A physician and astrologer by profession, Nostradamus (1503-1566) is said to have remained awake nights for several years, meditating over a brass bowl filled with water. Through these trances he supposedly could see into the future, and he set his predictions down for posterity in a twelve-volume set he entitled Centuries.
Nostradamus is the Latinized name of a sixteenth-century French prophet named Michel de Notredame. Since his death in 1566, scholars and lay people have remained fascinated by Nostradamus's forecasts, in which many future events seem to have been uncannily divined. The French Revolution, the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe, and the explosion of a U.S. space shuttle were supposedly prophesied by the Renaissance scholar.
Nostradamus was born in December of 1503 in the south of France; his family was of Jewish heritage but had converted to Catholicism during a period of religious intolerance. Both of his grandfathers were esteemed scholars, one a physician; with the other, he studied classical languages. At the age of 14 Nostradamus left his family to study in Avignon, the ecclesiastical and academic center of Provence. In class, he sometimes voiced dissension with the teachings of the Catholic priests, who dismissed the study of astrology and the assertion of the Polish scientist Copernicus. Copernicus had recently gained fame with his theory that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun—contrary to the Christian appraisal of the heavens. Nostradamus's family warned him to hold his tongue, since he could be easily singled out for persecution because of his Jewish heritage in the anti-Semitic climate, conversion and baptism or not. Earlier, from his grandfathers he had secretly learned some mystical areas of Jewish wisdom, including the Kabbalah and alchemy.
Nostradamus graduated in 1525 from the University of Montpellier, where he had studied both medicine and astrology, a common professional duality during the era. The first several years of his career as a doctor were spent traveling throughout the many towns and villages in France being decimated by the bubonic plague. Called "Le Charbon" because of the festering black cankers it left on its quickly-dead victim's body, the epidemic had no cure. Doctors commonly "bled" the patient, and knew nothing of how to prevent further infection or how Europe's unsanitary conditions contributed to the spread of the disease. Nostradamus would prescribe fresh air and water for the afflicted, a low-fat diet, new bedding, and often administered an herbal remedy made from rosehips, later discovered to be rich in vitamin C; entire towns recovered. Nostradamus's herbal remedies were common to the era, but his beliefs about infection control could have resulted in charges of heresy and death.
Devastated by Personal Tragedies
Word of Nostradamus's healing powers made him a celebrated figure in Provence. He wrote a book listing the doctors and pharmacists he had met in southern Europe, translated anatomical texts, developed recipes for gourmet foods, and received his doctorate in 1529 from Montpellier. He also taught at the university for three years, but left when his radical ideas about disease were censured. He chose a wife from among the many offered to him by wealthy and connected families, and settled in the town of Agen. Unfortunately, Le Charbon's recurrence felled his wife and two young children; because the famed physician could not save his own family, citizens suddenly looked upon him with scorn. His in-laws sued for the return of the dowry given to him. His patron, a scholar and philosopher named Julius-Cesar Scalinger, also broke ties with him. A chance remark Nostradamus had once made about a statue of the Virgin Mary landed him in court defending himself against charges of heresy. When told to appear before the feared Church Inquisitors at Toulouse, he became a fugitive.
For the next several years Nostradamus traveled through southern Europe. Scholars have posited that this difficult period probably awakened his powers of clairvoyance. By 1544 torrential rains were again bringing pestilence to southern France, and Nostradamus appeared in Marseilles, then Aix; with his medicinal practices he managed to halt the spread of disease in the latter and was again celebrated for his skills. Moving to the town of Salon, he set up a medical practice, remarried, and began a new family. A devout practicing Catholic outwardly, he spent the night hours ensconced in his study positioned in front of a brass bowl filled with water. Meditation would bring on a trance, and it is also theorized that he may have used herbal means to achieve such a state. In such trances visions would come to him.
Some of these visions for the coming year Nostradamus began writing about when he undertook the first of his Almanacs, which appeared annually from 1550 to 1565. Greatly popular with the reading public, the Almanacs spoke of astrological phases of the coming year and contained quatrains, or rhymed four-line verse, offering hints of upcoming events. The published works served to spread his fame across France to an even greater degree, and by now his visions were such an integral part of his scholarship that he decided to channel them into one massive opus for posterity. He would call this book Centuries. Each of the ten planned volumes would contain 100 predictions in quatrain form. In it, the next two thousand years of humanity would be forecasted.
Prophecies Brought Fame and Fortune
Nostradamus began working on Centuries on Good Friday of 1554. The first seven volumes were published in Lyon the following year; although he completed volumes VIII through X by 1558, he would not allow them to be published until after his death. Yet the reception of the initial works made Nostradamus a celebrated figure. "Polite society called Nostradamus a genius," wrote John Hogue in Nostradamus and the Millennium: Predictions of the Future. "The peasant Cabans [the superstitious Catholic underclass] called him an instrument of Satan and his dark, cryptic poems the confounded gibberish of Hell. His medical colleagues called him an embarrassment. Philosophers praised and cursed him. Poets either marvelled or scratched their heads at his crabbed and wild verses—a bewildering madness with a method set in riddles and anagrams written in a mixture of French Provencal, Latin, Greek and Italian."
Nostradamus's writings attracted no less than the interest of France's royal family. He was invited to the Paris court of Henry II and his wife, Catharine de Medici. The Medicis were known for their pan-European political ambitions, and the queen hoped that Nostradamus could give her guidance regarding her seven children. Ostensibly, Nostradamus also arrived in Paris in August of 1556 to explain Quatrain 35 of Centuries I, assumed to refer to King Henry II. It read: "The young lion will overcome the older one/ On the field of combat in single battle/ He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage/ Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death."
Nostradamus told the king that he should avoid any ceremonial jousting during his 41st year, which the regent's own astrologer had also asserted. The physician spent the next few years ensconced in the luxury of the royal court, but received word that Catholic authorities were again becoming suspicious of his soothsaying and were about to investigate him. He returned to his hometown of Salon and his wife and children. Finishing volumes VIII through X, he also began work on two additional volumes of Centuries, which were unfinished at the time of his death. On June 28, 1559, in his 41st year, Henry II was injured in a jousting tournament celebrating two marriages in his family. With thousands watching, his opponent's "lance pierced the King's golden visor, entered his head behind the eye, both blinding him and penetrating deep into his brain. He held onto life for ten agonizing days," wrote Hogue in Nostradamus and the Millennium.
Spent Later Years Quietly
Already a celebrated persona in France, Nostradamus became a figure inspiring both awe and fright among the populace. His other prophecies regarding France's royal line were consulted, and most seem to predict only death and tragedy. Henry's surviving widow, now Queen Regent Catharine de Medici, visited him in Salon during her royal tour of 1564, and he again told her (as he had when he drew up their astrology charts) that all four of her sons would become kings. Yet all the children came to equally dismal ends: one son became king of Poland, but was murdered by a priest; another died before carrying out a plot to kill another brother; two died young as well; the three daughters also met tragic fates. The family's House of Valois died out with the burial of Queen Margot.
Nostradamus himself died in 1566. He had long suffered from gout, and naturally predicted his own end, although sources say he was off by a year. Many translations of his Centuries and treatises on their significance appeared in the generations following his death, and remain popular to the present day. Interpreters claim Nostradamus predicted Adolf Hitler's rise to power as well as the explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Biographies of the seer have also appeared periodically. For two centuries the Vatican issued the Index, or a list of forbidden books; Centuries was always on it. "No other prophet since Biblical times has held as constant a place in the hearts and minds of the populace as Nostradamus," wrote Dava Sobell in Omni. "Whether by dint of the audacity of his future vision or the dreamlike imagery of his verses, he has literally triumphed over time."
Further Reading on Nostradamus
Sobell, Dava, "The Resurrection of Nostradamus," in Omni, December 1993, p. 42.
Hogue, John, Nostradamus and the Millennium: Predictions of the Future, Doubleday, 1987.
Leoni, Edgar, Nostradamus: Life and Literature, Nosbooks, 1961.