comparing the historical evidence to the claims of a fictional novel?
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
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: 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
Interviewer: This is a novel ... If you were writing
it as a non-fiction book, would it have been different?
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.
later, on NBC's The Today Show Brown was pushing the same message:
How much of this is based on reality in terms of things that actually
Dan Brown: Absolutely all of it.
(Today Show, June 9, 2003)
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
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.
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.