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– Preface –

I ’ve always loved nonsense dressed up as scholar­ ship. During my A-level studies in early modern history, one of my teachers gave me a copy of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail to read and report back on to the class.1 I loved it. Its outré thesis – that Jesus sur­ vived the crucifixion and went to live in the South of France and spawned a secret society, the ‘Priory of Zion’, that has acted as a hidden hand in the history of Western civilisation – was thrillingly written. And of course, as I took pleasure in pointing out in my class present­ation, it was no less improbable than the Christian story of crucifixion and resurrection.

I cannot say that my teacher’s point-by-point dismantling of the book’s thesis was a shock to me; I never seriously believed its claims. But the debunking was disillusioning because my first exposure to the world of alternative history was so much fun. I felt the same about other works I devoured as a teenager, such as Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of The Gods, a 1970s bestseller arguing that aliens visited earth and inspired the glories of ancient civilisations.2 Books like these seemed to me to be delightful in their portentous ludicrousness. Finding evidence that debunked their vii

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