Rennes-le-Château is a small village perched on a hilltop near Couiza in the Aude. It has become world famous in the last few years following the publication of a series of books. These books are about a mystery concerning the village, and a nineteenth century priest, Abbé Beranger Saunière, who lived there.
In a region that has been in decline for generations most villages in the Languedoc in Southern France are quiet, sleepy places. For most of the year you can see people sitting or standing around the village chatting. In our village it is easy to spend a whole day in conversation with knots of people around the village enjoying the cool shade. The occasional hiker passes through, but no other tourists, not even in high summer.
A few villages around here throb with life, but there is always a good reason for them to differ from the norm. One is Rennes-le-Château. It is a village of less than ninety voting inhabitants, perched on top of a remote hill, with only one road leading to and from it. It's an unlikely place to find three restaurants, a museum, a bookshop, and a parking area for coaches. Unlike most other villages, it sports notices everywhere announcing that digging is prohibited. Clearly there is something special about this place.
Fifteen hundred years ago it was a thriving city of 20,000, perhaps 30,000 inhabitants. It was then a huge walled city, a Visigothic capital, the administrative centre of a vast area now called the Razès. It was a sister-city to Carcassonne, the largest walled city remaining in Europe. Rennes suffered a longer period of decline than most villages here - well over a millennium. It was not until a local historian carried out some detailed research barely a hundred years ago that anyone realised that this sleepy little village was sitting on the remnants of a mighty city. Archaeologists later confirmed the historian's detective work.
Tourists flock here by the thousand every year. But not because of the village's extraordinary history. Most of them come and go without ever hearing anything that historians or archaeologists know about the place. They are attracted by another story altogether. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the priest of this little community, whose official stipend amounted to the equivalent of some £5 per year, suddenly became very rich. He refurbished his church at great cost, if in questionable taste. He built a splendid new house, and the present road up to the village, and a tower to provide drinking water to everyone in the village, and a folly to house his personally library. Where did the money come from? His bishop tried to find out, but without success. Nasty minded sceptics like me suspect that he had been robbing graves, but this is one of the more conservative theories. Over the years many other, less prosaic, theories have been put forward. The whole thing took off in the 1970s, long after the priests' death. Books were written in French and then in English about the mystery. Television programmes were made. One book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail sold millions. Visitors started coming to see for themselves.
Theories became ever more fanciful. The priest had been selling Black Masses. He had discovered historical documents so damaging to the Church that he had been paid off by the Vatican. He had discovered buried treasure while rooting around under the ancient high altar. The question of where treasure might have come from opened new vistas for active imaginations. It was King Solomon's treasure taken from the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, later stolen from Rome by the Visigoths and brought to this remote capital for safekeeping. According to some, this treasure included the Ark of the Covenant. Alternatively, the treasure was a secret cache smuggled out of the Cathars' final stronghold in the thirteenth century shortly before its owners were burned alive. This stronghold at Montsegùr is reputed to a have been the original Grail Castle, so obviously the treasure would have included the Holy Grail. Yet another possibility was that it was the treasure of the Knights Templar, hidden there in the early fourteenth century when the King of France tried to seize the Templars' fabulous wealth for himself.
There is still a thriving industry in inventing theories, then writing books to justify them. In English a new one is published every year, and there are more in French, German, Dutch and other languages. The theories become ever more improbable, so if you come across the latest book about "The "Rennes-le-Château Mystery", prepare yourself to read about space aliens, astral maps, Atlantis, and time travellers. Many of those who believe the hidden treasure theories also believe, for reasons that I've never heard articulated, that more treasure is buried in the same village. That is why those signs were put up warning that digging is illegal. A few years ago treasure hunters were turning up with picks and spades, setting about public roads and undermining private buildings. Locals would wake up in the morning to find holes in their gardens, sometimes disturbingly large ones. Treasure hunters even tried excavating the graveyard - too late according to my theory.
The village attracts many ordinary tourists, but also a steady stream of unconventional personalities: treasure diviners, occultists, spiritualists, New Agers and people claiming to be reincarnated. A surprising number of the male claimants turn out to be reincarnations of John the Baptist, and the female ones of Mary Magdalene. I'm not sure why their gender carries over from their previous lives, nor why these two particular characters are so favoured. It's just a fact of life in these parts. Not long ago a reincarnated Mary Magdalene met a reincarnated John the Baptist. When they failed to recognise each other from their previous lives, they each deduced that the other must be an impostor and they displayed no inhibitions about saying so. I'm sorry to say that it all ended in violence, with Mary Magdalene wrestling John the Baptist to the ground. It's not what the nearby coach-full of American tourists came to see, but it does help to explain why this village is so different from its sleepy neighbours.
Cynical locals are now waiting for a reincarnated Herod and his family to turn up. If they ever do, John could find himself in real trouble.
JdeSt-F © 2004,2005.
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