What’s on a parchment?
Gérard de Sède promoted the mystery of Rennes-le-Château
in 1967, his book contained references to two parchments, one of which would
eventually grace the cover of a pocket re-edition of his work.
Soon afterwards, British actor and writer Henry Lincoln pointed out that, when taking notices of a series of raised letters in the Latin texts on these parchments, a code was visible, one that spelled out “a dagobert ii roi et a sion est ce tresor et il est la mort”, “to dagobert II king and to sion is this treasure and he is the (or there) death (or dead)”. In fact, though this code is the most widely known, the text also contained a number of other codes.
to the origin of these parchments, it is claimed that they were found by
Saunière – a claim that is currently strongly contested, if
only because it is unknown how de Sède would have laid his hands
on these documents if genuine, and furthermore because a known de Sède
associate, Philippe de Cherisey, later admitted of having created these
parchments, and the codes present within the texts.
Still, Rennes-le-Château mythology states that even though Saunière did not recover these parchments, he definitely recovered some parchments, and went to St Sulpice, in Paris, to have these decoded.
to where he recovered these, two sites stand out: the altar of his church,
specifically the so-called Visigothic pillar, currently on display in the
local museum, but placed by Saunière in the garden in front of the
church (where now a replica stands); the baluster, the lower part of the
pulpit, made from wood.
It is a matter of fact that both objects were identified for demolition by Saunière when he reworked the interior of his church in the late 19th century, and that both objects were indeed removed from their original location. The baluster is currently in the hands of Antoine Captier, who has made it available to most if not all researcher who have desired to study it.
From fiction to fact
the pillar and the baluster are said to have had a secret cache, into which
documents were stored. In both cases, it can be empirically shown that indeed
both hold a small cache into which something could be hidden.
From this fact, a number of tall tales have been spun, in which often the object said to have been recovered from inside the cache is much larger than the actual space available. For example, the parchments said to have been recovered by Saunière and at one time in the hands of de Sède are already too large for both caches, unless they were folded in such manner that would leave clear traces on the parchments themselves.
So whatever object was hidden here, was small.
No speculation required
specifically was hidden in the baluster remains unknown, though from descriptions
given by Antoine Captier, great-grandfather of… Antoine Captier, it
might have been a glass vial.
As to the altar, wild speculation exists, but none should. The church of Rennes-le-Château is… a church, and that in itself should be sufficient in answering the enigma whether and what might have been hidden inside the Visigothic pillar.
A church is a religious, sacred building. It is, of course, not grown, but built, like any other building. What makes it sacred – a place of god – is a series of rituals that are performed by the bishop, whereby he sanctifies the building, making it the abode of God. And it is here that we can find the origins of this “mystery”.
act of consecration is a well-known and publically available liturgy, which
is performed on a daily basis somewhere in the Catholic realm – wherever
a new church is built, or a church has been extensively rebuilt and requiring
The act requires the bishop of the diocese to come to the new building and perform a series of rituals. This set has existed for centuries, has largely remained unchanged, and we will use the set of instructions as they were performed in the 12th century, for reasons that will become clear later on.
First of all, let us note that the act of dedication itself was recorded on a parchment (the charter), which was normally placed in a box containing the relics beneath the altar stone of a church. In the 12th century, instructions were that the charter should contain the Ten Commandments, the first words of the four Gospels, the bishop’s name, the year, and the name of the saints whose relics are interred. The charter was therefore an interesting mixture of historical information and religion.
During the dedication ceremony, the stone slab of the altar was fixed in place on its base, and sealed with the mortar mixed earlier in the day. After incensing the repository and the altar, the bishop took the holy oil and made a cross in the middle of the altar and on its four corners, and then spread oil with his hand over the entire altar stone, while singing: “Jacob erected a stone marker, pouring oil on it.” Then he took the aromatic chrism, and, in the same way, spread it with his hand over the entire altar, singing: “Behold the fragrance of my Son.” With the chrism, the bishop proceeded to circle the inside of the church, making twelve crosses with his thumb on the walls, and saying each time, “Let this temple be made holy in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, while the choir sang, “This is the house of the Lord, firmly built.”
is therefore clear that inside the altar of Rennes-le-Château, a charter
– a parchment – must have been located. As the 19th century
was more religiously respective than the 21st century, it is likely that
the altar that Saunière wanted to replace, thus had this box still
intact. Hence, that Saunière found parchments somewhere in the altar,
should not at all surprise anyone familiar with normal Church customs –
surprisingly few “researchers” nevertheless seem to be.
Furthermore, let us note that this parchment has sections of religious literature on it – and so do the so-called Rennes-le-Château parchments, which are in origin nothing but texts from the gospels, into which a code was inserted. So, in short, what de Cherisey – and/or the group surrounding de Sède when he wrote the book – were trying to imply, was that rather than a normal parchment, Rennes-le-Château’s dedication charter seemed to be anomalous. Few picked up on that specific detail.
A copy of the charter
Saunière had discovered parchments, is known, for he informed the
mayor’s office of this discovery; the mayor requested a copy of them
from Saunière. The annoying fact for mystery buffs is that these
reproductions were done, even though their location had become lost by the
time when de Sède wrote his book. No doubt, this was seen by his
group as an open invitation – carte blanche – to create some
parchments of its own.
So there are two certainties: there were parchments and there had to be – and was – a hollow cavity.
The seven seals
is some debate whether the charter was hidden inside the Visigothic Pillar
or the other – now lost – pillar, and almost endless debate
has occurred about whether the pillar is able to accommodate anything. We
can end this debate here and now, by stating that if the charter was not
in the Visigothic pillar, then it was either in the horizontal slab or in
the other supporting pillar.
Today, for anyone willing to lift the altar cloths of various churches in France, the “box” is normally known to be located roughly in the middle of the altar’s horizontal slab. Normally, it is covered by an often marble stone… and normally the seal is broken, as the relic is often removed. Why? Largely because the box, as mentioned above, holds the relic of a saint and with so many churches broken into in recent decades, these relics are removed, out of security considerations. We only hope that all priests return the relic during mass, as otherwise, the church in principle would not be a sacred building.
at the dedication ceremony, the patron saint of the church somehow had to
be associated with the church. This normally meant that the relic inside
the box was that of the patron saint.
Some will thus jump to the conclusion that this means that there is a relic inside the church of Rennes-le-Château linked with Mary Magdalene. If it were the case, then, indeed, one could say that Saunière discovered the “body” of Mary Magdalene – something that would tangentially have belonged to her, and which would be inside the box. The next question would then be how one of Saunière’s predecessors acquired it, to which some might argue that this was easy, as her body was buried somewhere in or near the church.
the historical record suggests otherwise. Though not all details are known,
what is known, is that this church originally was a chapel, and was dedicated
to the Virgin Mary. When the village church of St Peter was destroyed, the
castle’s chapel became the main church of the village and was rededicated
to Mary Magdalene. We are in the 14th century, and we can ask – need
to ask – several questions:
- was there a rededication ceremony, or was it merely a change in patronage in name only?
- if there was a rededication ceremony, did the relics get exchanged, i.e. those of the Virgin Mary removed (to where?) and some of Mary Magdalene placed instead? As to where these relics might have come from: this could be from another church dedicated to this saint, or e.g. Vézelay, linked with the saint.
de Voragine gives the common account of the transfer of the relics of Mary
Magdalene from her sepulchre in the oratory of Saint Maximin at Aix-en-Provence
to the newly-founded abbey of Vézelay. This transfer was apparently
undertaken in 771 by the founder of the abbey, identified as Gerard, duke
of Burgundy. The earliest mention of this episode is the notice of the chronicler
Sigebert of Gembloux (died 1112), who asserts that the relics were removed
to Vézelay through fear of the Saracens. There is no record of their
further removal to the other St-Maximin; a casket of relics associated with
Magdalene remains at Vézelay.
There is no known record that the village church of Rennes-le-Château requested part of these relics for its church, though this does not mean anything, and is only of purely historical interest.
Fast forward to Saunière
decided to rebuild and reconsecrate the church, hence the bishop was required
to attend, as only the bishop – Billard – was able to perform
the ceremony. As the altar had been replaced, rather than cement the relics
in place at the base of the altar, the more modern option of the marble
stone in the center of the altar, would have been the norm, with the box
sealed. We would assume that Saunière followed the norm, and hence
that relics were deposited inside the altar, together with the charter.
We also note that Saunière, when removing the old altar, must have found relics, and he must have known, from the charter, to which saint these belonged. The most likely scenario is that these would be relics linked with the Virgin, not Mary Magdalene – but the historical evidence seems missing.
“This place is terrible”
The dedication ceremony also leads us into another stream of thought. We note that a key section of the ceremony involves the choir singing “This is the house of the Lord, firmly built.” At the entrance of Saunière’s church, the inscription “This Place is Terrible” has received lots of attention… but the biblical text continues “for this is the house of the lord”… and this coincides of course with parts of the ceremony. Hence, we do need to wonder whether Saunière was not partially referring to this little in-joke. After all, we note that near this inscription are the blazons of the two bishops that ruled while Saunière carried out the work. Hence, this entire section of the entrance may be nothing more – or less – than a reference to the reconsecration of his church.
is said… that when Madame Cavailhé de Cousan had agreed to
sponsor the works to provide a new altar for Saunière’s church,
work began on July 27, 1887. At some work during the demolition, the workmen
will have removed the stone altar. It is then apparently that one of the
pillars revealed an opening… a cavity, filled with ferns… it
is said. Though it is unknown what happened next, several authors have come
up with a scenario of their own. One of the more popular one proposes that
Saunière searched through the ferns himself and found rolls of parchment,
written in Latin “but an ancient form of Latin”, this according
to Elie Bot, the mason who helped Saunière in his work. For others,
it involves three rolls, yet for others, it were but two.
This statement, which has been overshadowed by more spectacular claims, thus rings entirely true: these were the charters of the previous dedication ceremony. And, on this testimony, it appears that there were no relics, which is noteworthy, but which in itself is not sensational. Let us note that if the altar had remained unaltered from before the 14th century, this would have been an altar in a chapel of a castle of a small village, and hence might have had to do without precious relics. Again, it is only a matter of historical interest, nothing more.
Analysis of claims
we provided an overview of what other authors have made of this discovery,
and we will repeat these sections here, and comment.
Gérard de Sède wrote that “the documents were discovered by Saunière himself in the capsa of the Visigothic pillar, enclosed in a wooden roll.” Possible.
For Pierre Jarnac, there were “two or three wooden rolls: they contained handwritten documents, parchments.” Possible.
“Parchments which were acts: a genealogical act of 1243 (with a seal from Blanche de Castille). A genealogical act of 1608 (F.P. d’Hautpoul), a genealogical act of 24/4/1695, and a recto-verso of the canon JP de Nègre de Fondargentdaté.” Unlikely. Though these documents could have been hidden inside the church, or elsewhere, the altar is an unlikely location. For one, documents dating from the 17th century would mean that the altar had been desecrated, purely to put these parchments inside – parchments which would only be found if the church was destroyed, desecrated or rebuilt. The baluster’s cache is likely too small to hold these.
“Three wooden tubes containing four parchments: a Gospel of St John where Christ is welcomed in Bethany by Lazarus, another document entitled “Martha and Mary of Magdala”, a condensed version of Luke 6:1-5, Matthew 12:1-8 and Mark 2:23-28 and finally a genealogical tree with the unknown descendents of Dagobert II”. Unlikely.
Jean-Jacques Bedu, “Rennes-le-Château autopsie d’un mythe” (Loubatières, 1990), on page 26, notes that the “pillar is solid and could thus not contain any parchments.” This author, who is sceptical of the entire mystery, made this statement that is contrary to the evidence on display in the museum. He also didn’t find it worthy to note that altars had to have hidden cavities, to hold the charter and the relics. In short, Bedu seems to be a sceptic, but also totally uninformed of Catholic customs, which is rather unfortunate when writing about a mystery that is focused on a Catholic priest and a Catholic church.
The relic box
us once again quote from the article on the baluster, where we noted the
following: “A closer inspection [of the Visigothic pillar] will also
reveal that the lining of this opening clearly was enabled so that a cover
could be placed on top of this hollow opening. But no-one seems to have
mentioned this detail. It is clear that the incorporation of such a cover
was there to guarantee that the top of the pillar was firmly integrated
within the altar. It would also have secured the contents inside the pillar.
But the presence of this cover would and should have been secured with the
aid of mortar, so that it remained firmly in place. This means that when
the pillar was pried out of its position, this cover would still have been
in place and the workforce would normally have had to pry it open with one
or the other tool. But the account of the discovery does not speak of the
presence of this cover, or of the requirement to pry the hiding place open.
If the cover had been in place, would the workmen have allowed themselves
to remove it, without informing Saunière of their find?”
All of these observations are perfectly in line with what we would expect to find when confronted with a relic box, specifically at that time – either Carolingian times, from which this pillar dates (even though it is often called Visigothic), or the 14th century, when a rededication ceremony might have occurred. At the time, the relic box was indeed cemented into place.
Confirming our own conclusions
we have come full circle with the observations written in the article on
the baluster, from which we can quote wholesale: “What could have
been the purpose of this small cavity inside the pillar? Before thinking
this must be the hiding place of the Holy Grail, let us note that this was
most likely the location where a relic was stored. Indeed, it was customary
that every church had a relic linked with it, which was normally stored
in or near the altar. As this hollow was in a pillar that was part of the
altar, we thus would have found the location where the relic was hidden
– or rather: placed. In the absence of a ‘real relic’
belonging or believed to belong to some saint, it often involved some text
or gift to do with the inauguration or dedication of the church. Of course,
the cavity could contain both. Let us note that if this hollow was used
to receive a relic, the hollow is then given the name of ‘tomb’.
Of course, do we need to note what Saunière wrote on his model, when
he wrote about the ‘Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea’ and the ‘Tomb
of Jesus”’? It is also known as ‘capsa’, which is
the name de Sède used in his books.
Let us also note that if this indeed contained a relic, one which may have been found by the workmen, then it would have been ‘bon ton’ for Saunière to have reinserted it into a ‘capsa’ of the new altar. And, indeed, Saunière might if not should be expected to have added perhaps a further ‘gift’ to his ‘capsa’, such as identifying in what year he would have changed the old altar for the new.”
With additional material provided by André Douzet