Thursday, April 16, 2015
N IS FOR MICHEL NOSTRADAMUS
(1503 - 1566)
Michel de Nostredame was born in Provence, France, one of at least nine siblings. His paternal grandfather had been Jewish but had converted to Catholicism in the 1450s, taking the Christian name Pierre and the surname Nostredame ("Our Lady"). Pierre's son Jaume was a grain-dealer, a notary, and (judging by the size of his family) a busy man.
At 15 Michel entered the University at Avignon, but a year later the university was forced to close due to a plague outbreak. Michel's response to this setback was to travel the countryside for the next eight years, researching herbal remedies and at some point beginning to work as an apothecary. In 1529 he entered the University of Montpelier to become a physician, but was expelled when it was discovered that he had previously worked as an apothecary, a "manual trade." Yes, really.
Nostredame continued working, and gained a name for himself by inventing a "rose pill" that some believed provided protection from the plague. He moved to Agen in southwestern France in 1531 and married there, but after his wife and two children died in 1534, he returned to a nomadic life for the next decade.
Surfacing again in 1545, he devoted himself to fighting outbreaks of the plague, first in Marseilles and then in Aix-en-Provence, near his birthplace. At about the same time, he began to be interested in the occult.
In 1550 Nostredame published an almanac, using the Latinized version of his name for the first time. The almanac proved such a success that Nostradamus continued to publish at least one of them per year for the rest of his life. They were the medium in which he first began circulating his prophecies, over 6,000 of which appeared in one or another of the almanacs.
Encouraged by the response, Nostradamus began working on the seminal achievement of his life: a set of 1,000 quatrains, eventually published in three installments and later collected into a book entitled Les Propheties. (1555). He mixed Greek, Italian, Latin and Provençale in with his French to try to avoid running afoul of the Inquisition, but in fact, the Church never had any problem with Nostradamus or his prophecies. This book, which has never gone out of print, is the reason all of us have heard his name at some point.
Opinions about the validity of his predictions run the gamut. Fortunately for Nostradamus, one of his biggest fans was Catherine de Medicis, wife of the French king Henry II, who summoned him to Paris to explain his prophecies, and eventually made him a counselor and physician to her son Charles, the heir to the throne.
The prophecies in Nostradamus's book were often written in symbolic terms that could be interpreted in many different ways. Most of them were poetic descriptions of future catastrophic events. Here's an example: you know how in my Inigo Jones post a few days ago I mentioned the Great Fire of London in 1666? It was an epic disaster, raging for three days and destroying the vast majority of homes in the city, as well as thousands of businesses.
Well, here's one of Nostradamus's quatrains that believers say predicted that very fire:
The blood of the just will be lacking in London,
Burnt through lighting of twenty threes the six [read as '66];
The ancient Lady will topple from her high place,
Many of the same sect will be killed.
I haven't seen any interpretation that suggests who "the ancient Lady" might have been, but some have noted the ironic fact that the fire brought one positive result: it wiped out the population of urban rats that had been spreading the plague through the city, thus effectively cleansing London of the disease. So, "the blood of the just will be lacking in London" = peoples' blood will stay in their bodies where it belongs, instead of being sucked out by monstrous vermin. "Many of the same sect will be killed" = hmmm. Recordkeeping was not exact, but what records survive seem to suggest that fewer than ten people were killed in the entire city by the fire.
I'll give you one more.
The young lion will overcome the older one,
On the field of combat in a single battle;
He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage,
Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death.
In 1559, King Henry II of France engaged in a friendly joust with the Comte de Montgomery, who was six years his junior. Montgomery's lance pierced the visor of the King's helmet and split in two; one piece pierced the King's eye and the other lodged in his cheek. King Henry suffered for ten days before dying of his wounds.
Some people, citing to specific quatrains, say that Nostradamus predicted the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Kennedy assassinations, and the September 11th attacks. Me, I'm among the skeptics, other than to say that Nostradamus believed that a lot of bad shit was going to happen in the world, and he was absolutely right. But it doesn't take the gift of prophecy to know that, does it? The man wrote over 7,000 prophecies, folks, and only a handful are ever cited as even arguably referring to future events. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
I think I'll just reserve my respect for Nostradamus for his courage in risking his life repeatedly to try to stop the spread of the plague. But please don't let me stop you from holding views that differ from mine. I'd love to know: what do you think of Nostradamus and his prophecies?