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Why bother comparing the historical evidence to the claims of a fictional novel?

Because the author has insisted its historical background is entirely factual and well researched and a great many of his readers have come to believe him.

Historians, on the other hand, do not regard his theory or his 'research' as legitimate at all

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Why bother comparing the historical evidence to the claims of a fictional novel? It's FICTION!!

There's no doubt that the novel is fiction. Robert Langdon, Sophie, Teabing and the other characters do not exist and the events and action in the story are purely imaginary. But it's not the story or the characters that have caused confusion and controversy; it's the novel's 'historical background'.

Many readers enjoyed The Da Vinci Code purely as a mystery thriller. Others, however, also enjoyed the historical discussions and digressions Langdon and Teabing have with Sophie, especially those that were integral to the plot. Right from the novel's first publication, reviewers and readers alike mentioned how 'well researched' the book was, how much they learned from it and how it opened their eyes to aspects of history they had not been aware of before.

The novel itself and the way it was marketed strongly encouraged readers to take this historical information seriously and emphasised that it was factual and reliable. Brown begins the novel with the word 'FACT', followed by strong assertions about the 'Priory of Sion' and the clear claim that 'All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.' In the text of the novel itself, both Langdon and Teabing make regular references to 'historians', 'experts' and academics' who have studied the topics they discuss and 'agree' with the conclusions these characters present. Langdon's status as a 'Harvard professor' is constantly emphasised, as is Teabing's position as a 'Royal historian'.

But the real encouragement for the reader to take the novel's historical background material seriously came in the initial publicity Brown's publishers generated, the way the book was marketed and some explicit statements by Brown himself. In the months after the novel was published, Brown gave a number of high profile interviews in which he stressed that, while the story was pure fiction, the novel's historical background was solidly researched, well-founded, legitimate and factual.

On May 25, 2003, Brown gave an interview on CNN with anchorman Martin Savidge:

Savidge: When we talk about da Vinci and your book, how much is true and how much is fabricated in your storyline?
Brown: 99 percent of it is true. All of the architecture, the art, the secret rituals, the history, all of that is true, the Gnostic gospels. All of that is … all that is fiction, of course, is that there's a Harvard symbologist named Robert Langdon, and all of his action is fictionalized. But the background is all true.

In an ABC TV special around the same time, Brown was asked a similar question;

Interviewer: This is a novel ... If you were writing it as a non-fiction book, would it have been different?

Brown: I don't think it would have. I began the research for The Da Vinci Code as a skeptic. I entirely expected, as I researched the book to disprove this (Jesus/Mary Magdalene/Grail) theory. And after numerous trips to Europe and about two years of research I really became a believer. I decided this theory makes more sense to me than what I learnt as a child.

Several months later, on NBC's The Today Show Brown was pushing the same message:

Matt Lauer: How much of this is based on reality in terms of things that actually occurred?"
Dan Brown: Absolutely all of it.

(Today Show, June 9, 2003)

The marketing of The Da Vinci Code capitalised not only on its thriller plot and its puzzles, but also on the idea that it was well researched and that its background was entirely factual. Many early reviewers accepted this marketing hype without question. The Boston Globe called it 'a delightful display of erudition', the Rocky Mountain News said it 'manages to both entertain and educate simultaneously', The Mystery Reader said it incorporates 'massive amounts of historical and academic information', Publisher's Weekly called it 'exhaustively researched' and the Chicago Tribune enthused that it contained 'several doctorates' worth of fascinating history and learned speculation.'

In a similar way, readers and fans were soon enthusiastically declaring Brown's research impeccable and the 'history' they learned from the novel eye-opening and astounding. A review on Amazon.com has a reader from New York proclaim 'the research is correct. The historical events and people explored in the book are real' . Readers' reviews on Amazon and other bookseller sites talked repeatedly about the solid research, the 'amazing facts' and the ground breaking historical insights of the novel, with many talking almost reverently about how it changed their view of history.

Recent surveys of readers' attitudes to the historical information confirm that a large proportion of them accept Dan Brown's information almost without question. On June 23rd 2005 the National Geographic Society released a survey of readers of The Da Vinci Code which revealed 32% of 1005 readers agreed with the novel's claim that Jesus founded a 'bloodline' which is protected by a secret society to this day. In May 2006 the British pollster Opinion Research Business conducted a similar survey, finding that out of 1000 people surveyed, 60% of readers of the novel believed Jesus had a child by Mary Magdalene, as opposed to 30% of people who had not read the book.

The evidence is clear that many people are not simply reading The Da Vinci Code as merely fiction, but are taking its claims as being well researched, historical and factual.

Does this matter? That depends on how much importance you place on a clear understanding of history. Whether it is to be considered 'important' or not, it does mean that an analysis of whether the novel's historical claims stand up to scrutiny of the evidence is entirely valid. Given the cultural phenomenon that the book has become - with over 40 million copies in print - it is certainly not a trivial issue for those genuinely interested in history and how it is perceived.

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History vs The Da Vinci Code is copyright Tim O'Neill 2006. All rights reserved.