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IMC 2006: Sessions

Session 1710: The Da Vinci Code versus Medieval Studies: Facts, Fiction, and False Leads

Thursday 13 July 2006, 14.00-16.30

Organiser:Axel E. W. Müller, Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds
Moderator/Chair:Richard Barber, Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge

The Da Vinci Code was first published in 2003; since then, more than an estimated 40,000,000 copies have been printed worldwide (over 4,000,000 copies alone were sold in the UK last year). In 2005, the novel was within the top three highest selling fictional works in more than 20 countries. This fictional thriller, which supposes a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene that produced a royal bloodline in France, is one of the most popular and controversial novels of our time. Along the way, it has sparked debates about the legitimacy of Western and Christian history. The Da Vinci Code begins with a spectacular murder in the Louvre. All clues allegedly point to a covert religious organisation that will stop at nothing to protect a secret that appears to threaten the overthrow of 2,000 years of accepted dogma.

The novel touches upon some of Western culture’s greatest so-called ‘mysteries’: from the Priory of Sion, the Knights Templar, and Opus Dei, to Mona Lisa’s smile and the Holy Grail. Since the publication of the book, rarely a week goes by without yet another ground-breaking TV/radio programme on ‘deciphering/breaking/decoding/uncovering/cracking The Da Vinci Code’. In May 2006, a feature length film based on the novel is scheduled to be released. Directed by Ron Howard, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is brought to the big screen with a cast headed by Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Sir Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina, and Jean Reno.

Many medievalists are contacted by students, staff, the media, and the general public about some of the points raised in the novel. For medievalists, this raises the question of The Da Vinci Code’s relation to the public perception of history - of how this partially-factual history impinges on professional historiography.

Since publication of The Da Vinci Code, visitor numbers have risen sharply at all sites mentioned in the novel: from Rosslyn Chapel to the Louvre, and from Westminster Abbey to the church of St Sulpice, Paris. The novel has also inspired a plethora of Da Vinci-esque publications, both fictional and non-fictional. It seems that the book has rekindled in the public a fascination for all things medieval.

Due to limited time, this round table will be unable to answer all the questions raised by the book’s publication. Its aims will be to look behind some of the claims made in the novel, to provide an academic response to a work of fiction, and above all to explore how enthusiasm has changed attitudes to academic history by replacing it with an alternative version which the public cannot distinguish from the real thing.

Participants of this round table include Malcolm C. Barber (Professor of Medieval European History, Department of History, University of Reading, and author of The New Knighthood. A History of the Order of the Temple and Crusaders and Heretics, Twelfth to Fourteenth Centuries), Richard Barber (Publisher, Boydell & Brewer, and author of The Holy Grail: The History of a Legend), Andrew Prescott (Professor of History and Director of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry, University of Sheffield), and Helen Weinstein (Historian and BBC Producer and Broadcaster).