|The Portrait of Michel de Nostredame (Nostradamus), a French Renaissance Medicine & Astrologer, painted by his son César de Nostredame (1553-1630?) photo: wikipedia.org|
Michel de Nostredame (depending on the source, 14 or 21 December 1503 2 July 1566), usually Latinised as Nostradamus, was a French physician and reputed seer who published collections of prophecies that have since become widely famous. He is best known for his book Les Propheties, the first edition of which appeared in 1555. Since the publication of this book, which has rarely been out of print since his death, Nostradamus has attracted a following that, along with much of the popular press, credits him with predicting many major world events.
Most academic sources maintain that the associations made between world events and Nostradamus's quatrains are largely the result of misinterpretations or mistranslations (sometimes deliberate) or else are so tenuous as to render them useless as evidence of any genuine predictive power.
At the age of 15 Nostredame entered the University of Avignon to study for his baccalaureate. After little more than a year (when he would have studied the regular trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic, rather than the later quadrivium of geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy/astrology), he was forced to leave Avignon when the university closed its doors during an outbreak of the plague.
|Municipal plaque on the claimed birthplace of Nostradamus in St-Rémy, France, describing him as an 'astrologer' and giving his birth-date as 14 December 1503 (Julian Calendar) photo: wikipedia.org|
The expulsion document, BIU Montpellier, Register S 2 folio 87, still exists in the faculty library.However, some of his publishers and correspondents would later call him "Doctor". After his expulsion, Nostredame continued working, presumably still as an apothecary, and became famous for creating a "rose pill" that purportedly protected against the plague.
After another visit to Italy, Nostredame began to move away from medicine and toward the occult. Following popular trends, he wrote an almanac for 1550, for the first time Latinising his name from Nostredame to Nostradamus.
He was so encouraged by the almanac's success that he decided to write one or more annually. Taken together, they are known to have contained at least 6,338 prophecies, as well as at least eleven annual calendars, all of them starting on 1 January and not, as is sometimes supposed, in March. It was mainly in response to the almanacs that the nobility and other prominent persons from far away soon started asking for horoscopes and "psychic" advice from him, though he generally expected his clients to supply the birth charts on which these would be based, rather than calculating them himself as a professional astrologer would have done.
When obliged to attempt this himself on the basis of the published tables of the day, he frequently made errors and failed to adjust the figures for his clients' place or time of birth.
|Century I, Quatrain 1: 1555 Lyon Bonhomme edition photo: wikipedia.org|
He then began his project of writing a book of one thousand mainly French quatrains, which constitute the largely undated prophecies for which he is most famous today. Feeling vulnerable to opposition on religious grounds, however, he devised a method of obscuring his meaning by using "Virgilianised" syntax, word games and a mixture of other languages such as Greek, Italian, Latin, and Provençal. For technical reasons connected with their publication in three installments (the publisher of the third and last installment seems to have been unwilling to start it in the middle of a "Century," or book of 100 verses), the last fifty-eight quatrains of the seventh "Century" have not survived in any extant edition.
The quatrains, published in a book titled Les Propheties (The Prophecies), received a mixed reaction when they were published. Some people thought Nostradamus was a servant of evil, a fake, or insane, while many of the elite evidently thought otherwise. Catherine de Médicis, wife of King Henry II of France, was one of Nostradamus' greatest admirers.
After reading his almanacs for 1555, which hinted at unnamed threats to the royal family, she summoned him to Paris to explain them and to draw up horoscopes for her children. At the time, he feared that he would be beheaded, but by the time of his death in 1566, Queen Catherine had made him Counselor and Physician-in-Ordinary to her son, the young King Charles IX of France.
Some accounts of Nostradamus's life state that he was afraid of being persecuted for heresy by the Inquisition, but neither prophecy nor astrology fell in this bracket, and he would have been in danger only if he had practiced magic to support them. In 1538 he came into conflict with the Church in Agen after an Inquisitor visited the area looking for Anti-Catholic views. His brief imprisonment at Marignane in late 1561 was solely because he had violated a recent royal decree by publishing his 1562 almanac without the prior permission of a bishop.
Final years and death
By 1566, Nostradamus's gout, which had plagued him painfully for many years and made movement very difficult, turned into edema, or dropsy.
In late June he summoned his lawyer to draw up an extensive will bequeathing his property plus 3,444 crowns (around $300,000 US today), minus a few debts, to his wife pending her remarriage, in trust for her sons pending their twenty-fifth birthdays and her daughters pending their marriages.
|Nostradamus' current tomb in the Collégiale Saint-Laurent, Salon, into which his scattered remains were transferred after 1789. photo: wikipedia.org|
This was followed by a much shorter codicil. On the evening of 1 July, he is alleged to have told his secretary Jean de Chavigny, "You will not find me alive at sunrise." The next morning he was reportedly found dead, lying on the floor next to his bed and a bench for November 1567, as posthumously edited by Chavigny to fit what happened).
|Nostradamus statue in Salon-de-Provence photo: wikipedia.org|
He was buried in the local Franciscan chapel in Salon (part of it now incorporated into the restaurant La Brocherie) but re-interred during the French Revolution in the Collégiale Saint-Laurent, where his tomb remains to this day.
Copy of Garencières' 1672 English translation of the Prophecies, located in The P.I. Nixon Medical History Library of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
In The Prophecies Nostradamus compiled his collection of major, long-term predictions. The first installment was published in 1555 and contained 353 quatrains. The third edition, with three hundred new quatrains, was reportedly printed in 1558, but now only survives as part of the omnibus edition that was published after his death in 1568. This version contains one unrhymed and 941 rhymed quatrains, grouped into nine sets of 100 and one of 42, called "Centuries".
|Dr. Garencières, the Translator of Nostradamus (Robert Chambers 1832) photo: wikipedia.org|
Given printing practices at the time (which included type-setting from dictation), no two editions turned out to be identical, and it is relatively rare to find even two copies that are exactly the same. Certainly there is no warrant for assuming—as would-be "code-breakers" are prone to do—that either the spellings or the punctuation of any edition are Nostradamus' originals.
The Almanacs, by far the most popular of his works, were published annually from 1550 until his death. He often published two or three in a year, entitled either Almanachs (detailed predictions), Prognostications or Presages (more generalised predictions).
Nostradamus was not only a diviner, but a professional healer. It is known that he wrote at least two books on medical science. One was an extremely free translation (or rather a paraphrase) of The Protreptic of Galen (Paraphrase de C. GALIEN, sus l'Exhortation de Menodote aux estudes des bonnes Artz, mesmement Medicine), and in his so-called Traité des fardemens (basically a medical cookbook containing, once again, materials borrowed mainly from others) he included a description of the methods he used to treat the plague, including bloodletting, none of which apparently worked. The same book also describes the preparation of cosmetics.
A manuscript normally known as the Orus Apollo also exists in the Lyon municipal library, where upwards of 2,000 original documents relating to Nostradamus are stored under the aegis of Michel Chomarat. It is a purported translation of an ancient Greek work on Egyptian hieroglyphs based on later Latin versions, all of them unfortunately ignorant of the true meanings of the ancient Egyptian script, which was not correctly deciphered until Champollion in the 19th century.
Since his death, only the Prophecies have continued to be popular, but in this case they have been quite extraordinarily so. Over two hundred editions of them have appeared in that time, together with over 2,000 commentaries. Their persistence in popular culture seems to be partly because their vagueness and lack of dating make it easy to quote them selectively after every major dramatic event and retrospectively claim them as "hits"
Origins of The Prophecies
Nostradamus claimed to base his published predictions on judicial astrology—the astrological 'judgment', or assessment, of the 'quality' (and thus potential) of events such as births, weddings, coronations etc.—but was heavily criticised by professional astrologers of the day such as Laurens Videl for incompetence and for assuming that "comparative horoscopy" (the comparison of future planetary configurations with those accompanying known past events) could actually predict what would happen in the future.
Research suggests that much of his prophetic work paraphrases collections of ancient end-of-the-world prophecies (mainly Bible-based), supplemented with references to historical events and anthologies of omen reports, and then projects those into the future in part with the aid of comparative horoscopy.
Hence the many predictions involving ancient figures such as Sulla, Gaius Marius, Nero, and others, as well as his descriptions of "battles in the clouds" and "frogs falling from the sky." Astrology itself is mentioned only twice in Nostradamus's Preface and 41 times in the Centuries themselves, but more frequently in his dedicatory Letter to King Henry II. In the last quatrain of his sixth century he specifically attacks astrologers.
|Detail from title-page of the original 1555 (Albi) edition of Nostradamus's Les Propheties photo: wikipedia.org|
His historical sources include easily identifiable passages from Livy, Suetonius, Plutarch and other classical historians, as well as from medieval chroniclers such as Geoffrey of Villehardouin and Jean Froissart. Many of his astrological references are taken almost word for word from Richard Roussat's Livre de l'estat et mutations des temps of 1549–50.
One of his major prophetic sources was evidently the Mirabilis Liber of 1522, which contained a range of prophecies by Pseudo-Methodius, the Tiburtine Sibyl, Joachim of Fiore, Savonarola and others (his Preface contains 24 biblical quotations, all but two in the order used by Savonarola).
This book had enjoyed considerable success in the 1520s, when it went through half a dozen editions, but did not sustain its influence, perhaps owing to its mostly Latin text, Gothic script and many difficult abbreviations. Nostradamus was one of the first to re-paraphrase these prophecies in French, which may explain why they are credited to him. It should be noted that modern views of plagiarism did not apply in the 16th century; authors frequently copied and paraphrased passages without acknowledgement, especially from the classics.
The latest research suggests that he may in fact have used bibliomancy for this—randomly selecting a book of history or prophecy and taking his cue from whatever page it happened to fall open at.
Further material was gleaned from the De honesta disciplina of 1504 by Petrus Crinitus, which included extracts from Michael Psellos's De daemonibus, and the De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum (Concerning the mysteries of Egypt...), a book on Chaldean and Assyrian magic by Iamblichus, a 4th-century Neo-Platonist.
Latin versions of both had recently been published in Lyon, and extracts from both are paraphrased (in the second case almost literally) in his first two verses, the first of which is appended to this article. While it is true that Nostradamus claimed in 1555 to have burned all of the occult works in his library, no one can say exactly what books were destroyed in this fire.
Only in the 17th century did people start to notice his reliance on earlier, mainly classical sources. This may help explain the fact that, during the same period, The Prophecies reportedly came into use in France as a classroom reader.
Nostradamus's reliance on historical precedent is reflected in the fact that he explicitly rejected the label "prophet" (i.e. a person having prophetic powers of his own) on several occasions:
Although, my son, I have used the word prophet, I would not attribute to myself a title of such lofty sublimit
Not that I would attribute to myself either the name or the role of a prophet—Preface to César, 1555
Some of the prophets predicted great and marvelous things to come: though for me, I in no way attribute to myself such a title here.—Letter to King Henry II, 1558
Not that I am foolish enough to claim to be a prophet.—Open letter to Privy Councillor (later Chancellor) Birague, 15 June 1566
His rejection of the title prophet is consistent with the fact that he entitled his book Les Propheties de M. Michel Nostradamus (a title that, in French, as easily means "The Prophecies, by M. Michel Nostradamus"—which is what they were—as "The Prophecies of M. Michel Nostradamus", which, except in a few cases, they were not, other than in the manner of their editing, expression and reapplication to the future).
Given this reliance on literary sources, it is doubtful whether Nostradamus used any particular methods for entering a trance state, other than contemplation, meditation and incubation. His sole description of this process is contained in letter 41' of his collected Latin correspondence.
The popular legend that he attempted the ancient methods of flame gazing, water gazing or both simultaneously is based on a naive reading of his first two verses, which merely liken his efforts to those of the Delphic and Branchidic oracles. The first of these is reproduced at the bottom of this article and the second can be seen by visiting the relevant facsimile site. In his dedication to King Henri II, Nostradamus describes "emptying my soul, mind and heart of all care, worry and unease through mental calm and tranquility", but his frequent references to the "bronze tripod" of the Delphic rite are usually preceded by the words "as though"
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