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by Philip Coppens There was a “movement” named AGLA, about which we know very little. As a secret society, it maintained its nature very well. On first appearance, it seems they were an underground movement that was not very active. However, this is a dubious statement to make: as they were little known, bluntly suggesting they were not very active is dangerous, owing to the fact that we do not know anything about them, which means we know nothing about their activities or frequency thereof either.
Robert Ambelain defines AGLA as an autonomous society and firmly closed. He suggests that rather than a subgroup, they were in fact the group behind a more visible organisation, like for example, the organisation led by another priest, Nicholas Montfaucon de Villars, author of “Count de Gabelis”, subtitled “The Extravagant Mysteries of the Cabalists, expounded in Five pleasant Discourses on the Secret Societies.” The book which appeared in 1670, was a treatise on the occult and elemental sex magic, assuring its ban in France, even though it sold out several editions in the first few months. Nevertheless, it had no known author, until Montfaucon’s name was advanced. He was a well-known figure, a “Libertin”, an intellectual whose ideas were deemed dangerous both for the church and the king. In March 1673, De Villars was murdered by a rifle bullet, near Lyons. His murder was never solved, but René Nelli believes that Montfaucon de Villars had been assassinated, possibly because in his book, he had revealed “too much”. Villars wrote on the topic of “the great name of AGLA, which operates all these wonders, at the same time as it is called upon by the ignoramuses and the sinners, and who would do many more miracles in a Kabbalistic fashion”. What could this secret be that had to be protected at all cost, even with the life of this priest? This question remained unanswered, but raises another, almost identical one: what could be the secret that had to be protected at all cost, even with the life of the priest Antonin Gélis? No answer has ever been provided for his murder either. That murder occurred on the evening of 31st October, 1897, in his presbytery. Newspaper accounts relate how Gélis was found lying in a pool of blood, his arms placed on his belly, but his legs in an awkward position, with one leg firmly underneath the body. He had suffered 14 blows to the head, fracturing his skull and even making the brain visible. There were further minor injuries on the rest of his body. Gélis had locked up the night before and it was known he never let anyone in at night, unless he knew the person visiting. With no signs of a break-in, it is clear that Gélis let his murderer in – and was thus familiar with him. The murderer killed the priest, but did not steal anything of value. Although cabinets had been gone through and some documents had been stolen, nothing of value, including 500 Francs, had been taken. Newspaper reports spoke of a “masked intruder” who had also broken into the presbytery many years before and had got away with certain papers. He was never found and now history was repeating itself and no-one was ever charged with the murder. One organisation known as AGLA was not esoteric at all. That AGLA was, from its inception, only intended to attract invited members from the publishing industry: booksellers, printers, etc. The presence of a Rabelais, Nicholas Flamel, Sebastien Greif, Montfaucon de Villars would therefore not seem odd – neither would the booksellers of Lyons, who bought Saunière’s books. According to Robert Ambelain, AGLA also attracted the makers of the first sets of Tarot cards.
There is AGLA, but there is also A.G.L.A. – written with all capital letters punctuated by a point. In this interpretation, “AGLA” would not be one word, but the abbreviation of four words. It is clear that this approach would be a clever “trick” – a smokescreen. For all intents and purposes, any observer would read AGLA or A.G.L.A. as an incorrect rendering of Agla – a society which had no esoteric connections whatsoever. Even if someone felt that A.G.L.A. could not be an error, but meant something else, there was no way for that person to know what each letter stood for – unless he had powerful computers at his disposal, or, more likely, came across someone who “knew”.
So what might A.G.L.A. stand for? One proposed reading is Attâh, Gibbor, Leholâm, Adonâi: “Thou art strong for ever, O Lord”. Actually, many people in Germany thought it stood for “Almachtiger Gott Losch Aus!”
It is said to contain all the letters of the Kaballah. Tradition has it that the Divine Power resides within this simple set of four letters, containing at the same time absolute knowledge, the science of Solomon and the Light of Abraham. In other readings, it is the Secret or Hidden Name of God, so cherished by the Kaballists, but also other esoteric traditions, including the Freemasons. The question arises, therefore, as to whether Saunière’s remotely guided steps were to direct him into that direction? The A.A. is a genuine organisation – the very organisation that was identified as the one to which Henri Boudet, the priest of Rennes-les-Bains, and Felix-Arsène Billard, the bishop of Carcassonne, belonged. However, trying to find information on the A.A. is next to impossible. We note that a document was found, which listed Boudet and two bishops of Carcassonne as members of this organisation. This information was given to us by Gérard Moraux de Waldan.
It seems that several movements, at least four to our knowledge, claimed to be a part of this organisation. However, although it was certainly present in more than 39 areas of France, only the Toulouse area seems to have had retained documents on the subject.
The general presentation of these little known groups shows a structure established on secrecy, accompanied by an undeniable spiritual improvement. At the time of the French Revolution, these secret societies opposed a clergy managed by a civil Constitution. One also finds their virulent action against the Napoleonic Regime during the plundering of the Vatican archives, the general confusion in Rome and the arrest of the pope.
According to Jean-Claude Meyer, in the Ecclesiastical Bulletin of Literature, “The study of the AA of Toulouse, founded into the 17th century, forms part of the understanding of the more general movement of spiritual and apostolic reform of the clergy of France at that time. Beyond rules which appear out of date today, the history of this AA reveals the spirit of a sacerdotal fraternity lived by the fellow-members: thus is explained its exceptional longevity, one which will see the positive effects during the decade of the Revolution.”
There is also the work of Count Bégouin who, in 1913, presented one of rare works on the subject in the form of a work entitled: UNE SOCIETE SECRETE
EMULE DE LA COMPAGNIE DU SAINT-SACREMENT
L’AA DE TOULOUSE
AUX XVIIe et XVIIIe SIECLES
D’APRES DES DOCUMENTS INEDITS
A SECRET SOCIETY
EMULATING THE COMPANY OF THE SACRED SACRAMENT
THE AA OF TOULOUSE
FROM THE XXVII and XVIII CENTURY
ACCORDING TO UNPUBLISHED MANUSCRIPTS On the bottom of the title page is the address of the “editors”, set in two columns:
• on the left: “PARIS, Auguste Picard, rue Bonaparte 81”
• on the right-hand side: “TOULOUSE, Edouard Privat, rue des Arts, 14”.
At the bottom of the last page of text (page 131), is the identity of the printer: “Toulouse, Imp. Douladoure – Privat, rue St Rome, 30–678.”
Count Bégouin himself admits that there are difficulties when he tries to base his argument on previously unpublished documents, which are, of course, essential for his work. These documents were extremely difficult to find, although apparently some were said to exist in the region of Lyons and Vienna, at the beginning of this century.
The starting point of Bégouin’s quest is the Parliamentary Decree of 13th December, 1660, marking the dissolution of the “Compagnie de St-Sacrement”. It also stated that it was now forbidden “to all people to make any assemblies, neither brotherhoods, congregations or communities” anywhere in France “without the express permission of the King”.
During the 17th century, the Compagnie de St Sacrement was a genuine movement which seems to have gone against the French King. It actually involved his mother, Anne of Austria, who seems to have plotted on the side of the conspirators, a group of people including Nicolas Pavillon, Vincent de Paul and, it seems, the Fouquet family. The statutes of the Compagnie stated that its sole goal was the “maintenance of the secret”. But the French king came down hard on the organisation, and on any future attempt to reorganise it. However, it seems that the AA’s original role was to perpetuate the Compagnie, to maintain “the secret” – and to make sure that this time, the powers that were, could not stop them.
Curiously, one of the first documents to use the term A and AA, was published by Mr. Lieutaud, a librarian in Marseilles. It was in the reproduction of a report of 1775, on the AA of that city, written by its president, with the complete order of what was known as a “Société”. The title does not match up with the contents. It is curious that in a total of 16 pages, there is no reference to details of printing or the publisher. It is known as “A and AA, Preamble of a Future Encyclopaedia of Provence”. It is difficult to understand the relationship between the AA and an encyclopaedia of Provence, however glorious its scenery is perceived to be. The same can be said of another booklet, again without any references, entitled “French history by a Carthusian monk”. Two further works on the same topics would follow.
At this stage, two points demand our attention. First is the question as to how a librarian can publish books which lack all references; it is the very opposite of what his job description entails. Furthermore, as Bégouin himself stated, the titles are “odd and disconcerting”. Any normal search in a library would fail to come up with these booklets, except for someone who knew what he was looking for.
But even stranger collections would be published: “A secret society of ecclesiastics in the seventeenth and eighteenth century – AA Cléricale – its history, its statutes, its mysteries”, with the epigraph: ‘Secretum prodere noli.’ To Mysteriopolis, with Jean de l’Arcanne, librarian of the Company, rue des trois cavernes, at Sigalion, in the back of the shop. MDCCCXCIII – with permission.” On the back of the page, it reads: “100 copies printed – none will be sold.”
The reference is so enigmatic that you might suspect you had become a character in a detective novel! The “with permission” reference is just one in a long series of incredible details. Is it a hoax? A joke? Have these documents been falsified, as has been the case in some instances in the mystery of Rennes-le-Château? However, the booklet does exist and the reader will find that there is an accompanying document at the end of the collection.
Our librarian Lieutaud never betrayed his sources, except to state: “By ways that were both multiple and unexpected, the original parts that were used to compose this work fell into my hands. We are not authorised to say it, and thanks to God, though we never belonged to any AA, we know to maintain its secrecy.”
There is little else, except some throwaway sentences: “Knowing how jealously the last owners took care of these invaluable papers, keeping them contained and hidden, allows me suppose that, as for the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, we are far from knowing all the places where these files lie.”
On page 20, it explains that in Toulouse, it had access to the files of the AA, which had more than 1,300 names of ecclesiastics from the Toulouse region who were members.
This was not the only book of its kind. There was another such document printed in Lyons, at Baptiste de Ville, rue Mercière, in 1689. The book is extremely rare and unknown to bibliographers, just like yet another book, dated to 1654, which is intended “for a restricted number of initiates, those that belonged to the small group of elected officials comprising the AA”.
The reason for the choice of AA or A.A. as the title is never explained in the documents. It is argued that it comes from the expression “Associatio Alicorum”. Others say it comes from taking the two As from AssociAtion, and to present them in a similar way to those that appear in certain alchemical writings such as AAA, for the term “AmAlgAmer”, i.e. removing the consonants to keep only the vowels. If that were the case, such coding is contrary to Egyptian or Kabbalistic writings, where normally, the vowels are removed and the consonants kept, e.g. YHWH rather than Yahweh – which would be AE if the “vowel-retention cipher” had been used.
Bégouin himself believed that the AA should for “Amis” and “Assemblies”, Assembled Friends, thus summarising the spirit of this company. Another assumption advanced by Lietaud is that AA stood for “Association Angelica” – the organisation which, according to some, was related to “AGLA”.
One of the few letters sent by the AA does have the heading: J. M. J. A. C., which are the initials of: Jesus, Maria, Joseph, Angeli Custodes, i.e. Custodian Angels. This is an intriguing analysis. It seems to identify the AA somehow as being “Guardian Angels” of a “secret” that was at the heart of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, and its successor, the AA. Perhaps the AA is the Association of Angels?
The rule of the “secret” was absolute and without exemption. Admittedly, for certain researchers within this framework, the “secret” was simply that of the “good deeds performed under religious initiative”. But what is secret about “doing good”? If “good things” had to be kept secret, there are normally very good reasons for it – and the “good deeds” would not be of the everyday variety that you might do on weekends or weekday mornings in the church, those normally practised by elderly men and women, who are “doing good” for the community.
Instead, the AA says: “It is thus essential to maintain our secrecy. Reveal it to no-one, neither to the most intimate friends, nor to the dearest parents, not even to the most trustworthy confessor. Why would one speak with the confessor about it? In a project of this nature, that the only natural lights come from the Father of Light, a similar confidence was never necessary; it would always be imprudent and often contrary to the existence or the propagation of our AA. Outside of the assemblies, the fellow-members will behave together as though no secret bond linked them. No sign, no word to make anyone suspect. In their letters, if they happen to mention the AA, it should only be in the shortest and most general terms possible. The AA will never be named, either in the letters, or in ordinary conversations. Those who have some papers relating to our Association on their premises, will preserve them with care and under key.”
Surely this is not “just” so that no-one would know when the next cake stall is on – or what profit margin there was on the second hand books sale? These rules are similar to those of other secret societies, or societies, which require initiation. It could be that of a Masonic lodge, as they could still be found at the beginning of the 20th century. But whereas the secrecy of a Masonic lodge these days is a matter of form, it seems clear that the AA is serious. The secrecy instilled in their members is more along the lines of an intelligence agency rather than a brotherhood of mutually interested individuals.
But the question is whether the AA is a secret society, or a discreet society. In the documents of the AA, the rules relating to the secret start from page 71 onwards. There is mention of a password, how to envisage the self-destruction of the cell, to destroy all traces of its existence, to pass from action to silence if there is the slightest doubt. You can wonder whether terrorist organisations practise such a level of secrecy. This type of moral convention is of such an inconceivable rigour that the only framework in which this document could come about is that of a fanatical sect… or of a movement that was elected to safeguard a frightening secret.
It is difficult to believe that within the Church, there would be a company, made up of monks, that could impose such injunctions to protect themselves if their only goal was prayers, benevolence or charity. After all, “doing good” has always been out in the open; “doing bad” is normally done in secret.
There is another intriguing aspect to the AA. Under certain conditions, it allowed the admission of women from exclusively female congregations. Furthermore, laymen could, under very strict conditions, be accepted too. According to the type of members, they were distributed over several “congregations”. For the Seminarists, the AA rule envisaged a type of ante-room, called “Small Company”. In this, the future priests were allowed to meet, without ever knowing the “active members” of the brotherhood. As in all other brotherhoods, there were several levels, or grades, in the hierarchy. No doubt, the lower echelons had no idea what the higher ranks were up to – as is the case in any hierarchical organisation, whether a business organisation or a secret society.
Even so, at this stage it is still possible to consider that we are talking about a congregation, though of a very exceptional severity, reserved for a kind of religious elite… yet without being able to accept or acknowledge that it could be something else – something more obscure – secret.
Yet, that this is the case, is argued by the document itself: “At the same time, behind this congregation or visible company, there was another occult one. It was the true AA, whose existence was a mystery and the name of the members an even greater mystery still. There were several political characters among them. The meetings were secret and certain members, in particular Prince de Polignac, only went to them in disguise. For on being allowed into this association, it was necessary to swear to absolute secrecy, to promise a blind obedience with passwords which no-one else knew.”
Prince Jules de Polignac (1780 – March 29, 1847) was a French statesman, who played a conspicuous part in the clerical and ultra-royalist reaction after the Revolution. If he attended such meetings, then it is clear that they were important – and controversial. If we place Saunière in the same environment, then we find a solid reason why he felt he could never divulge the origins of his income – not to his bishop, or to anyone else. He had sworn himself to it – to protect “the secret”. Although it might seem bizarre that a small village priest should become a member of such a notorious organisation, he was a priest – somehow predisposed towards joining the AA – and a discovery in his church might have propelled him to the forefront of their attention – and their cash flow.
It is clear that if Boudet and Billard were members of this organisation – and the evidence suggests they were – then they too would be part of this secret brotherhood. It would seem that de Beauséjour was not…
The AA is the best candidate for the framework in which Saunière and his closest allies operated; membership of the AA could explain the extreme level of secrecy that Saunière adhered to – at the same time being instructed on how to maintain that secrecy so that his “double life” would never be known…