Last week, I reviewed the Forbidden History fourth season episode on the Knights Templar, and today I follow that up with a review of the next episode of the fourth season, “The Real Mary Magdalene.” If the topic sounds familiar, it’s because the show already covered Holy Bloodline conspiracies in other episodes (specifically S01E03, un-reviewed by me), and because the topic has been the subject of almost every fringe history series broadcast since 2003. But since the Templar episode repeated content and ideas first seen in the first season episode on the Knights Templar, it seems that Forbidden History has entered Ancient Aliens territory, recycling old material with slight variations to justify another hour of TV. This is sad because Forbidden History has so few episodes (just six per season) that there is no reason to recycle topics quite this much. Worse, in 2013 the show had host Jamie Theakston conclude that there was no truth to the Holy Bloodline claims. Made the fool, he now presides over an episode that simply assumes the Bloodline myth to be true. On the plus side, it gave Theakston an excuse for a nice vacation in the south of France
At this point in the show’s run, it goes without saying that the episode was boring, for all the reasons I outlined last week. While this episode gave Theakston a bigger speaking role and a more active presence, he offered no opinions, or thoughts, or conclusions (at least in the American version airing on AHC), and was pretty much a non-entity, seeming to appear on the show mostly because he was under contract and the producers seemed to feel the need to justify the expense. But while the show was boring, this episode was also uncomfortably slow. Segments crawled along at such a snail’s pace that I was genuinely surprised to see that most of the hour had gone by before the show actually produced anything by way of real content.
As with previous episodes, the usual cast of talking heads have been heavily scripted, and the producers make the strange choice to use the verbatim phrases coming from each head’s mouth, such as when multiple pundits speak of the New Testament and say that “you never hear about Mary that much” in the text, thus justifying the use of extracanonical Gospels and medieval hearsay to fill in the details. This is the kind of show where the “experts” seem to know less than the viewers, and Linda Papadopoulos seems particularly ignorant, pronouncing the “t” in “apostle” prominently and incorrectly, as though the word were “a postal.”
It is probably sad testament to the success of The Da Vinci Code (2003) as propaganda that it no longer feels shocking or even interesting to hear breathless pundits whisper that Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene or that they may have had a secret Grail child. Between all the Da Vinci Code knockoffs, the fringe history shows of the last decade like America Unearthed, and even hit TV series like Preacher, it’s such a common conspiracy that it doesn’t really move the needle. It doesn’t even feel particularly transgressive to hear the pundits speculate about whether Christ died on the cross (since they just did that in the last episode) or whether Mary brought either the living or dead Christ to France with her. The only frisson of transgression in the whole episode came when the team of dunces decided to speculate that Mary Magdalene might have been the real Messiah, and Christ a hired dupe used to gain entry into a sexist society that wouldn’t accept a female leader. This claim, which was never explored in any detail, at least had the courage to offer a blasphemous revision that might have justified an otherwise pointless rehashing of circa-2003 Da Vinci Code material. Yes, I know that show regular Lynn Picknett had written on the topic before Dan Brown, and was in fact one of his sources, but at this far remove from events, we are talking about a subject that has been gone over so many times since 2003 that this whole episode just felt like an hour out of time, a lost special feature from a Chinese bootleg of the Code movie.
It dawns on me that even at this late point in the review, I haven’t really spoken of the content of the episode, and I suppose that’s because there is hardly any to speak of. The program falls into the Ancient Aliens fallacy of assuming that a story is prima facie true by dint of being old. To that end, almost the entirety of the episode is given over to retelling the medieval legend from Provence that Mary Magdalene fled the Holy Land after Jesus’ death and made her home near Marseilles, where she lived in a grotto for thirty years performing miracles. After her death, different churches and abbeys fought over her remains, and a skull purporting to belong to her is on display at one of the churches.
This story is best known from the Golden Legend, and the show cites the story from what they call The Book of the Saints (presumably the Golden Legend or one of its antecedents), but that is exactly as far as they took their research. Given the slack pacing of the episode, there was plenty of room to delve into the major sources of the story, going back to its earliest appearance, in Sigebert of Gembloux, Chronicon sive Chronographia, entry for 745 CE (1111 or 1112 CE): “A persecution having arisen after the stoning of Stephen proto-martyr, Maximinus, one of the seventy disciples of Christ, crossing to Gaul, took Mary Magdalene with him. Furthermore, he buried her body in the city of Aix, over which he presided. Verily, the city of Aix was despoiled by the Saracens, so the body of Mary herself was transferred by Gerard, count of Burgundy, to the monastery of Vézelay, which had been constructed by him. And yet some people write that this woman rests in Ephesus, having no covering over her” (my trans.). The reason for not citing key sources is twofold: First, acknowledging that the only sources are medieval undercuts the claim that the story is ancient, and, second, to cite the oldest source is to raise an issue the show refuses to acknowledge: that there was an older, competing story about what happened to Mary Magdalene that was believed across Christendom before the people of southern France invented a new one, namely, that Mary Magdalene retired to Ephesus where she died and was buried. Eastern sources refer to it throughout the Middle Ages (e.g. Modestus in Photius, Biblioteca 275), but, crucially, it was also the accepted story in the West for centuries before anyone fantasized that Mary Magdalene lived in France (Gregory of Tours, In gloria martyrum 1.30). In sum, the French legend is a local story promoted to global phenomenon by modern pop culture.
“For someone that important, you’d know where they were when they died,” Andrew Gough said in defense of the claim that the skull on display at St. Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume is the woman’s actual cranium. And yet somehow Gough is unaware, or unwilling to admit, that the Orthodox Church has a very different, and more ancient, view than that of the Catholic Church.
Such is life. Gough has a vendetta against the Catholics, the kind of paranoid anti-Catholic conspiracy-mongering that is common enough in Protestant countries like England and historically Protestant-dominated countries like America, but which would seem bizarre in Catholic countries. In fact, at one point, Gough praises fringe history believers for venerating the “real” Mary Magdalene (i.e. the imaginary feminist icon and radical religious leader created through modern readings of Gnostic texts) as a blow against Catholicism and patriarchy. He literally says “Take that, Catholic Church.” Perhaps he is unaware that Protestant churches share much of the same theology of the Magdalene. The various talking heads express their hope that someday the West will dump Jesus as Messiah and worship Mary Magdalene as Goddess on Earth. It almost put a smile on my face to see the way the more secular and less socially conservative British production longs for a feminist faith that American media would never openly espouse for fear of alienating angry religious conservatives, who are in this country a huge audience for history conspiracies.
The show’s greatest failing, though, is its failure to recognize its own “forbidden” history. The show might be living the Code, but officially it pretends that its history of the Magdalene comes from the “decades” of research that Lynn Picknett put into rewriting The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail—sorry—publishing her “two bestselling books” on Mary Magdalene. This made me a bit sad since Picknett spent decades to produce nothing of note about the Holy Bloodline. She has no major discoveries or incontrovertible proof of her conspiracies, even after so many years of searching. Her most important contribution was to have written the fact-free conspiracy volume that Dan Brown used for The Da Vinci Code. In attempting to credit Picknett, the show neglects to trace the history of its fictitious version of Mary Magdalene, especially to Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and back still further to the book that they have unintentionally adapted almost point for point, Louis Martin’s The Gospels without God, a French volume that was the first to lay out exactly the case presented here. The author extolled the same Provencal legends, visited the same churches, and made the same allegation that the Magdalene had transported Jesus’ body to France and had born Christ’s child. To acknowledge this would be to admit that the story they have spun is no ancient legend but the creation of a particular person in France at a known date, and therefore almost certainly false.
Picknett accidentally gives the game away when she explains that the myth she promotes of Mary Magdalene as goddess, Messiah, feminist icon, and superwoman is important because it is meaningful to her own personal mythology: “I will never stop trying to tell the story. […] It has enormous significance for someone like me.” What she means is that she wants the legend she adapted to be true because it reflects her own values and beliefs, and that, ultimately, is the whole point of fringe history: to rewrite the past in our own image and to project onto it a better version of reality, one in which our own values and hopes and dreams reign supreme.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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