For anyone with the tendency to let the mind wander across centuries, even millennia, Nostradamus’ corner of the Rhône delta in sunlit southern Provence was a singularly appropriate place to be born. Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus it was already settled by Gauls, a Celtic people proficient in metalwork and chariotry thought to have originated from Turkey. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s empire-building, Hellenistic Greeks arrived in the second century bc in their sleek, sail-assisted galleys. On exploring the environs of the craggy, pine-clad hills a few miles inland from the flat delta terrain they discovered a huge resource of excellent building stone. This they quarried to construct a most attractive small town, the remains of which, a mere five-minute stroll from Nostradamus’ birthplace, are now recognised as France’s oldest-known civilised buildings.
The Romans in their turn further developed what the Greeks had begun, renaming the town Glanum. After their departure the now Christianised and ever independent-minded Provençals opted to build their own separate township, St-Rémy-de-Provence. Their perennial usage of Glanum’s dressed stone, their repeated discoveries of buried Roman artefacts, and the survival above ground of some of the larger Roman monuments ensured that the region’s ancient past was not forgotten. By the turn of the Christian era’s sixteenth century St-Rémy had grown into a stout-walled little town of perhaps a couple of thousand inhabitants. And according to the local folklore, it was in a modest-looking house on the western side of its narrow Rue de Viguier (today renamed Rue Hoche) that the infant Michel de Nostredame, later to style himself ‘Nostradamus’, was born on December 14, 1503.
What the St-Rémy Tourist Office insists is that same house, no. 6, still stands to this day, marked by a rather dingy post-Second World War marble plaque set above the doorway. Peter Lemesurier has sharply criticised his fellow Nostradamian John Hogue for illustrating the right street but the wrong house on the title-page of his lavishly illustrated Nostradamus: The New Revelations. However, since my wife and I managed to miss the plaque during our first stroll down the street, our sympathies lie somewhat with Hogue. Undeniably no. 6, which is not open to the public, today has a distinctly uninviting and unprepossessing appearance. However, as pointed out by St-Rémy’s early twentieth-century local historian Henri Rolland, structural alterations carried out since Nostradamus’ time have caused the edifice to lose ‘all of its character and distinctiveness, its chimney, its sculptures and the tower which once topped it’.
As a year in which to be born, 1503 had a certain charm. Around the very same month that the infant Michel first sucked at his mother’s breast the fifty-seven-year-old Christopher Columbus was crossing the Atlantic on his fourth and last voyage opening up the New World. The fifty-one-year-old Leonardo da Vinci was in Florence putting the finishing touches to his portrait of Mona Lisa. The twenty-eight-year-old Michelangelo was in the same city chipping away at his sculpture of David. The crusty, newly elected Pope Julius II, who would commission Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, was just finding his way around the Vatican in Rome. And at the University of Erfurt in Germany a self-opinionated twenty-year-old student called Martin Luther was studying for his law examinations.
On Nostradamus’ parents and their ancestry, the world of Nostradamian studies stands deeply indebted to a dedicated St-Rémy physician, Dr Edgar Leroy, who died in 1965, for some exhaustive researches4 that have corrected many of the myths and misinformation promulgated by earlier Nostradamian ‘authorities’. Ironically, not the least of this misinformation, sadly still peddled by many authors, was derived from members of the de Nostredame family themselves, whose penchant for social respectability could and sometimes did outweigh their concern for the truth.
The certain family facts are that Nostradamus’ father was one Jaume (alternatively Jacques or James) de Nostredame, who made his living as a merchant, trading particularly in grain. Jaume seems to have enjoyed a comfortable enough living, no doubt because Frenchmen and women of the sixteenth century had every bit as much of a fondness for baguettes and other grain products as their modern-day descendants. Nostradamus’ mother was named Reynière (or, in modern styling, Renée) de St-Rémy.
In English ‘de Nostredame’ means, of course, ‘of Our Lady’, the ‘Lady’ in question being the Virgin Mary. It is not exactly a typical French surname, and therefore of itself it provides an important clue to the family’s chequered past. Quite definitely Jaume’s and possibly even Reynière’s parents ascended from Jewish forebears. In the sixteenth century these were disparagingly known as marrans or (in Spanish) marranos, from their having been forced to convert to Christianity at a time when western Europe’s Jews were about as popular as their descendants became in Germany during Hitler’s Third Reich.
Long before Michel de Nostredame’s birth, anti-Semitism had become deeply entrenched throughout much of Europe. When the devastating plague known as the Black Death broke out in the mid-fourteenth century, France’s Jewish population were accused by none other than the court poet Guillaume de Machaut of having caused the epidemic by poisoning the wells. Sometimes positively incited by their clergy, Christians committed terrible atrocities against Jews, among other things setting alight wooden houses in which they had trapped whole populations of men, women and children. Officially, Jews were banned altogether from France after 1394. Likewise in the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castile life was made as intolerable as possible for them. Just nine years before Nostradamus’ birth Columbus’ patrons Ferdinand and Isabella, under whom the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile became united, expelled them from their entire territory.
Thankfully for Nostradamus’ immediate forebears, before 1480 Provence’s inhabitants belonged neither to French nor to Spanish jurisdiction. Instead, from 1433 their ruler had been the humane and enlightened René of Anjou, an independent and popular monarch with a passion for painting, music, poetry and theatrical entertainment, who also encouraged commerce to flourish. Mindful, no doubt, that Jewish communities tended to be very good at oiling the wheels of commerce, in 1454 ‘good King René’ issued an edict specifically allowing Provençal Jews to practise their religion free of all duress. This inevitably attracted otherwise displaced Jews into the region, with Avignon, the former papal seat just to the north of St-Rémy, receiving a particularly sizeable cluster.
All went well for these new communities up to King René’s death, at the age of seventy-two in 1480. Then, by simple, peaceful inheritance, Provence passed into French crown tutelage; whereupon, within eight years, the French King Charles VIII (ironically known as the Affable) began insisting that all Jews, and particularly the large number that had taken up residence in Provence, should choose between converting to Christianity or having everything that they owned forcibly confiscated. Charles’ successor Louis XII followed this up with a similar demand in 1501.
One of the Jewish families thus affected was that of the Gassonets of Avignon, whose head, Guy de Gassonet, saw no alternative other than opting for conversion. His wife Astrugue, however, proved more intransigent, and so the couple went their separate ways. Guy thereupon re-married, this time to a Christian, Blanche de Sainte-Marie. The union appears to have inspired him to signify his acceptance of Christianity more publicly by changing his surname to de Nostredame and his forename to Peyrot, that is, Pierre or Peter. ‘Peyrot’ and Blanche duly went on to have six children, one of whom was Jaume. So when Jaume expanded upon his father’s business by setting up shop and home in nearby St-Rémy, he did so under the name of Jaume de Nostredame. This was how, by succession (and some adroit Latinisation), the world subsequently acquired its prophet named ‘Nostradamus’.
In the case of Michel de Nostredame’s mother Reynière she, unlike her Avignon husband, actually hailed from St-Rémy, evident not least from her surname. One of her forebears was particularly fondly remembered by her son later in life, his maternal great-grandfather Jean de Saint-Rémy, whose house in the rue du Viguier Jaume appears to have received as dowry, along with various other lands, vineyards and a tile-works. The elderly Jean would seem to have ceded the house to his grandson-in-law Jaume on the understanding that he would be allowed to live out his days there.
For visitors to Provence’s Nostradamus Museum in Salon-de-Provence – the town south-east of St-Rémy where Nostradamus would spend the latter part of his life – the first scene in an attractively presented introductory sound-and-light show consists of a waxwork. The young Michel is represented as listening with rapt attention to words of wisdom being imparted to him by Jean de Saint-Rémy. Behind the pair is painted an attractive diorama of St-Rémy’s surrounding countryside, dotted with its still extant Roman landmarks
Concerning Jean, certain fictions would later be generated by Michel’s brother Jéhan, author of a Lives of the Most Ancient Provençal Poets (1575) upon which Nostradamus’ son César later drew heavily for his History and Chronicle of Provence.8 These were corroborated by others of the time who might be expected to be knowledgeable. Incorrectly, he was supposed to have been a great nobleman of the court of King René, none other than the official court physician, and one of the popular monarch’s chief officers. As Dr Leroy has exhaustively determined, the hard historical facts are rather different. Jean may well have been a physician. And as St-Rémy’s clavaire, or Treasurer, for which there is also documentary evidence, he may even have attended King René when the latter made one of his periodic visits to St-Rémy, along with other towns in his realm. But as to Jean’s having had any noble status, or any long-term attachment to the royal court, both may be firmly ruled out
This said, there is much to suggest, as the Nostradamus Museum’s colourful waxwork so strongly implies, that Jean de Saint-Rémy played an important if not pivotal role in directing his young great-grandson’s education. It is virtually certain that he was well versed in the astrology that Nostradamus would later pursue with such enthusiasm. In the fifteenth century Jean would almost automatically have been taught this as part of his medical training, and as such he may well have been the first to cast his great-grandson’s horoscope.
For those with an interest in such matters, Nostradamus has been calculated by modern-day astrologers, using sixteenth-century methodology, to have been born with the Sun in Capricorn, and the three superior planets, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, all on the opposite side of the zodiac, in Cancer. Some corroboration of the accuracy of this derives from a later description by Nostradamus of the imprint that he had engraved on his signet ring: ‘The Sun is represented at the top, and three planets at the bottom.’ Amongst those with astrological knowledge this powerful conjunction of planets, together with other facets of the same horoscope, is said to indicate Nostradamus’ star-driven inclination towards occultism and like interests. Recognising this, Jean may well have deliberately fostered this tendency in the boy, teaching him the art of creating a horoscope himself, at the same time encouraging a familiarity with the Bible and with the works of classical writers. Jean may also have ensured that Michel would receive the necessary grounding in the Latin language, and may overall have been responsible for much that would later become the quintessential Nostradamus.
Prime corroborative evidence for this is to be found in a letter which Nostradamus would write in 1561, when he was fifty-eight. In this he specifically told a correspondent that he could possibly improve on a particular horoscope by ‘using a planisphere with another instrument which came to me from my maternal great-grandfather Jean de Saint-Rémy’. A planisphere is an instrument that, when set with a particular date and time, seemingly magically presents a two-dimensional map of the positions of the stars as these would have looked above the horizon at that moment. Though the ancient Greeks and Romans had planispheres, and the medieval Arabs and Persians followed them in this, such gadgetry was hardly one of the accoutrements to be expected in a normal sixteenth-century household. So Jean de Saint-Rémy’s possession of both a planisphere and what was almost certainly an astrolabe (the ‘other instrument’ referred to by Nostradamus, basically a more advanced version of the planisphere), unmistakably indicates his serious interest in the stars, at a time, well over a century before the invention of the telescope, when astrology and astronomy were scarcely differentiated.
Additionally, the details of the sixteenth-century appearance of Jean’s Rue Viguier house, given in Jaume de Nostredame’s dowry document, specifically describe it as having one floor open to the sky. The topmost floor may well therefore have taken the form of the tower which can be seen in some early depictions of the house, but which, as pointed out by Henri Rolland, has long since disappeared. In an era centuries before street-lighting, such a top-floor ‘observatory’ would have provided Jean with an ideal vantage-point for his star-gazing. We may well imagine that it was he who introduced such delights to the young Michel, duly going on to bequeath him his treasured planisphere and his astrolabe on recognising his natural interest in these matters. Further corroboration of this derives from a brief biography that was compiled after Nostradamus’ death by the secretary whom he had employed during his later years, Jean Aimé de Chavigny. Though Chavigny’s information cannot always be considered reliable, in his Brief Discourse he specifically described Nostradamus’ maternal great-grandfather as having given the youngster his ‘first taste of the Celestial Sciences’.
Again as suggested by Salon-de-Provence’s Nostradamus Museum diorama, Jean de Saint-Rémy may also have been responsible for introducing his great-grandson to a quite different type of inspiration, the region’s historic remains from the Roman era, some of which had never ceased to be visible. As earlier remarked, the former Roman town of Glanum lay less than a mile to the south of St-Rémy, and from this there had survived to Nostradamus’ time, and still to this day, an imposing pair of Roman monuments known as ‘Les Antiques’.
The first of these, long known locally as the ‘Arc’, is a Roman triumphal arch in the manner of London’s Marble Arch, covered with relief sculptures that depict Julius Caesar’s conquest of the former Greek colony of Gaul in 49 bc. The other monument, the ‘Mausole’, which stands only a few feet away and soars to over 19 metres high, consists of a two-storeyed mausoleum set on a square pedestal, its lower storey decorated with relief sculptures of scenes from the Trojan War, its upper storey replete with images of gods and sea-monsters.
If Nostradamus had strolled even a brief distance from St-Rémy with his great-grandfather he could hardly have missed these monuments, still evident to anyone approaching the town by road from Marseilles to this day. A positive confirmation that they were of considerably more than passing interest to young Michel is his clear reference to them amongst his later writings, dating from long after he had left St-Rémy.
Thus in a popular treatise that was published in 1555, when he had long become settled in Salon-de-Provence, Nostradamus pointedly spoke of the town of his childhood as ‘Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, “called Sextrophea”’. This refers unmistakably to the fact that the ‘Mausole’, which in French is also called a trophée, bore a badly effaced Latin inscription of which the most legible letters are ‘SEXT …’, leading to the local belief that it had once belonged to a Roman called Sextus.
Nostradamus also unmistakably referred to the same monument again in his Prophecies, published in stages between 1555 and his death:
Between two rocks the booty will be taken
Of SEXT. the ‘mansol’ will lose its renown.
There is general recognition that ‘mansol’ is a misprint for ‘mausol[e]’ – misprints being not uncommon amongst early printed editions of Nostradamus’ writings – as also in another verse:
Salon, Mansol, Tarascon of SEX. the arch,
Where still stands the pyramid.
Salon and Tarascon are readily identifiable as towns in the same Nostradamian region where, in St-Rémy’s environs, the ‘SEX’-inscribed Mausole and arch are to be found. Salon is some seventeen miles south-east of St-Rémy, and, as pointed out earlier, is where Nostradamus spent much of the latter part of his life. Tarascon is six miles to St-Rémy’s west and is where King René of Anjou had a particularly magnificent castle that still stands overlooking the mighty river Rhône.
And in this same context the ‘pyramid’ comprises another time-honoured landmark in the same locality, even if its shape is not what might normally be embraced by the word ‘pyramid’. Less than a mile from St-Rémy, and only a few hundred yards from the Arch and the Mausole, there is still to be found the ancient quarry from which the Greeks and Romans constructed Glanum. The chisel-marks of the old stonemasons continue to be readily visible on its cavernous walls and ceilings. Privately owned, this quarry is commercially operated as a tourist attraction, offering visitors a self-guided tour of a motley collection of Roman and later antiquities, amongst which there stands a strangely isolated and crudely hewn pillar of stone traditionally known locally as the Pyramide. A number of authors have struggled to find the reason for this appellation, the simple explanation being that in Nostradamus’ sixteenth century, in both English and French, ‘pyramid’ was a term commonly used to describe the ancient Egyptian pillars we today call obelisks. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123 the line ‘pyramids built up with newer might’ refers to four Egyptian-style obelisks crafted for the tomb of the second Earl of Southampton.
Unmistakably, therefore, Nostradamus during his childhood in St-Rémy had wandered amongst these ancient remains. Arguably encouraged by his great-grandfather, he became fascinated by them. His Latin education, the acquisition of which is quite definite from his later writings, would have further fuelled this fascination. It would have enabled him to read the inscriptions on these ancient monuments and to relate them to the accounts of the past by Roman historians that, thanks to the printing press and the stimulation of interest by the Renaissance,
were becoming increasingly accessible to those literate in Latin. And of course a mind that could become so absorbed by wandering thousands of years back into the past might well in time find a similar fascination for the future.
Evident from surviving documentation in Provençal archives is apparent that during Michel Nostradamus’ childhood his father Jaume became sufficiently well-trusted in St-Rémy to become a notary for the town. That he took on this responsibility without giving up his occupation as a merchant is also apparent from a document of July 8, 1510 specifically recording him as a ‘notary and merchant of the town of Saint-Rémy’. When France’s King Louis XII, hard-pressed for cash because of the expenses of the wars he was waging
in Italy, imposed a new ‘ancestry’ tax upon ‘new Christians descended from true Judaic and Hebrew stock and race’, Jaume is listed along with two others from St-Rémy as dutifully paying 25 livres on 21st December 1512. In further documents from 1513 to 1517 Jaume can be seen to have acted in the capacities of notary, scribe and official clerk, positions that he could not have held without considerable local respect together with the appropriate requirement of literacy and numeracy.
Adding to the impression of Jaume’s prosperity – also the de Nostredames’ general good health – is the fact that, as the first-born son, the young Michel, grew up, a sizeable number of further offspring were added to the family. The documentation is somewhat patchy. Nonetheless Michel appears to have been followed first by a sister, Delphine, of whom little is known. Then in 1507 Reynière produced Jéhan, clearly named after his maternal great-grandfather Jean. Some four years junior to Michel, young Jéhan probably sat side by side with his elder brother while the veteran Jean regaled them with stories from history, the apparent fruit of this in Jéhan’s case being the history of Provence’s poets that he wrote later in life. Jéhan went on to become well-respected and rewarded as lawyer and procureur to the Parlement, Provence’s local government body, based at Aix. And since we will later hear of Michel visiting Jéhan, and the pair exchanging information, all the indications are that throughout the brothers’ lives there was a close bond between them, something particularly fostered in Jewish families.
Jaume and Reynière further produced Pierre and Hector, their birth-dates unknown; also Louis, born in 1522, by which time Michel was nineteen. There was also a Bertrand, and possibly a second Jean. Finally, in 1523 Reynière gave birth to Antoine, who, even though his mother had by now been child-bearing for some twenty years, seems to have been healthy enough, since he grew up to become St-Rémy’s Consul, the equivalent of mayor, and to have ten children of his own.
All the indications, therefore, are that the de Nostredames were a healthy, well-educated, well~adjusted and financially comfortable family, and that despite their Jewish roots they achieved essentially complete acceptance as upright Christian citizens of St-Rémy and its surrounds. They may well have attended St-Rémy’s main church, Saint Martin, dating, in its foundation at least from a thousand years before their time. Sadly, today all too little remains of this ancient edifice. On the night of August 29, 1818 the church collapsed into rubble and was rebuilt in more modern style. Today the fourteenth-century bell-tower is the only feature that the de Nostredames would still recognise. Alternatively, however, perhaps attracted by the name, it is possible that the family attended the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Pitié that still stands on the town’s southern outskirts.
It is a matter of public record that by 1540 the brothers Jaume and Pierre de Nostredame, young Michel’s father and uncle respectively, had won sufficient acceptance amongst both the Provençal and the wider community to become officially naturalised as Frenchmen. This was necessary not only because of their Jewish parentage, but also because their native Avignon, which had become a ‘Vatican City’ within France in the period of the Avignon Popes, had been papal property since 1348, and would remain so until the French Revolution. On October 22, 1540, far to the north at Nayssons-sur-Seine, King François I signed the formal document recognising Jaume’s and Pierre’s full French nationality. The preamble to this clearly sets out Jaume’s known family background:
We have received the humble supplication of our well-beloved Jacques de Nostredame, inhabitant of our town of Saint-Rémy in our said country of Provence, containing [the information] that he was born in the town of Avignon, a subordinate member of our said country of Provence, and that for the last forty years … he has lived in our country of Provence and in the said town of Saint-Rémy in which he has wife and children.
While the date of Jaume’s death is not known exactly, it must have been towards the end of 1546 or early in 1547, by which time he would have been well into his seventies at least. He certainly seems to have been dead some time before February 6, 1547, since a document issued in St-Rémy on that date speaks of Michel’s brothers Jéhan, Bertrand, Hector and Antoine as being his children and co-heirs.
Long before this, however, the moment had inevitably come for Michel to carve out a career path for himself. And as we are about to discover, it was a path that would not be without its pitfalls and painful adversities.
Copyright © 2002, 2007 by Ian Wilson. All rights reserved.