked by a kind of obvious reactivity which lacks feedback – it is a “to-be-against” attitude. Even a lot of those who never entered a church share something of that attitude. How rational is it, however, to react to frustration, even justified (or at least partly justified), by creating new illusions?

As I have already mentioned, the film is based on several big lies contained in the book; the principal ones are communicated to us through misty insights into the past pasted into Teabing’s narrative. Let’s become pupils again and enjoy more of Brown’s skills, or rather Teabing’s manipulations. First of all, it is unheard of to put the legalization of Christianity in the context of alleged religious riots between Christians and pagans. In reality, Christians were still severely persecuted even before the Edict of Milan and other legal acts declaring their equality. To question that persecution is somewhat unethical, perhaps comparable to someone questioning the Holocaust. Nor is it right to claim that the Pope was to blame for the demise of the Knights Templar. The Order of the Temple was abolished as a result of the wish of the French king at the time when the Pope still had his seat in Avignon and was under the political power of the French crown; it is usually called “the imprisonment in Avignon”. The guilt of the Order had been doubted from the very beginning as we can see in the Annals of Zbraslav where the author, an experienced diplomat, expressed his objections. The abolition of the Order shows how far the extreme submission of the Church to a secular authority can lead. From a structural point of view it is wrong to look, either in the Church or in its opposition, for any kind of a thousand-year continuity that would have – since the beginning of Christendom till present – kept a specific secret: that would have been technically unfeasible.

[…]

I, however, believe that despite all manipulations and half-truths, such books and films should be taken altogether seriously, as a challenge, not just as bizarre evidence of the dissolution of traditional values in the detergent of modern media. The desperate search for “alternative” approaches, either to history or to altered states of mind, is after all just a twisted cry for help in the times of a complete unstableness of all traditional images of the world. And it might also be a challenge for the author of this article to consider – during his lectures on Gothic cathedrals, flagellants, and the symbol of the Cross – not only the old and deserving truths but also the neural synapses of the audience and their eagerness to spend their time looking up foreign words in a dictionary.

Published 5 January 2007
Original in Czech
First published by Revolver Revue 65 (2006) (Czech version)

Contributed by Revolver Revue © Pavel Kalina / Revolver Revue / Eurozine

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