Breaking the Code

Portland Historian Sharan Newman Takes Smart, Humorous Look at Fact, Fiction of Popular ‘Da Vinci Code’

In Dan Brown’s best-seller “The Da Vinci Code,” one face of the Catholic sect known as Opus Dei belongs to a rabid albino with murder on his mind and a spiked band gnawing his leg.

In “The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code,” Portland historian Sharan Newman affirms that an Opus Dei guidebook encourages members to share in Christ’s suffering through self- flagellation and other punishing acts.

Newman said that conclusion earned her some nasty letters from people within Opus Dei.

One man in particular was pained by her references to the cilice, which can be a hair shirt or a metal circlet ringed with fish hooks that grip the wearer’s thigh. Not so, the letter-writer said. A member practicing self-denial would be more likely to, say, give up chocolate.

“Maybe that’s true in his group,” Newman said, striving for a vanilla-like neutrality. “But my research indicated that wasn’t the case.”

Nor would it make for much of a suspense novel subplot. Chocolate deprivation would hardly propel the twist-riddled hunt for clues to the Holy Grail chronicled by Brown in “The Da Vinci Code.” The story vaulted to The New York Times best-sellers list and stayed there for more than 125 weeks, got Brown named the 12th most powerful celebrity in the world by Forbes magazine, sent tourists salivating to places mentioned in the book and secured a spot on actor Tom Hanks’ to-do list (he’s starring in the film version now in production).

And without “The Da Vinci Code” (Doubleday, $24.95), Newman would not have spent four months researching and writing “The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code” (Berkeley, $15). She says her mission was to separate fact from legend in Brown’s novel.

“Real History” is arranged in encyclopedic fashion. Alphabetical entries are by person, place, object or event. Its focus is secular, not faith-based.

The Da Vinci Code

So error-laden is The Da Vinci Code that the educated reader actually applauds those rare occasions where Brown stumbles (despite himself) into the truth. […] In the end, Dan Brown has penned a poorly written, atrociously researched mess.
Source: Dismantling The Da Vinci Code By Sandra Miesel, Crisis, Sep. 1, 2003

Brown’s thoughts on her research, if any, are unknown to Newman. She doubts that he’s seen it. In any case, Newman said authors prefer to see errors pointed out while there’s still time to correct them.

“Something that points out his mistakes why would he want to read that?” she said.

Fortunately for her, others do.

Newman will discuss her book, share pictures of relevant locations and take questions on historical references when she visits Vancouver at the end of the month. She’s the featured speaker at the 2005 Authors & Illustrators Dinner to benefit Fort Vancouver Regional Library Foundation.

Booking Newman for the popular fundraiser made sense to Shirley Morgan, the foundation’s marketing director. Morgan said Newman’s “Real History” is a good companion to a tale that’s taken the United States by storm.

Morgan’s confidence appears justified. More than 900 of 1,000 available tickets had been sold as of three weeks before the dinner.

In addition to her academic credentials which include studies in comparative literature, English and medieval history and a doctorate degree in history pending from the University of California at Santa Barbara Newman has creativity on her resume. She’s the author of two collections of historical mysteries.

Newman said she has rewritten plots for her Catherine Levendeur and Guinevere series when she discovered something she assumed about the past was false.

“With her breadth of knowledge and background and research, we felt pretty confident she knew what she was talking about,” Morgan said.

Morgan said Newman also came highly recommended as a speaker: “We feel like (we’ll be) getting history that’s not bare bones or dry, dusty terms.”

Newman certainly writes with spirit and spice. Anyone expecting to yawn through a recital of power struggles in the early years of Christianity might get a wake-up prod upon reading that Saint Boniface “cut down the sacred tree of the Germanic tribes to prove his god was stronger than theirs. Of course they then proved their swords were sharper than his,” and another saint went marching in to martyrdom.

Of artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, identified in “The Da Vinci Code” as a grand master of the Priory of Sion, Newman states “it is difficult to imagine him in the role of the leader of a secret organization. For one thing, his life was an open, if X-rated, book.”

That’s not to say Newman’s fact-finding was undertaken less than seriously. She treads carefully in writing about Opus Dei. As she says in “Real History,” no one who writes about the secretive Catholic sect some call it a cult, others defend it as a legitimate faith is able to do so objectively. Newman gave it a go, however, concluding that what one thinks of the group depends on one’s point of view and personal experience.

It was Newman’s own experience that led her to compiling the chapters that make up “Real History.” Her Web site,, relates that she took on the project after being constantly quizzed as to the truths and artistic license of “The Da Vinci Code.”

Newman credits Brown with weaving myths and bits of history in a clever, unprecedented way. She calls him a skillful storyteller. But she adds Brown committed several errors that could have been easily avoided. In some cases, “looking at a map of Paris would have helped,” she said.

Other transgressions were more rooted in the past.

“The Da Vinci Code” informs readers that 30 million witches were killed in centuries past. Newman says the number would have surpassed the total population of Europe and that the actual figure was closer to 200,000. Brown refers to Godefroi de Bouillon as the French king who founded the Priory of Sion; Newman says Godefroi was the duke of an independent region in France.

The mistakes wouldn’t have been an issue for Newman if Brown had presented his book as just a romping good adventure, she said.

“But when he says right at the beginning that it’s true, and he’s backed down (because of) what’s been shown to be obviously untrue. I think we as writers owe it to readers to be as accurate as possible when we say we are going to be.”

Her opinion appears particularly justified given the heated reactions of churches and lay people who object to Brown’s premise that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and had a child with descendants living today.

Newman, 56, admitted she was a bit hesitant to take on such volatile topics, even from a nonreligious standpoint. But she said she was determined to help people look at the issues with a sense of what history corroborates.

“Beyond that, it has to be faith and you have to draw the line between evidence and belief,” she said.

However much she prizes precision, history to Newman goes beyond a rehashing of dates and data. She said she seeks to find humanity in the people about whom she writes, both as a historian and novelist. “Real History” states that the past is about contradictory, unpredictable, messy people.

“Portraying these as simple and simplistic issues and people kind of does a disservice to them,” she said.

Equally distasteful to Newman is the tendency to assume that no matter how bad things are today, the past was so much worse. Many think of the so-called Dark Ages as a time of brutality and butchery. But Newman said modern humans have refined torture far beyond anything that era produced.

“We’re never going to get any better if we don’t stop saying (cruelty) is an aberration, it’s medieval and just a throwback,” Newman said. “We’re all human, we all need to learn from the past and not feel so darned superior to the people who lived hundreds of years ago.”

If you go

What: 2005 Authors & Illustrators Dinner, a fundraiser for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library Foundation, featuring historian and writer Sharan Newman.

When: Social time and auction begins at 5 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m., Sept. 29.

Where: Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth St.

Cost: $60 per person.

Information: Call 360-699-8846 or visit

Author’s observations have a bit of zing

Author and medievalist Sharan Newman takes her historical research seriously, at least when it comes to accuracy. But that doesn’t mean she can’t inject her findings with a bit of humor. Here are some excerpts from “The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code.”

Page 29:

“The first thing one should know about the emperor Constantine, ruler of the Roman Empire, founder of Constantinople and sponsor of Christianity, is that he was good to his mother.”

Page 36:

“His description of the slow death of (the emperor) Galerius, possibly from colon cancer, is enough to make anyone decide to sign up for a colonoscopy right away.”

Page 59:

“Leonardo was a genius, an enigmatic and private man. He was also totally erratic in his interests and undependable. People of his own time recognized all these qualities, and those who put him in charge of anything soon regretted it. Today he would be a thorn in the side of his university, never finishing a degree but too brilliant to cut loose.”

Page 109:

“The recently converted Merovingian kings were proving to be a handful, giving their relatives bishoprics without bothering to ordain them as priests, and continuing their cheerful habit of polygamy.”

Page 111:

“In terms of Christian heresies, it’s important to make a distinction between ideas that misunderstand doctrine and those that don’t agree with it. Only the ones that start by comprehending and then rejecting orthodox belief can be heresies. This means that to be a heretic one needs a good education.”

Page 175:

(Referring to Freud’s theories about the Mona Lisa) “This is what happens when someone gets carried away with their own symbols.”

Page 248:

“The effect of the myriad of carvings (in Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel) is stunning and whimsical, rather like meeting someone who has decided to wear all her jewelry at once.”

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The Columbian, USA
Sep. 14, 2005

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday September 16, 2005.
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