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Mysteries of the Languedoc
Abbé Bérenger Saunière


Bérenger Saunière was the Curé of Rennes-le-Château in the late nineteenth century. He had been born locally in Montazels in the Aude. His life as Curé (priest) at Rennes-le-Château should have been unremarkable. As it turned out his inexplacable wealth has given rise to a great deal of speculation.

Saunière became priest of Rennes-le-Château in 1885. The village church, dedicated to Mary Magdalene, was almost in ruins when he arrived. He started restoration of the church around 1887. According to legend, when a large stone that served as part of the altar was moved, Saunièree found that a pillar supporting the slab was hollow. Contained in the hollow space were four parchments. Two of them detailed genealogies. The other two contained coded writings that had to be deciphered by experts in Paris. One message was the following: A Dagobert II Roi et a Sion est ce tresor et il est la mort ("To King Dagobert II and to Sion belong this treasure, and he is dead there").

Again according to legend, while he was in Paris, Saunière bought reproductions of paintings, including Nicholas Poussin's The Shepards of Arcadia. This painting, dated 1640, shows people standing close to a sarcophagus with the inscription: Et in Arcadia Ego ("I too was in Arcadia"). It was claimed that the original sarcophagus was sited near Rennes-le-Chateau. According to those with particularly vivid imaginations, the site could be identified by matching the mountains in the background on the painting with the foothills of the pyrenees around Rennes-le-Château.

Work at the church continued. Another stone slab was found under the floor. From now on, the priest began extensive secretive searches of the surrounding area. His restoration programme continued. This time funds seemed limitless. Saunièree bought land in the village and comissioned a number of buildings around his parish church. Among them were a presbytery and domain, including a private library called "Tower of Magdala" honoring Mary Magdalene. He filled the church with new statues and had biblical texts inscribed around the church, including one at the entrance of the church: Terribilis est locus iste ("This place is terrible" (Genesis 28:17)).

According to some, Saunièree found much more than conventional treasure. Buried in his church at Rennes-le-Chateau he found documents confirming ancient traditions that Jesus Christ had come to live in France. And not just Jesus, but also his wife, Mary Magdelene. Further, the document explained that their offsping initiated a dynasty which is known to us as the Merovingian Kings of France.

The coded message "To King Dagobert II and to Sion belongs this treasure, and he is dead there" was interpreted to refer to this. The "treasure," (ie the secret of Jesus's bloodline) belonged to Dagobert II, a Merovingian king, and to the Priory of Sion. "And he is dead there," referred to the tomb containing the body of Jesus - none other than the sepulchre painted by Poussin. Paticularly impressionable people point out that the phrase "Et in Arcadia ego" is an anagram of: "I! Tego arcana dei": "Depart! I hold the secrets of God."

According to some, Saunière, armed with this secret, and the evidence to support it, blackmailed the Vatican to obtain untold amounts of money. Was this where his wealth had come from? According to others, the truth is more prosaic. Saunière did find valuable artifacts during restorations of the church. He noted a discovery in his notebooks. He also kept quiet about it to sell the artifacts and raise money. He also started to excavate around the church, hoping to find more, possibly robbing graves.

During his lifetime, rumours of Saunière's spending had aready started spreading. The local Catholic bishop, the Bishop of Carcassonne, investigated the matter and concluded that Saunière had made his money from "trafficking in Masses," a common activity among nineteenth and early-twentieth-century priests. (Indeed the Bishop himself is known to have been guilty of trafficking in masses). In the Roman Catholic Church, Masses could be, and still can be, celebrated for the benefit of a specific soul, helping it ascend from Purgatory into Heaven. Masses can also be said for the benefit of the living. Before Vatican II priests routinely charged a stipend for each Mass they said. Priests advertised their willingness to celebrate a great number of Masses for both the living and the dead. Although trafficking in masses was clearly Simonaic it was not seriously discouraged. On the other hand, advertising was regarded as unfair competition and was condemned by the Church. If priests failed to celebrate the Masses paid for, the matter was even more serious since it amounted to fraud.

The bishop traced advertisements placed by Saunière in Catholic magazines throughout France and abroad. It became apparent that Saunière could not possibly have celebrated all the Masses he had charged for. He was a fraudster as well as a simonist.

In 1909, the Bishop asked Saunièree to leave Rennes-le-Château. He refused and was suspended from his church duties and privileges. In fact he carried on much as before, living in his domain, and serving his congregation while his official replacement preached in an empty church. He died peniless in 1917. His assets had already been transferred to Marie Denarnaud, his housekeeper, who now lies in a grave adjacent to his.

The name Saunière is also used for the name of a leading character in The Da Vinci Code.

If you want to learn more about these questions from experts like Henry Lincoln, on location in the Languedoc, you might be interested in Templar Quest Tours.


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