Snippets of French history: Nostradamus
Michel de Notredame (1503 – 1566), usually Latinised as Nostradamus, was a French astrologer, physician and reputed seer, who is best known for his book Les Propheties, a collection of over 900 “poems” allegedly predicting the future. The first book was published in 1555 and has rarely been out of print since. It predicts world events, to include both World Wars and Hitler – which is why it is still so readable.
Nostradamus was born in December 1503 in Provence, France, and baptized Michel. He was one of at least nine children of a notaire named Jacques de Notredame and his wife Reynière. Jacques’ family had originally been Jewish, but had converted to Catholicism.
Michel’s known siblings included Delphine, Jean, Pierre, Hector, Louis, Bertrand, Jean II and Antoine. Little else is known about his childhood.
At the age of 14 Nostradamus entered the University of Avignon to study for his baccalaureat. After little more than a year, he was forced to leave Avignon when the university closed its doors during an outbreak of the plague. After leaving Avignon, Nostradamus, by his own account, travelled around the countryside for eight years from 1521 researching herbal remedies. In 1529, after some years as an apothecary, he entered the University of Montpellier in the south of France to study for a doctorate in medicine.
He was soon expelled when it was discovered that he had been an apothecary, a “manual trade” expressly banned by the university statutes. He had also been slandering doctors, disputing the methods they used – probably quite rightly. Some of his publishers and correspondents, however, would later call him “Doctor”. Nostradamus continued working, presumably still as an apothecary, and became famous for creating a “rose pill” that apparently protected against the plague.
In 1531 Nostradamus moved to Agen. There he married a woman named Henriette, who bore him two children. In 1534 his wife and children died from the plague. After their deaths, he continued to travel, passing through France and possibly Italy.
For over ten years Nostradamus battled to find a cure for plague. 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.
After another visit to Italy, Nostradamus began to move away from medicine and dabble in horoscopes, necromancy (communicating with the dead), scrying (foretelling the future with a crystal ball), and good luck charms such as the hawthorn rod. Following popular trends, in 1550 he wrote an almanac for the year. He was so encouraged by the almanac’s success that he decided to write one annually. Together, they contained at least 6,338 prophecies, as well as at least eleven annual calendars, all of them starting on 1 January (today’s calendar, ie the Gregorian calendar, was not introduced till 1582. In a world which was largely illiterate, people used the Julian calendar, which is based on the stars – if they used a calendar at all).
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 mistakes.
He then began writing a book of one thousand mainly French quatrains (a bit like a 4-line poem, which constitute the largely undated prophecies for which he is most famous today. This was an era when people were vulnerable to opposition on religious grounds, but 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.
The quatrains, published in a book titled Les Propheties (The Prophecies), received a mixed reaction. Some people thought Nostradamus was a servant of evil, a fake, or insane. However many of the elite evidently thought otherwise. Catherine de’ Medici, wife of King Henry II of France, was one of Nostradamus’s 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 being accused of sorcery, which carried a death sentence, 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.
By 1566, Nostradamus had gout, which made movement very difficult and turned into edema, or dropsy. On the evening of 1 July, he told his secretary, “You will not find me alive at sunrise.” The next morning he was found dead, lying on the floor next to his bed. 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.
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