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Société Périllos ©

Lyonese friends
Part 1: Books, treasure and secret societies


Books, books, books

Did Saunière go to the Rhone-Alpes region? If he went to Paris, he could only have used the train, which would make compulsory stops at the big stations, including Lyon-Perrache.
To house his library, Saunière built the Tour Magdala, at the edge of his estate. It has become the best-known “billboard” for his mystery. Bérenger Saunière’s library may have been interesting and of an excellent standard, but it was neither unique of its kind nor an invaluable reference source to the point of being catalogued and sought after by all the book professionals. The most interesting aspect about his library is that after his death, a part of Saunière’s library was bought by a Lyonnaise bookshop, Derain-Raclet, at that time in the rue Bossuet. On the works recovered at Derain of Lyon, each book supports on one given page (always the same one, at least for the found books) a capital letter, a number, the signature of B.S. and “BS” interlaced around a kind of rising cross. Each time, it is traced with a feather, not as a stamp. The books also state their owner: “Francois Bérenger Saunière Prêtre à Aude, ville de Rennes-le-Château.”
Three books were recovered:
- La Prophétie des Papes attribuée à S. Malachie, The Papal Prophecy attributed to St Malachias, by abbé Joseph Maitre;
- Histoire des Grandes Forêts de la Gaule et de l’Ancienne France, History of the Great Forests of Gaul and Ancient France, by L.F. Alfred Maury;
- Monumens celtiques. Ou Recherches sur le Culte des Pierres. Précédées d’une notice sur les Celtes et sur les Druides, et suivies d’étymologies celtiques (Celtic Monuments. Or Researchers on the Cult of the Stones. Preceded by a note on the Celts and the Druids and followed by Celtic etymology), by M. Camby.
Another book-dealer from the same city, Gacon, bought some of the other books from Saunière’s estate. This is somewhat strange, for Saunière’s relative notoriety was apparently local to Rennes-le-Château and surrounding villages. He was totally unknown to the public at large and therefore, it would seem, Lyonnaise book-dealers. How did this priest come to the attention of Lyonnaise book-dealers? The answer was that Saunière visited the city on numerous occasions. This was an entirely new angle to the mystery of the village priest.

Historical background

Clos de St Georges

Lyon was the capital of Gaul, the Lugdunum of the Romans. It was also the esoteric capital of France, with labyrinths below the ground, ancient catacombs, etc. It is said that one could walk through the city using these routes, rather than the streets above. It was in Lyon on November 14, 1305, that Bertrand de Got was crowned Pope, taking the name of Clement V. It was on the outskirts of Lyon where large amounts of Knights Templar were never arrested two years later, as they were unusually absent from their Templar preceptories, when Nogaret made his arrests. The Templar area of Lyon, called Clos de St Georges, was larger than the Temple of Paris.
Lyon was at one time the financial centre of France, was almost the capital of France, and hence also had a large population of foreigners, including Jews, who were mostly located in the “Quartier St Paul”. In 1621, Severt wrote how the Jews were chased from the city of Lyon on July 22, 1311, the feast-day of Mary Magdalene. Many more persecutions were to follow, each time followed by rumours how they had left large amounts of money and important jewels about: being bankers and jewellers at the same time, it is clear that each persecution had a monetary aspect to it.


One local legend claims that an important treasure trove was located at house number 23, rue de la Juiverie. It is claimed that a gigantic diamond, said to have been treasured by Catherine de Medici and Francis I, was located behind one of the two heads of the lions, decorating the exterior of the house.
More intriguing is that number 21 was designed and decorated by Philibert Delorme. This renowned architect had constructed the castle of Falaise, but more intriguingly, was also the architect who had constructed the “Château des Loups”, of the Lupé family, the counts of Forez.

Rue de la Juiverie

In the archives of the city of Lyon one can find the old maps of number 21, showing the existence of three subterranean levels, the lowest level opening up into galleries that go below the river Saone and to the old Templar quarters, and then onwards in the direction of the old church of Ainay. It is also known that Nostradamus came to Lyon on several occasions. In 1547, he tried to control an outbreak of the plague, together with the writer Francois Rabelais, the author of Gargantua. Rabelais was a member of an esoteric society called Agla, which originated from another association, the Société Angelique. Certain chronicles suppose that Nostradamus had access in the rue de la Juiverie to certain documents, old books, and that these allowed him to write his famous “centuries”.
What was this treasure supposed to be? When Bertrand de Got was crowned pope, the procession was hit by drama when, merely some metres from the St John the Baptist Cathedral, a wall collapsed under the weight of the people attending the procession. The king, Philip le Bel, was slightly injured, some members of the papal and royal family died, but the pope, though fallen, was not injured. His papal tiara was discovered soon enough, but its largest diamond, said to be worth 6000 florins, was lost. Was this the diamond later claimed to be linked to house number 21?

Saunière in Lyon

Did Saunière visit this house or walk this street? The answer seems to be a remarkable “yes”. It was a Lyonnaise collector of old papers, Laurent Brannant, who acquainted André Douzet with a number of documents relating to the Rennes-le-Château affair.
Remarkably, these papers were not all addressed to his residence in Rennes-le-Château. Some were addressed to a house in the rue des Macchabées, in Lyon! Indeed, Saunière had correspondence addressed to him to a house in Lyon.
In the 1930s, in a house just some numbers away from Saunière’s address, lived Count Jean de Czarnomski, who wrote the book “Clé ouvrant le mystère de la pierre cubique”, “The Key opening the Mystery of the Cube”, in 1936. But this is definitely a coincidence.

Rue des Macchabées, the building where Saunière rented a room.

The lot of “old papers” can be divided in two categories: documents, both printed and hand-written, relating to a symbolic philosophy and others meant especially for affiliates of a society relating only to the town of Lyon. The second category are local correspondence, like short laconic letters relating to this society, six letters received from people living in the Rhone-Alpes region, thirteen various invoices, two of which are for photographic material, very technical for the period and definitely for a village priest. This category also holds a letter from a goldsmith, a certain Jean Soulier, rue Victor Hugo, in Lyon, and another letter from a dealer in precious stones, a certain D. Coindre, cours Viton, also in Lyon. It is clear that Saunière did his shopping in Lyon. But it is difficult to discuss these last two letters as we do not have the contents of Saunière’s letters that provoked the responses in our possession.


One of the letters he received at his Lyon address came from a correspondent called Montepellierain. The subject of these letters is Maguelonne, an island off the coast of Montpellier. Saunière seems to have requested details about discoveries made on the island, as well as an overview of its history. The island was once the Southern version of Mont Saint Michel, hosting an impressive cathedral dedicated to St Peter.
Saunière seemed particularly interested in the discoveries made by De Moutan, who had analysed the origins of the name Maguelonne. De Moutan had stated that the name was connected to Mary Magdalene. According to certain sources, Magalo in the language of the Provence would mean Magdalene. Local legends state that it was on this island that Mary Magdalene came ashore, whereas the rest of her party sailed further, eventually disembarking in Saintes Marie de la Mere, the traditional disembarking point.
De Moutan wrote about a discovery that occurred in 1812 when local stonecutters discovered a cave, in which clear traces of human occupation were found, as there were steps leading down. Inside, he found certain tools, but also a statue of a woman with hair reaching the ground, holding in one hand a cup and a cylinder in the other hand. De Moutan apparently did not link this statue with the depictions of Mary Magdalene, who was said to be clothed but by her hair, that had reached the length of her body.


A document dating from 1477 claims that Maguelonne was the name of a woman, the daughter of the king of Naples, becoming the wife of Peter, count of the Provence. They eloped, first to Septimania, later to Maguelonne, where the lovers fell asleep on the shore. Peter observed a bird and decided to follow him, thus reaching Egypt, where he became friends with a sultan. In France, Maguelonne tried to find her husband, but finally concluded he was most likely dead and therefore founded a hospital in the city that carried her name. Seven years later, Peter returned, but discovered that his wife was now celibate and therefore decided he would only visit her every seven years.
An unbelievable story, but perhaps hinting at something else, for in the language of the Provence, Magalouno means Venus. De Moutan’s private collection contained several statues of Venus that he had discovered on the island. If Peter was a substitute for the planet Saturn, then perhaps the seven year cycle would make sense, for Venus and Saturn are in conjunction every seven years.
A suburb of Maguelonne was called Villeneuve-les-Maguelone, which originally was called Ste Marie Magdeleine d’Euxynte, officially named after the wife of a Greek colonist from the 4th Century B.C.
Maguelone also had a cave, the cave of Magdalene, even though the true name of this cave is “the cave of the Baume”. De Moutan believed that this cave previously had several levels and that it possibly even contained buildings.
Was this location the inspiration for Saunière’s depiction of Mary Magdalene in a cave? Did Saunière believe this was the true location of Mary Magdalene’s final resting place?

Venus, not Mary Magdalene

A literal interpretation as to how the mystery of Rennes-le-Château is linked with Mary Magdalene has become trendy, specifically after the publication of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”. But at the same time, far less-known research has shown that sites that became linked with Mary Magdalene in the South of France, specifically along the Mediterranean coast, were in origin sites where the goddess Venus was worshipped. When the Church gained its foothold in the region, the pagan sanctuaries were converted, and were now dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. That certain authors argue that Mary Magdalene is hence closely related to Venus, if not the Egyptian goddess Isis, is to be expected: it was intentional, as was the choice of July 22 as her feast-day, a date that fell at the time of the year when the Isis festivals, a religion that was a main competitor to Christianity, were held.
Saunière may thus have been searching for Mary Magdalene, but perhaps we should not interpret this as a search for “body” of Mary Magdalene, but perhaps a “body of knowledge” about her ancient sanctuaries?

The Pilat region

The Pilat region is about sixty kilometres from Lyon. If Saunière visited this region, he must have had an independent means of transport adapted to the region, if he went there from Lyon. Invoices that were recovered, speak for themselves: they attest to Saunière having recourse to a local means of transport, fairly speedy for the time, to move from the Lyon area: a horse-drawn vehicle.
The documents are for two such vehicles, one used for different purposes than the other, reserved at his disposal for quite long periods of time. The conditions do not say what the vehicles may be used for – just like any rental agreement today. The agreement considers that the vehicle “may be used at the discretion of the client”, who then does not have to justify the details of his journeys.

According to the first invoice, Saunière hired a horse drawn wagon in May and June 1898, then again in September 1898 and finally from April to July 1899. The second invoice is for several days in May 1900 and a day in June of the same year.
This does not, however, mean Saunière was in Lyon all that time. Probably, he was only there for a few days. But precise dates are impossible to establish now.

But perhaps Saunière visited the city more frequently, for it is quite possible these two invoices are not the only invoices that existed – or might exist elsewhere. Too much interpretation based on these documents might therefore introduce errors in the conclusions. But they are undeniable proof of the fact that Saunière was present in Lyon, near the Pilat Massif, and that Saunière was interested in visiting the countryside, for he hired a horse-drawn vehicle. So he wanted to go somewhere from Lyon. The Pilat seems, in light of the above, the most logical solution.


Saunière’s records, including his expenses, were discovered upon Marie’s death. Claire Corbu and Antoine Captier, in “The Heritage of Abbé Saunière”, state how the period between 1898 and 1900 were “quiet years”. In 1897, Saunière had finished the redecoration of the church in Rennes-le-Chateau, and in 1901, he started the plans for his domain, the Villa Bethania. Those two years were taken up by “a few bills for wine and a large one for window glass, which, as usual, he delayed paying”. He did begin to buy up the land around the presbytery in Marie’s name, pulling down the ruined cottages and using the stones for his grotto. But it is clear that his primary interest was elsewhere, and the “Lyon episode” fills in this “quiet” episode of his known life neatly. It is clear that he kept the Lyon episode strictly separate from his “Rennes-le-Chateau” life, with most likely only Marie knowing the whereabouts of her master.

More documents

There are more documents, showing Saunière had a strange interest in exotic photographic equipment. Amongst the lot are two letters. The first is dated July 26, 1899, comes from a shop called L. Joux, rue Denfert-Rochereau in Paris, and is merely a catalogue with prices of what they have on offer. The second is dated July 29, 1899, from a photographic specialist shop, J. Zion, in Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, also in Paris, and is much more precise, as it answers to questions posed by Saunière.
It provides details about photographic objectives, not commonly used by amateur photographers. It gives details on “rectilinear objectives”. Such material was only used by professionals, people involved in geometry or cartography. There are also details about “long distance binoculars” which seem to be very rare as the photographic shop says they can only provide them after they have ordered them themselves.
All of this material fits nicely in what Jean-Luc Chaumeil had concluded several years before these documents were found: “The priest made several voyages. His absences lasted, each time, about a week. We know he spent some time in the Perpignan area, that he came down to the hotel of Eugène Castel, that he took the greatest precaution to make people believe he had not left his parish, particularly by sending to his superiors letters he had composed previously and which his servant, during his absence, posted from the village of Couiza.”


This makes it clear that Saunière’s activities in Lyon were not linked to tourism or even religion. The address in Lyon to which correspondence was sent was no doubt used because he did not want to see certain letters arrive in Rennes-le-Château. And perhaps it was because he did not want to make those people in Paris make a connection with him, “Saunière of Rennes-le-Château”?
This was strange in itself, for Saunière was not afraid to ask Parisian photographic studios to create postcards of his estate and the countryside. Such requests were done from Rennes-le-Château. So he could even feign a sudden interest in photography, based on the fact that the photographers came to make those postcards and he became interested himself. But no, he used the Lyon address for the ordering of this equipment, equipment which later would disappear, for there is no trace of it to be found anywhere – nor is it mentioned anywhere, which is, of course, not so strange knowing that Saunière took great pains to make sure no-one knew about his activities. It was literally a hidden life, a secret life, of the village priest. But why?

André Douzet

20 march 2008

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