La Librairie des Chercheurs is not your average French bookshop. Nearly all the titles on its shelves address the same subject, and many of them are in English. If I tell you where The Seekers’ Bookshop is located, you may be able to guess what that subject is.
Where did the money come from?
Rennes-le-Château lies 30 kilometres south of Carcassonne. In 1887, its priest began restoring his church, presbytery and cemetery. A decade later, these works had cost Abbé Saunière the equivalent of €4.5 million in today’s money. Where had all this wealth come from, wondered his parishioners? One theory was that their priest had discovered some buried treasure. The bishop of Carcassonne thought otherwise, and in 1910 Abbé Saunière was called before an ecclesiastical court and charged with trafficking masses and indulgences. After a complex succession of legal wranglings during which Abbè Saunière failed to provide a satisfactory explanation for the source of his wealth, he was defrocked in 1915 and died two years later taking his secret to the grave.
As well as financing the restoration works, Abbè Saunière had found enough money to buy various plots of land around the village, and to build himself a luxurious home (the Villa Béthanie) and a Neo Gothic tower which served as his library and place of meditation (the Tour Magdala).
A genius of creative marketing
After the second world war, his estate was acquired by a businessman from Perpignan. Noël Corbu turned it into a hotel-restaurant in 1955, but customers were rare because Rennes-le-Château was isolated on top of a steep hill which could only be reached by a perilous dirt road. A few months later, Monsieur Corbu had a simple but brilliant idea. Like everyone else in the village, he knew all the legends of fabulous treasure. All he had to do was reveal these stories to the outside world and curious visitors would flock to his establishment.
He contacted Albert Salomon at La Dépêche du Midi, and in January 1956 three articles appeared under the series title ‘The fabulous discoveries of the billionaire priest of Rennes-le-Château.’ The final article was called, ‘Monsieur Noël Corbu knows the hiding place of the treasure of Abbè Saunière which is worth up to 50 billion [francs].’
If this claim had been true, Noël Corbu wouldn’t have been wasting his time running a hotel, and he certainly wouldn’t have revealed the whereabouts of his hoard. Nevertheless, within weeks his hotel and restaurant were full.
Noël Corbu had other marketing tricks up his sleeve. In 1958, an article appeared in the local press claiming that Brigitte Bardot had been spotted incognito in the village. The photo was faked using a friend of Corbu’s daughter whose silhouette resembled the risqué actress. Less-famous but genuine French celebrities really did pay a visit, and Johnny Hallyday – France’s answer to Elvis – rang Corbu to book the whole place for him and his band when they were playing in Carcassonne. They were turned down because, despite the potential for publicity, Noël Corbu feared what a bunch of rowdy rockstars might do to his hotel.
The stuff of legends and blockbusters
All buried treasure has to be hidden by someone, so to whom had this mythical hoard first belonged? In the first press article, Corbu claimed it had been the property of Blanche de Castille, the 13th-century queen of Louis VIII. Over the next few decades, a succession of books – first in French then in English – embellished the story with other theories involving the likes of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the Knights Templar, the Merovingian kings and the Cathars. The mystery of Rennes-le-Château was brought to the attention of the English-speaking world in 1982 when Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent, and Richard Leigh wrote ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’. Since then, many other books including Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and Kate Mosse’s ‘Labyrinth’ trilogy have helped sustain the flow of visitors to Rennes-le-Château.
I was there myself a couple of weeks of weeks ago because La Librairie des Chercheurs has agreed to stock my books. Never before have I found myself in such illustrious company, my two tomes rubbing shoulders with works by Henry Lincoln et al, Dan Brown and Kate Mosse.
An unexpected stroke of luck
Unlike Noël Corbu, my marketing coup was due to luck rather than a brainwave. A few weeks earlier, I had given a pre-dinner talk to an association. Several of its members had read and appreciated one or more of my books, and the president has known the owners of La Librairie des Chercheurs for 20 years. With her help, I was able to open the door to the bookshop and clear a space on its shelves. The name of this association? The Saunière Society, founded in 1985 to pursue the mystery of Rennes-le-Château.
If you want to find out more about these mysteries, you might like to become a member of The Saunière Society, or browse the shelves of La Librairie des Chercheurs. If you want something less fanciful, try one of my books.