Nostradamus (1503–1566)
Medieval French physician and prophet. Nostradamus was
born Michel de Nostredame on December 24, 1503, in St.
Remey de Provence. A short time before his birth his Jewish
family had changed its name from Gassonet to Nostredame as
a reaction to a ‘‘convert or go into exile’’ order of the government
in Provence. He received his medical training at Montpellier.
He sometimes voiced dissension with the teachings of
the Catholic priests, who dismissed the study of astrology and
the assertions of Copernicus 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 persecuted because of his Jewish
background. Earlier, from his grandfathers he had secretly
learned mystical areas of Jewish wisdom, including the Kabbalah
and alchemy. He graduated in 1525 and was licensed as
a physician. Four years later he received his full medical degree.
He established his reputation by treating the ill during
the plague in southern France. For a while he lived in Agen to
work with Julius Caeser Scaliger, a prominent physician of the
day, but moved on to Aix-en-Provence and Lyons during the
1530s. He eventually settled in Salon.
Over the years Nostradamus (the Latin version of his name)
became a practitioner of astrology and related occult arts. He
published his first book, an astrological almanac (issued annually
for several years), in 1550. Five years later he issued a popular
book of recipes for cosmetics and various medical remedies.
That same year he also published the first edition of the
book from which his current fame is largely derived, The Centuries.
In reference to Nostradamus’s writings, a ‘‘century’’ referred
to a grouping of one hundred verses, each verse being a fourline
poem called a quatrain. It was this work that brought Nostradamus
his fame. The 1555 edition contained the first three
centuries and 53 quatrains of ‘‘Century Four.’’ A second edition
two years later had 640 quatrains and Centuries Eight through
Ten were published as a separate volume in 1558. The first English
edition, published in 1672, also had eight additional quatrains
from the ‘‘Century Seven’’ not in the French editions. As
a result of the success of the first edition, in 1556 Nostradamus
was invited to Paris as a guest of the French queen Catherine
de Médicis. With the financial support she gave him, he was
able to complete his writings of the prophetic verses.
The quatrains were written in a cryptic and symbolic fashion
requiring some interpretation and thus offering room for a
wide variety of understandings of exactly to which events and
persons Nostradamus was making reference. Among the most
famous of quatrains is one often seen as referring to the London
Fire of 1666 (though more critical interpreters see a reference
to the burning of Protestants by Queen Mary I of England,
a contemporary of Nostradamus)
The blood of the just shall be wanting in London, Burnt by
thunderbolts of twenty three the Six(es), The ancient dame
shall fall from [her] high place, Of the same sect many shall be
Nostradamus died in June 1566 of congestive heart failure.
He was succeeded by a colleague, Jean-Aimé de Chavigny, also
a physician, who immediately began work on a biography. De
Chavigny also published his interpretations of 126 of the quatrains.
Over the centuries a number of additional interpreters
have arisen (including Theophilus de Garencieres, who translated
the quatrains into English (1672)), all of whom have
championed the reputed accomplishments of Nostradamus as
a seer of future events and emphasized those quatrains presaging
events soon to occur. Garancieres’s effort was marred by his
acceptance of two fake quatrains written to attack French
Roman Catholic Cardinal Jules Mazarin, who also served as the
French prime minister.
Modern interest in Nostradamus, which has spawned a massive
popular literature during the last generation, began with
Charles Ward’s work, Oracles of Nostradamus (1891). One prominent
student of the quatrains, Edgar Leoni, submitted his
lengthy treatise as a master’s thesis at Harvard University
(1961). Interpreters claim Nostradamus predicted Hitler’s rise
to power as well as the explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger
in 1986.The popular interest in Nostradamus has been
countered by the observations of a variety of historians who
have offered other explanations of his prophetic verse (often
to the detriment of his reputation), and by some modern psychic
debunkers, such as stage magician James Randi.
[Note There is a large literature on Nostradamus, of which
only a selected list is given here. For a bibliography of the 25
oldest editions of Nostradamus, published up to 1689, compiled
by Carl Graf von Klinckowstroem, see Zeitschrift für Bücherfreude,
March 1913.]
Cheetham, Erika. The Prophecies of Nostradamus. New York
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972. Reprint, London Neville Spearman,
1973. Reprint, London Corgi, 1975.
Du Vignois, Elisée. Notre histoire racontée à l’avance par Nostradamus.
Paris, 1910.
Hogue, John. Nostradamus and the Millennium. Garden City,
N.Y. Doubleday, 1987.
The Nostradamian Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
Howe, Ellic. Urania’s Children The Strange World of the Astrologers.
London William Kimber, 1967. Rev. ed. as Astrology and
Psychological Warfare During World War II. London, 1972. Reprinted
as Astrology A Recent History Including the Untold Story of
Its Role in World War II. New York Walker, 1968.
Laver, James. Nostradamus, or the Future Foretold. London
Collins, 1942. Reprint, UK Penguin Books, 1952. Reprint,
London George Mann, 1973.
Leoni, Edgar. Nostradamus and His Prophecies. New York
Le Pelletier, Anatole. Les Oracles de Michel de Nostredame. 2
vols. Paris, 1867.
Le Vert, Liberte E., ed. The Prophecies and Enigmas of Nostradamus.
Glen Rock, N.J. Firebell Books, 1979.
Prieditis, Arthur A. Fate of the Nations. London Neville
Spearman; St. Paul Llewellyn Publications, 1973.
Randi, James. The Mask of Nostradamus. Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus
Books, 1993.
Roberts, Henry C. The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus.
New York, 1947.
Torné-Chiavigny, H. L’Histoire prédite et jugée par Nostradamus.
3 vols. Bordeaux, 1860–62.
Voldben, A. After Nostradamus. London Neville Spearman,
1973. Reprint, New York Citadel, 1974.
Ward, Charles A. Oracles of Nostradamus. London, 1891. Reprint,
New York Modern Library, 1942.