Nostradamus: original portrait by his son Cesar
Nostradamus (December 14, 1503 – July 2, 1566), Latinised name of Michel de Nostredame, was one of the world's most famous publishers of prophecies. 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 an almost cult following. His many enthusiasts, as well as the popular press, credit him with predicting numerous major world events.
In contrast, most of the academic sources listed below maintain that the associations made between world events and Nostradamus' 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. Moreover, none of the sources listed offers any evidence that anyone has ever interpreted any of Nostradamus' quatrains specifically enough to allow a clear identification of any event in advance.
Nevertheless, interest in the work of this prominent figure of the French Renaissance is still considerable, especially in the media and in popular culture, and the prophecies have in some cases been assimilated to the results of applying the alleged Bible Code, as well as to other purported prophetic works.
Nostredame's claimed birthplace before its recent renovation.
Born in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the south of France on December 14, 1503, where his claimed birthplace still exists, Michel de Nostredame was one of at least nine children of Reynière de St-Rémy and grain dealer and notary Jaume de Nostredame. The latter's family had originally been Jewish, but Jaume's father, Guy Gassonet, had converted to Catholicism in around 1455, taking the Christian name "Pierre" and the surname "Nostredame" (the latter apparently from the saint's day on which his conversion was solemnized). His known siblings included Delphine, Jehan (circa 1507–77), Pierre, Hector, Louis (born in 1522), Bertrand, Jean and Antoine (born in 1523).
Little else is known about Nostradamus' childhood, although there is a persistent tradition that he was educated by his maternal great-grandfather Jean de St. Rémy — which is vitiated by the fact that the latter disappears from the historical record after 1504, when the child was only one year old.
At the age of fifteen Nostradamus 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 in the face of an outbreak of the plague. In 1529, after some years as an apothecary, he entered the University of Montpellier to study for a doctorate in medicine. He was expelled shortly afterwards when it was discovered that he had been an apothecary, a manual trade expressly banned by the university statutes. 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, Nostradamus continued working, presumably as an apothecary, and became famous for creating a "rose pill" that supposedly protected against the plague.
Marriage and healing work
In 1531 Nostradamus was invited by Jules-César Scaliger, a leading Renaissance scholar, to come to Agen. There he married a woman of uncertain name (possibly Henriette d'Encausse), who bore him two children. In 1534 his wife and children died, presumably from the Plague. After their death, he continued to travel, passing through France and possibly Italy.
Nostradamus' house at Salon-de-Provence.
On his return in 1545, he assisted the prominent physician Louis Serre in his fight against a major plague outbreak in Marseille, and then tackled further outbreaks of disease on his own in Salon-de-Provence and in the regional capital, Aix-en-Provence. Finally, in 1547, he settled in Salon-de-Provence in the house which exists today, where he married a rich widow named Anne Ponsarde, with whom he had six children — three daughters and three sons. Between 1556 and 1567, Nostradamus and his wife acquired a one-thirteenth share in a huge canal project organized by Adam de Craponne to irrigate largely waterless Salon and the nearby Désert de la Crau from the river Durance.
After another visit to Italy, Nostradamus began to move away from medicine and toward the occult. Following popular trends, he wrote an almanac for 1550, for the first time Latinizing 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 January 1 and not, as is sometimes supposed, in March. It was mainly in reaction to the almanacs that the nobility and other prominent persons from far away soon started asking for horoscopes and advice from him, though he generally expected his clients to supply the birth charts on which the horoscopes would be based, contrary to the normal practice of professional astrologers.
He then began his project of writing a book of one thousand quatrains, which constitute the largely undated prophecies for which he is most famous today. Feeling vulnerable to religious fanatics, however, he devised a method of obscuring his meaning by using "Virgilianized" syntax, word games and a mixture of 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 into 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 thought his quatrains were spiritually inspired prophecies — as, in the light of their post-Biblical sources (see under
Final years and death
Nostradamus' tomb in the Collégiale St-Laurent, Salon.
By 1566, Nostradamus' gout, which had plagued him painfully for many years and made movement very difficult, turned into Oedema, 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. This was followed by a much shorter codicil. On the evening of July 1, 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 (Presage 141 [originally 152] for November 1567, as posthumously edited by Chavigny to fit). He was buried in the local Franciscan chapel (part of it now incorporated into the restaurant La Brocherie) but re-interred in the Collégiale St-Laurent at the French Revolution, where his tomb remains to this day.
Copy of Garencières' 1672 English translation of the Propheties
, located in The P.I. Nixon Medical History Library of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
The Prophecies. In this book he compiled his collection of major, long-term predictions. The first installment was published in 1555. The second, with 289 further prophetic verses, was printed in 1557. The third edition, with three hundred new quatrains, was reportedly printed in 1558, but nowadays 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".
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, these 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 generalized predictions).
Nostradamus was not only a diviner, but a professional healer, too. It is known that he wrote at least two books on medical science. One was an alleged "translation" of Galen, 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 — none of which, not even the bloodletting, 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 the advent of 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 200 editions of them have appeared in that time, together with over 2000 commentaries. Their popularity seems to be partly due to the fact that their vagueness and lack of dating make it easy to quote them selectively after every major dramatic event and retrospectively claim them as "hits" (see Nostradamus in popular culture).
...Encores mon filz que j'aye inseré le nom de prophete, je ne me veux atribuer tiltre de si haulte sublimite...
Preface to César, 1555
Nostradamus claimed to base the predictions that he published on judicial astrology — the astrological assessment of the 'quality' of expected future developments — but was heavily criticized 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 of past events) could predict actual future events.
Recent 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 with the aid of comparative horoscopy. Hence the many predictions involving ancient figures such as Sulla, 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' Preface and 41 times in the Centuries themselves, but more frequently in his dedicatory Letter to King Henri II.
His historical sources include easily identifiable passages from Livy, Suetonius, Plutarch and other classical historians, as well as from medieval chroniclers such as Villehardouin and 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. The birth charts that he prepared himself were based on planetary tables already published by professional astrologers, though he made many copying errors. (Refer to the analysis of these charts by Brind'Amour, 1993, and compare Gruber's comprehensive critique of Nostradamus’ horoscope for Crown Prince Rudolph Maximilian.)
His major prophetic source 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 (see  which included extracts from Michael Psellus'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. The fact that they reportedly burned with an unnaturally brilliant flame suggests, however, that some of them were manuscripts on vellum, which was routinely treated with saltpeter.
Only in the 17th century did people start to notice his reliance on earlier 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' 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 sublimity — Preface to César, 1555
Not that I would attribute to myself either the name or the role of a prophet — Preface to César, 1555
[S]ome 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 Henri II, 1558
I do but make bold to predict (not that I guarantee the slightest thing at all), thanks to my researches and the consideration of what judicial Astrology promises me and sometimes gives me to know, principally in the form of warnings, so that folk may know that with which the celestial stars do threaten them. Not that I am foolish enough to pretend to be a prophet. — Open letter to Privy Councillor (later Chancellor) Birague, 15 June 1566
His rejection of the title 'prophet' also squares with the fact that he entitled his book
Detail from title-page of the original 1555 (Albi) edition of Nostradamus' Les Propheties
(a title that, in French, as easily means "The Prophecies, by M. Michel Nostradamus", which is precisely 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.) Any criticism of Nostradamus for claiming to be a prophet, in other words, would have been for doing what he never claimed to be doing in the first place.
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 (i.e., ritually "sleeping on it"). 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: the second can be seen by visiting the relevant facsimile site (see External Links). 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" (compare, once again, External References to the original texts).
Most of the quatrains deal with disasters, such as plagues, earthquakes, wars, floods, invasions, murders, droughts, and battles — all undated and based on foreshadowings by the Mirabilis Liber. Some quatrains cover these disasters in overall terms; others concern a single person or small group of persons. Some cover a single town, others several towns in several countries. A major, underlying theme is an impending invasion of Europe by Muslim forces from further east and south headed by the expected Antichrist, directly reflecting the then-current Ottoman invasions and the earlier Saracen (that is, Arab) equivalents, as well as the prior expectations of the Mirabilis Liber. All of this is presented in the context of the supposedly imminent end of the world, a conviction that sparked numerous collections of end-time prophecies at the time, not least an unpublished collection by Christopher Columbus.
Some scholars believe that Nostradamus wrote not to be a prophet, but to comment on events that were happening in his own time, writing in his elusive way — using highly metaphorical and cryptic language - to avoid persecution. This is similar to the Preterist interpretation of the Book of Revelation.
Nostradamus enthusiasts have credited him with predicting numerous events in world history, from the Great Fire of London, by way of the rise of Napoleon and Adolf Hitler, to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. See 'Alternative views' below.
Skeptics such as Randi suggest, however, that his reputation as a prophet is largely manufactured by modern-day supporters who fit his words to events that have either already occurred or are so imminent as to be inevitable, a process known as "retroactive clairvoyance." There is no evidence in the academic literature (see Sources) to suggest that any Nostradamus quatrain has ever been interpreted as predicting a specific event before it occurred, other than in vague, general terms that could equally apply to any number of other events.
A range of quite different views are expressed in printed literature and on the internet. At one end of the spectrum, there are extreme academic views such as those of Jacques Halbronn (see  and ), suggesting at great length and with great complexity that Nostradamus' Prophecies are antedated forgeries written by later hands with a political axe to grind. Although Halbronn possibly knows more about the texts and associated archives than almost anybody else alive (he helped dig out and research many of them), most other specialists in the field reject this view.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are numerous fairly recent popular books, and thousands of private websites, suggesting not only that the Prophecies are genuine but that Nostradamus was a true prophet. Thanks to the vagaries of interpretation, no two of them agree on exactly what he predicted, whether for our past or for our future. There is a consensus among these works, however, that he predicted the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, Hitler, both World Wars, and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is also a consensus that he predicted whatever major event had just happened at the time of each book's publication, from the Apollo moon landings, through the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and the Challenger disaster, to the events of 9/11: this 'movable feast' aspect appears to be characteristic of the genre.
Possibly the first of these books to become truly popular in English was Henry C Roberts' The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus of 1947, reprinted at least seven times during the next 40 years, which contained both transcriptions and translations, with brief commentaries. This was followed in 1961 by Edgar Leoni's dispassionate Nostradamus and His Prophecies, which is universally regarded as by far the best and most comprehensive treatment and analysis of Nostradamus in English prior to 1990. After that came Erika Cheetham's well-known The Prophecies of Nostradamus, incorporating a reprint of the posthumous 1568 edition, which was reprinted, revised and republished several times from 1973 onwards, latterly as The Final Prophecies of Nostradamus. This went on to serve as the basis for Orson Welles' celebrated film/video The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. Apart from a two-part translation of Jean-Charles de Fontbrune's Nostradamus: historien et prophète of 1980, the series could be said to have culminated in John Hogue's well-known books on the seer from about 1994 onwards, including Nostradamus: The Complete Prophecies (1999) and, most recently, Nostradamus: A Life and Myth (2003).
With the exception of Roberts, these books and their many popular imitators were almost unanimous not merely about Nostradamus' powers of prophecy, but also about various aspects of his biography. He had been a descendant of the Israelite tribe of Issachar; he had been educated by his grandfathers, who had both been physicians to the court of Good King René of Provence; he had attended Montpellier University in 1525 to gain his first degree: after returning there in 1529 he had successfully taken his medical doctorate; he had gone on to lecture in the Medical Faculty there until his views became too unpopular; he had supported the heliocentric view of the universe; he had travelled to the north-east of France, where he had composed prophecies at the abbey of Orval; in the course of his travels he had performed a variety of prodigies, including identifying a future Pope; he had successfully cured the Plague at Aix-en-Provence and elsewhere; he had engaged in 'scrying' using either a magic mirror or a bowl of water; he had been joined by his secretary Chavigny at Easter 1554; having published the first installment of his Propheties, he had been summoned by Queen Catherine de Médicis to Paris in 1556 to discuss with her his prophecy at quatrain I.35 that her husband King Henri II would be killed in a duel; he had examined the royal children at Blois; he had been buried standing up; and he had been found, when dug up at the French Revolution, to be wearing a medallion bearing the exact date of his disinterment.
From the 1980s onwards, however, an academic reaction set in, especially in France. The publication in 1983 of Nostradamus' private correspondence and, during succeeding years, of the original editions of 1555 and 1557 discovered by Chomarat and Benazra, together with the unearthing of much original archival material revealed that much that was claimed about Nostradamus simply didn't fit the documented facts. The academics pointed out that not one of the claims just listed was backed up by any known contemporary documentary evidence. Most of them had evidently been based on unsourced rumours retailed as 'fact' by much later commentators such as Jaubert (1656), Guynaud (1693) and Bareste (1840), on modern misunderstandings of the 16th-century French texts, or on pure invention. Even the suggestion that quatrain I.35 had successfully prophesied King Henri II's death did not actually appear in print for the first time until 1614, 55 years after the event.
On top of that, the academics, who themselves tend to eschew any attempt at 'interpretation', complained that the English translations were usually of poor quality, seemed to display little or no knowledge of 16th-century French, were tendentious and, at worst, were sometimes twisted to fit the events to which they were supposed to refer (or vice versa). None of them, certainly, were based on the original editions: Roberts had based himself on that of 1672, Cheetham and Hogue on the posthumous edition of 1568. Even the relatively respectable Leoni accepted on his page 115 that he had never seen an original edition, and on earlier pages indicated that much of his biographical material was unsourced.
However, none of this research and criticism was originally known to most of the English-language commentators, by function of the dates when they were writing and, to some extent, of the language it was written in. Hogue, admittedly, was in a position to take advantage of it, but it was only in 2003 that he accepted that some of his earlier biographical material had in fact been 'apocryphal'. Meanwhile the scholars were particularly scathing about later attempts by some lesser-known authors (Hewitt, 1994; Ovason, 1997; Ramotti, 1998) to extract 'hidden' meanings from the texts with the aid of anagrams, numerical codes, graphs and other devices.
The prophecies retold and expanded by Nostradamus have figured largely in popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries. As well as being the subject of hundreds of books (both fiction and nonfiction), Nostradamus' life has been depicted in several films and videos, and his life and writings continue to be a subject of media interest.
There have also been several well-known internet hoaxes, where quatrains in the style of Nostradamus have been circulated by e-mail as the real thing. The best-known examples concern the collapse of the World Trade Center in the attacks of September 11, 2001, which led both to hoaxes and to reinterpretations by enthusiasts of several quatrains as supposed prophecies.
The September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City led to immediate speculation as to whether Nostradamus had predicted the events. Nostradamus enthusiasts pointed to Quatrains VI.97 and I.87 as possible predictions, but the scholars universally discounted these as irrelevant (compare the relevant sections of the Lemesurier and Snopes websites listed under External Links).
- For comparison with another predictive protoscience see Alchemy.
- List of astrologers
- Vaticinia Nostradami
- Orus Apollo, 1545 (?), unpublished ms; Almanachs, Presages and Pronostications, 1550-1567; Ein Erschrecklich und Wunderbarlich Zeychen..., Nuremberg, 1554; Les Propheties, Lyon, 1555, 1557, 1568; Traite des fardemens et des confitures, 1555, 1556, 1557; Paraphrase de C. Galen sus l'exhortation de Menodote, 1557; Lettre de Maistre Michel Nostradamus, de Salon de Craux en Provence, A la Royne mere du Roy, 1566
- Leroy, Dr Edgar, Nostradamus, ses origines, sa vie, son oeuvre, 1972 (the seminal biographical study)
- Dupèbe, Jean, Nostradamus: Lettres inédites, 1983
- Chomarat, Michel, and Laroche, Jean-Paul: Bibliographie Nostradamus (1989)
- Benazra, Robert: Répertoire chronologique nostradamique (1990)
- Randi, James, The Mask of Nostradamus, 1993
- Rollet, Pierre, Nostradamus: Interprétation des hiéroglyphes de Horapollo, 1993
- Brind'Amour, Pierre: Nostradamus astrophile, 1993; Nostradamus. Les premières Centuries ou Prophéties, 1996
- Lemesurier, Peter, The Nostradamus Encyclopedia, 1997; The Unknown Nostradamus, 2003; Nostradamus: The Illustrated Prophecies, 2003
- Prévost, Roger, Nostradamus, le mythe et la réalité, 1999
- Chevignard, Bernard, Présages de Nostradamus 1999
- Wilson, Ian, Nostradamus: The Evidence, 2002
- Clébert, Jean-Paul, Prophéties de Nostradamus, 2003
- Gruber, Dr Elmar, Nostradamus: sein Leben, sein Werk und die wahre Bedeutung seiner Prophezeiungen, 2003
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