In 1891, Bérenger Sauniere, curé of Rennesle-Château, a remote village in the Cevennes, discovered hidden in the structure of his church four parchments, two of them written in the 18th century and partly in code, two earlier and containing genealogies (still not published). There were references to Dagobert II, the Merovingian king, to Sion, and to treasure said to be Merovingian. The consequences of the discovery were odd. Saunière was sent to Paris with the two documents, and came into contact with some leading figures in the literary and artistic world, all of whom were interested in the occult. He became suddenly very wealthy: shortly before his death he was visited by a Hapsburg Archduke who transferred to him a large sum of money. Accused of simony by his bishop, he was exonerated by the Vatican; on his death-bed he was refused extreme unction. In the 13th century this part of the Cevennes had been the centre of the Cathar or Albigensian movement, and the Cathar fortress of Montségur with its reputed treasure - in some accounts said to have included the Grail - was not far away; a neo-Cathar movement had sprung up in neighbouring Carcassonne and Saunière was in touch with it. It was clear that more than treasure was involved. There was a mystery of interest to a number of different people, and it looked as if Saunière was an agent for some group.
LRB 4 March 1982 | PDF Download