Blood, lore and legend

July 7, 2006

Dan Brown's bestseller is challenging medievalists' thinking, reports Huw Richards

More than 60 million sales of the book worldwide, well over $200 million (£110 million) taken at the box office the weekend the film was released in the US, 102 million search results on Google. Spin-offs, imitations, computer games. It surely cannot be long before some university department offers " The Da Vinci Code - the elective". Indeed, a small American liberal arts college made the book the subject of a summer school-cum-European tour last year.

While cultural studies academics' interest in a phenomenon the size of Dan Brown's novel and the ensuing blockbuster film is self-evident, it poses a significant challenge to another group - medievalists.

The issue will be debated at a round-table session on " The Da Vinci Code v Medieval Studies: Facts, Fiction and False Leads" at this month's International Medieval Congress at Leeds University. The congress is in its 14th year, has 1,400 participants from 45 different countries and claims to to be Britain's largest annual gathering of humanities specialists.

Conference organiser Axel Muller of Leeds' Institute of Medieval Studies says: "Last year, a BBC crew came along for a day to research a programme on the Vikings and ended up staying two and a half days."

Muller devised the session with academic publisher and writer Richard Barber - author of The Holy Grail: The History of a Legend - who will act as moderator. Invited contributors include Malcolm Barber, professor of history at Reading University, and Andrew Prescott, of Sheffield University's Centre for Research into Freemasonry.

There is an element of the exploratory about it. Muller is hoping for an open-ended discussion that might veer towards the potentially polarising elements of blood and religion. One point of interest, he notes, is that the book has appealed to different audiences in different countries. On a recent visit to the US, most of the numerous readers of the book he encountered were Christians, while in Spain and Portugal - with their histories of clerical power - it was read as an attack on those traditions.

Participants seem likely to find common amusement at Brown's depiction of academic life. Prescott is amused that central character Robert Langdon, a Harvard University professor introduced on the first page of chapter one, wakes up at the Paris Ritz. He is also taken by the preposterous, colossally wealthy Sir Leigh Teabing, described as Britain's Historian Royal: "That would be a most acceptable post. And there was in fact a post of Historiographer Royal in the 18th century, held by a Thomas Madox. What Teabing really is, though, is a standard Hollywood character - the upper-class villain." Prescott notes, with a wistful air, that "Brown makes academic research seem much more exciting and esoteric than it is".

Barber contrasts the quality of Brown's research with that of Umberto Eco. "When I read Eco - who incidentally predicted that there would be a book such as The Da Vinci Code - I was aware that he had read everything I had ever written on the Grail and a great deal besides."

Brown has not won many plaudits for his cardboard characterisation or for a prose style that makes Jeffrey Archer look like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But this is to deny the qualities that have brought about those astonishing sales. Muller says: "The book is very clever, a page-turner that does captivate and uses themes such as medieval symbolism and the search for the Holy Grail. Nothing new but things that have always excited people - in a modern setting."

Such stories have a long and often respectable lineage. Veronica Ortenberg, who lectures in history at Northampton and Oxford universities, will not be in Leeds but has a strong interest in the subject. She says: "You can trace this sort of thing back to the Gothic novel, and from Walter Scott to Eco. There are elements of the fantasy fiction of Marion Zimmer-Bradley and Ursula Le Guin and of Tolkien. Conspiracies are in vogue again, hence the entirely deserved popularity of TV drama The X-Files .

"And the Church is always good for being knocked about, in particular groups such as Opus Dei that are not secret but that have secrets they would rather outsiders did not know."

While it seems likely that in time interest in the book may prompt changes in history curriculums, universities have yet to see any direct impact - it is, after all, only three years since it was published. Such interest will undoubtedly come, but Richard Barber fears it will bring little benefit. He says: "The book is such nonsense, such a distance from anything we do, that it is hard to see any real connection being made. Students enthused by The Da Vinci Code are likely to be disappointed."

Ortenberg perceives a decline in historical knowledge as the school curriculum becomes more disjointed.She says: "There is not the knowledge there used to be, even if it was in a dates, and kings, queens and castles way - the history sent up by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman in 1066 and All That but that you needed to know to enjoy 1066 . It isn't there, so stories such as the search for the Holy Grail have no context."

But Prescott does see opportunities and argues that the success of Brown and other authors who have written with varying skill and authority on the Holy Grail reflects a general failing in academic history. "As a rule," he says, "academics are not writing about the things people want to read about. One element in this is the research assessment exercise, which is more interested in things that are known in great detail to four or five people than those that might be of interest to 10,000 or 12,000."

Where there is work of that sort, it is often buried in small-circulation journals or books with little chance of reaching wider audiences. There may be reason for optimism in work by popularisers such as Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. Ortenberg, who says she could not fault the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail on period detail or atmosphere, adds: "I don't know anyone in academe who would fault his work" and cites colleagues who have met Jones working his way, like any academic, through documents in the Public Record Office. Muller concurs, saying Jones's work on the Crusades and Barbarians has, by questioning received versions, helped to combat the generally negative connotations of the word "medieval".

And it should not be assumed that the Grail will remain a best-selling theme for long. Ortenberg argues that there are cycles in enthusiasm for different myths, depending on the times. "Arthurian stories were popular in the Victorian era and the 1950s when people didn't want to talk openly about sex and adultery - in this period, the story of Lancelot and Guinevere was the one that mattered. The Grail comes in when religion and spirituality are more important."

So what will be next? "Given our preoccupation with ecology, it might be the natural world and the dangers to it," Ortenberg says. "My guess would also be that Celtic myths might be due a turn." Somewhere, the Druidical version of Brown is turning on his word processor.

International Medieval Congress, July 10-13, Leeds University.

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