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A historical biography of Nostradamus and of a belief that we can know tomorrow and master our fears by glimpsing the future
Whenever we enter a new era, whenever the premises of our worldview are questioned or imperiled, Nostradamus offers certainty and solace. In 1666, guests at posh English dinner parties discussed his quatrains about the Great Fire of London. In 1942, the Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky latched her hopes for survival in Nazi-occupied France to ...
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A historical biography of Nostradamus and of a belief that we can know tomorrow and master our fears by glimpsing the future
Whenever we enter a new era, whenever the premises of our worldview are questioned or imperiled, Nostradamus offers certainty and solace. In 1666, guests at posh English dinner parties discussed his quatrains about the Great Fire of London. In 1942, the Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky latched her hopes for survival in Nazi-occupied France to Nostradamus’ prediction that the war would soon end. And on September 12, 2001, teenagers proclaimed on the streets of Brooklyn that “this guy, Nostradamus” had seen it coming. In his new book about this fascinating figure, Stephane Gerson takes readers on a journey through the life and after-life of Michel de Nostrademe, the Renaissance astrologer who became known as Nostradamus, the man whose Prophecies have been pored over, interpreted, and finally been transformed into The Gospel of Doom for the modern age. In moving beyond Nostradame's life to chronicle the interest in his prophecies over the ages, Gerson's book chronicles not only the man himself, but the hold his predictions still have over us today.
“Fascinating and extensively researched.”—The Washington Post
“A solid and enlightening story of a man who, whether you believe the pro-prophecy crowd or not, led a fascinating life.”—Booklist
“Gerson deftly explains the lure of Nostradamus.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A vibrant and vivid account of a complex humanist of untold sympathy and generosity. Gerson leads us through a life mirroring the Renaissance: its humanism, its religious strife, its mix of occult and nascent science, and its poetry. With uncommon clarity and elegance Gerson draws into his portrait of Nostradamus events of his own life and ours. This eminently accessible and informative biography is also an enthralling history: it unravels the enigmas of a heralded individual responding to the doubt and fear about a world that are cause for us to reflect on our own.”—Tom Conley, Abbot Lawrence Lowell Professor, Depts. of Romance Languages and Visual/Environmental Studies, Harvard University
“In this brave and impeccable work of scholarship, Stéphane Gerson accomplishes what dozens of writers have failed to for generations: he brings a truly engaging and incisive reckoning to the life and afterlife of Nostradamus. Gerson's book is a historical journey that will leave you by turns delighted and astonished. It is difficult to imagine it being surpassed.”—Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America: White House Séances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and The Secret Mystic History of Our Nation
“Stéphane Gerson's Nostradamus is an exemplary piece of scholarship and critical sophistication. This book represents the best of cultural studies and is a must for anyone interested in early modern studies and its importance today. Reading Gerson is an extraordinary intellectual adventure.”—Lawrence D. Kritzman, John D. Willard Prof of French and Comparative Literature, Dartmouth College
“Stéphane Gerson has written a remarkable book about a renaissance astrologer and prophet, whose pithy but obscure predictions garnered as many devotees as denouncers. Gerson’ immaculately-researched, beautifully-written, and thought-provoking work unearths the story of Nostradramus’ life, and then traces his undying allure over five succeeding centuries. Nostradamus came back into vogue when the world seemed out of kilter, whether it be the Great Fire of London, the French Revolution, World War II or in the aftermath of 9/11. Gerson does more, though, than chart the re-appearance of fear and disorientation. He analyses, above all, why and how Nostradamus’ quatrains continue to fascinate, console and repel.”—Ruth Harris, Professor of Modern History, New College, Oxford University
A Good Friend in Renaissance Europe
Today we associate Nostradamus with New York, Paris, and other megacities whose demises are linked to his name. Back in the sixteenth century, however, people visited or wrote him in a small southern French town called Salon de Craux (later changed to Salon-de-Provence). Salon sits in the heart of the Crau, a windswept plateau that was so arid and desolate that some visitors likened it to a little Sahara. Thanks to a rich soil and a propitious location along trade routes, the town nonetheless flourished. In the summer, bishops and lords came to Salon for its shade and water, its meadows and fruit trees. Such charms must have won over Michel de Nostredame because he settled in Salon after years of travel across Europe. It was around 1547. He started a family, opened a practice, and spent the last twenty years of his life there. He now signed his letters and publications as a resident of “Salon de Craux, French Provence.” French readers knew him as Michel de Nostradame, Docteur en médecine, de Salon de Craux en Provence, Italians as Michele Nostradamo, Dottore in Medicina di Salon di Craux in Provenza. The same was true in England and the Low Countries. Nostradamus could prove beguiling, enthralling, or puzzling. Elusive he was not.1
A couple of years after 9/11, I too came looking for Nostradamus in Salon. A terrible heat wave hit Europe that summer—seventy thousand people died—and Provence was sweltering. Whatever shade could be found in Salon provided meager relief. Except for overworked café waiters, everyone operated at half speed. Not that the town buzzed with activity during the rest of the year. A cruel observer might have said that the heat simply exacerbated Salon’s torpor. Without an industrial base or landmark sights to attract investors and visitors, the vibrant market town has become a pit stop for Riviera-bound tourists. A tired castle hangs on a promontory in the medieval quarter, overlooking chapels and small houses painted in sad pastels. Farther out, single-family homes with red-tiled roofs and drab housing projects bake in the sun. Fighter jets from the local air base roar overhead during the day, but at night all is still. The old quarter belongs to cats and teens.
Nostradamus proved easy to find. His original home now houses a wax museum that tells his life story and conveys his vision of the cosmos. His tomb lies in a corner of the Saint-Laurent Church, not far from an altar. A street, a boulevard, and a public square bear his name. Walking around town, I came across a huge fresco of the man as well as two statues, one erected in 1867 and the other—an abstract metal sculpture—in 1999. I bought Nostradamus wine and candy in local shops. By chance, my visit coincided with the five hundredth anniversary of the astrologer’s birth. The Tourist Office devoted its entire window display to local events. There was an exhibit, a traditional herb garden, and a conference on the man and his times. Whether any of the conference participants attended the town’s Renaissance ball remains unclear, but no one could miss the four-day historical extravaganza that transformed Salon’s old quarter into a Renaissance village. Dressed as lords, ladies, and artisans, hundreds of residents took part in a historical pageant that featured Michel de Nostredame and bore his name. These festivities, I later learned, have transported the town across time every summer since 1986. Most years, they reenact one of the key events in Salon’s history: the visit of French King Charles IX and his formidable mother, Catherine de Médicis, in 1564.
This visit had taken place during precarious times for the Crown. The king had barely come of age, and factions competed for control of the royal council. Across France, rioters protested against taxes, municipal leaders flaunted their independence, and pamphleteers defined grounds of legitimate resistance. The French Wars of Religion had begun, and violence between Catholics and Protestants threatened public order and political unity. Catherine did what rulers often did in such situations: she took to the road. This tour of France, which lasted two years and covered twenty-seven hundred miles, was a massive undertaking. The royal party included thousands of ambassadors and councilors, messengers and tailors, Swiss guards and falconers. Carts of tableware, cooking utensils, and tapestries followed. Like a lumbering army, the court traipsed across the countryside. It was a long haul, but the new king needed to see and be seen.2
When the royal party reached Provence, Salon welcomed it with wooden arcades, scents of rosemary, and odes to the king’s glory. Catherine settled in the old castle for the night and insisted upon meeting Nostredame. The astrologer was an esteemed resident of Salon by then, a learned man to whom burghers turned for an inscription on a new fountain or public compliments for distinguished visitors. More pertinently, he had acquired an international reputation. The sixty-year-old Nostredame slowly made the climb to the castle, leaning on his silver-handled cane. Once he had arrived, Catherine asked about the fate of France and her three young sons: Charles IX, the future Henri III, and Hercules. Nostredame reportedly assured her that peace would soon prevail. He also said that Charles would live to the age of ninety. “I pray to God that he spoke the truth,” Catherine wrote shortly thereafter. She could not be certain, but was satisfied enough to present Nostredame with three hundred crowns and later appoint him Counselor and Physician in Ordinary to the King.3
Why Salon decided to reenact this encounter at the end of the twentieth century—and what this says about Nostradamus in our times—is a question for a later chapter. First comes a queen mother who deemed it essential to consult this renowned astrologer in the midst of a civil war. She made time for Nostredame, and others in Europe did so as well. A German law student declared that, of the many horoscope writers whom he had met, there was “but one Nostradamus, who alone is worth all the others.” A Tyrolean mine owner named Hans Rosenberger likewise deemed him superior to other astrologers. Like countless contemporaries, all three were drawn to predictions and an individual with a reputation, an individual who circulated from one domain to another and provided them with what they needed. Nostredame was trustworthy before he became tantalizing. This is the first thing that I learned in Salon.4
* * *
When Nostredame settled in this town, he was middle aged and mostly unknown in European astrological and political circles. But he had two things going for him: his background as a Renaissance humanist and his experiences as a physician.
Humanism was at its zenith in France. As an outlook on the terrestrial and celestial worlds and a way of being in the world, it imprinted leading schools of poetry, the court, and the Collège des Lecteurs Royaux, in which learned men taught Greek and Hebrew and later law or mathematics. Humanism came in many shapes and forms, but a capsule summary necessarily begins with the recovery of the Greek and Roman heritage and a conception of the individual as inherently good and free, the measure of all things. Individuals could reach their full potential and attain happiness on earth, rather than simply pine for the afterlife, as theologians insisted. Humanists accordingly embraced ambition and pride in human achievement, either material or spiritual. Engaged, creative reason could grasp the workings of nature, shape circumstances, and fashion itself. Self-perfection entailed learning, interpretation, dialogue, and a give-and-take with precedents and authorities. This explains the importance humanists granted to education, informal schools and libraries, rich epistolary relationships, and travel as a means of exchange and personal growth.
Humanism provides a key backdrop to Nostredame’s biography. It must be said, however, that few reliable sources survive about his life. Besides a small collection of letters, we have his two prefaces to the Prophecies, his will, and some accounts by contemporaries, including his eldest son César. But not much more. The legend surrounding Nostradamus has grown so thick that biographers have a difficult time distinguishing what is true from what is invented. We do know, however, that Nostredame was born in 1503 into an educated and reasonably well-off family from the small town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, near Salon. Today, tourists flock to this old Roman colony for its antique ruins and the sensual landscapes that Vincent van Gogh immortalized centuries later. Back in the sixteenth century, the town was known for its flowers, vegetables, and olive oil.5
There were doctors and merchants on both sides of the family. Most of Nostredame’s kin, at least the men, were literate. His paternal side included converted Jews, perhaps of Spanish origin, though we do not know for sure. His great-grandfather, a grain merchant and moneylender from Avignon, had converted to Christianity around 1453. His son, who had been a teenager at the time, followed suit a few years later and changed his name from Guy Gassonet to Pierre de Nostredame (or Notre-Dame). Guy’s wife would not give up her faith, so the couple split up. Pierre then married Blanche de Sainte-Marie, who most likely came from a family of converts as well. Overtly Christian names such as Notre-Dame and Sainte-Marie were a perfect way of publicizing one’s new devotion. The name Nostredame may have come from a local street, a chapel, or the parish in which Pierre was baptized. Jews had lived in Provence for close to a thousand years, but they still faced adversity. Anti-Semitic riots were rare by now, but ordinances instructed Jews to wear identifying marks while royal edicts commanded them to either convert or leave the region. Whenever an epidemic hit, some accused Jews of spreading the disease. Life was not easy for converts either, suspected as they were of engaging in secret cults. In 1512, for instance, King Louis XII levied a tax that applied to Provençal converts alone. Still, many of them entertained professional or social relationships with non-Jews and managed to carve a niche in this Christian world.6
One of the children of Pierre and Blanche, Jaume, began his career as a petty merchant and scribe and ended it as a notary and occasional moneylender. Around 1500, he left Avignon (a papal city) for Saint-Rémy. His letter of naturalization, signed by King François I, sealed his integration into France. Jaume then married one Reynière de Saint-Rémy, who reportedly brought a nice dowry to the marriage, with a house, fields, and an orchard. They had nine children. Little is known about the only girl, but the boys did well for themselves. Two became merchants and landowners, one was a prosecutor and poet, and a fourth served as a municipal councilor. As for the fifth—Michel—he chose medicine, a profession that attracted cultivated young men of certain means, many of them the sons or grandsons of doctors.7
An oft-repeated tale holds that Michel’s maternal great-grandfather, himself a doctor, noticed the boy’s intelligence and introduced him to medicine and astrology. Whether that was the case or not, the teenage Nostredame left home for Avignon to pursue classical studies ranging from grammar, rhetoric, and logic to arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. He then traveled sixty miles to the southwest and studied medicine at the University of Montpellier, one of the most prestigious in France. But he cared little for this bookish, theoretical, lecture-heavy approach and did not refrain from voicing his opinion. He preferred collecting medicinal plants and preparing powders and concoctions. None of this sat well with the medical school’s dean, who excluded him from the corporation for practicing the manual trade of apothecaries and for speaking ill of his teachers. The former was deemed inferior to medicine; the latter was forbidden. Nostredame thus spent most of the 1520s traveling in southern France, pursuing medical studies on his own. At the end of the decade, he returned to Montpellier. What happened then remains foggy, but the university’s records indicate that master Michelet de Nostre-Dame paid his dues and joined the corporation of students in 1529. He probably obtained his medical degree at this time.8
By his late twenties, Nostredame could lay claim to the humanist’s deep learning as well as the physician’s training and prestige. He built a sizable library and interspersed his letters with references to Lucillius and other classical authors. Besides French, he mastered Latin, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, and perhaps Arabic. He read widely—poetry, astrology, history—and worked on a French translation of the Greek physician Galen, the kind of literary endeavor that Renaissance writers took on to garner prestige. Later in life, he extolled self-understanding and denounced people who lacked not only knowledge but even the desire to know. This, he felt, was “a terrible evil in men of any estate.” As for physicians, who diagnosed diseases and prescribed therapies, they remained scarce in Renaissance Europe. Few people could afford to consult them; fewer yet had acquired the habit of doing so. Arthritis or gallstones were deemed unavoidable. Still, the number of physicians was growing, and so was their stature as medical practitioners, natural historians, wise men, and sometimes community leaders.9
Nostredame’s formative years thus straddled lines and boundaries. The Frenchman was a Provençal, born in a province that had but recently joined the French kingdom. The devout Catholic descended from recent Jewish converts. His family of middling merchants was close to the local elite, but not close enough to join the upper ranks of society. The humanist had trained in a prestigious university, but kept a distance from the dominant course of medical study. The physician, finally, was a constant traveler, seeking out new experiences and encounters. Nostredame was from the start a creature of the in-between, present in many spheres, in touch with different forms of knowledge, shuttling between cities and provinces and social groups.
* * *
As soon as he graduated from medical school, Nostredame resumed his journeys. It was common for young doctors to follow Hippocrates’s advice and travel for a few years before settling down, typically in their native city. Such journeys provided hands-on experience, access to leading professors, and valuable contacts. But they tested the most resolute of travelers. Men and horses moved slowly across a country that remained half barren, with dense forests, forbidding swamps, and arid plains in the south. Roads, if present, were narrow and poorly maintained. Downpours left mud pits in their wake. Frigid spells created ice floes that could carry away bridges. Cities charged tolls and closed their gates at night, leaving travelers to fend off thieves, the cold, and sometimes wild beasts outside their walls. As for local inns, they would have been more welcoming if guests did not have to share a bed with strangers of questionable mores.10
Nostredame proved more resilient than most. The lure of the road was apparently so strong that he remained an itinerant physician for more than a decade. He traveled across southwestern France in the mid-1530s. In the city of Agen, he befriended Julius Caesar Scaliger, the famed doctor, poet, and philologist known to some as a bottomless pit of erudition. Later, Nostredame was spotted in Bordeaux and Béziers, Carcassonne perhaps, Marseille, and northern Italy, too: Turin, Genoa, and Venice. In town after town, he met physicians and apothecaries, astrologers and city councilors—men who taught, learned from, and engaged with this curious and enterprising physician.11
Travelers were exposed to another danger: the plague. One outbreak followed another at this time, spreading faster in towns than in the countryside given the higher concentration of residents. Between 1451 and 1550, Provence alone suffered forty-three years of epidemics. Migrants carried the disease, and so did the bands of unwashed, lice-ridden soldiers that roamed across the continent. The mortality rate was lower than during the Great Plague of the fourteenth century, but the disease’s stealth and horrible symptoms continued to induce panic. Some people even feared speaking its name. Divine punishment of human transgressions had long been the favored explanation, which is why so many communities organized processions and took collective vows. But some also interpreted the plague in medical terms. Following Galen, most physicians believed that a body’s health rested on a delicate balance among the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. A severe surfeit of any one humor—caused by the plague’s toxic vapors, for instance—led to illness. Overcrowding, open-air sewers, stagnant water, and shallow graves hence posed health risks. Provençal cities began quarantining neighborhoods, setting up hospitals and disinfection services, and keeping foreigners at bay. They also hired doctors from the outside, though not always to cure patients since bloodlettings and purges had little effect. Physicians would also sit on the health boards that devised sanitary measures and oversaw palliative care.12
Nostredame had encountered the plague during his earlier travels and reportedly offered his services to various towns. In 1546, Aix-en-Provence called upon him. Nostredame penned a vivid description of the epidemic. Parents abandoned their children. Delirious residents threw themselves down wells. Cemeteries overflowed. While Nostredame grasped the plague’s social devastation, his pamphlets lacked the probing theological reflections or the medical analyses found, for instance, in Claude Fabri’s contemporaneous Paradoxes of the Cure of the Plague. They did, however, fuse religious, astrological, and medical explanations and regimens. The plague, as he saw it, owed as much to divine punishment of “sins and wickedness” as it did to changes in the positions of stellar bodies, which drew pestilential air into the body. Like the Swiss physician Paracelsus, Nostredame also believed that moral failings, melancholy, and excess of any kind left the body vulnerable to poisons suspended in the air. The treatment he prescribed entailed spiritual cleansing (or repentance), prophylactics, and a sensible lifestyle. He urged residents to perform good deeds, exercise, eat moderately, and sleep long nights. To protect themselves from the corrupt air, they were to cover their mouths and noses with a powder of his invention. Where others used garlic or goat urine, Nostredame ground green cypress, red roses, cloves, and other plants into patties that he dried in the shade.13
While his powder may well have proved effective, there is no evidence that it really did protect anyone from the plague. His key contribution may instead have been to enforce measures of public hygiene, though we lack definitive evidence here as well. What matters is that local residents believed that this dedicated physician had done some good and risked his life for strangers. Doctors could after all contract the plague or find themselves accused of spreading it. Many of them thus fled, either to save themselves or because they doubted that they could provide much help. Cowardice and incompetence could both harm a physician’s standing. But Nostredame did not flee. His behavior during these years endowed him with a regional reputation for ingenuity, courage, and devotion to public welfare.14
One biographer has suggested that the young Nostredame learned to care for others by watching his father help people from all walks of life in his notarial practice. This is possible, though another event had changed his life: the death of his first wife and their two children in the late 1530s, apparently of the plague. Losing a child was a common occurrence at the time—so common, some historians argue, that parents would withhold affection in order to protect themselves. The assumption is that they grieved less acutely than we do in the West today. I wonder about this. People and societies certainly found ways of living with losses that seem unbearable in our own world. But one need only cross the Channel and watch Ben Johnson and Shakespeare mourn their young sons to realize that things are more complicated. Johnson composed a harrowing poem about his son. “My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy,” he wrote. “Seven years thou wert lent to me.” Shakespeare included a grieving mother in King John, the first play that he wrote after his own son’s death in 1596. “Grief fills the room of my absent child,” she laments. “Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me.” The pathways of loss are too personal to allow generalizations, and no sources have survived about the impact of these deaths on Nostredame. Still, the plague doctor had encountered human suffering up close. He, too, lived and slept and walked up and down with grief in tow.15
This experience did not turn Nostredame into a paragon of kindness and altruism. In some of his letters, he comes across as peremptory, thin-skinned, abrupt, and even caustic. In others, however, he seems modest, generous, and attentive. “When you receive my letter,” he wrote a law student named Lorenz Tubbe in 1561, “I urge you not to keep me waiting too long for your answer. You know that nothing is more agreeable for me than to savor your eloquence as well as your wisdom.” A contemporary who knew him well in his later years claimed to discern great humanity behind his nimble reasoning and severe demeanor. Retrospective character analysis is a dangerous sport and yet we may surmise that the man who had traveled across provinces and social divides grew sensitive to the pain of others and the uncertainties of everyday life. He could not shun crises.16
* * *
Nostredame spent several months in Aix-en-Provence. His medical and social skills earned him admiration from local residents and the gratitude of town leaders. Lyon then called upon him, followed by Salon shortly afterward. It is there that the esteemed physician faded behind the famed astrologer, that Nostredame gave way to Nostradamus, and that a little-known man morphed into an international phenomenon.
In Salon, Nostredame married a local widow, Anne Ponsarde Gemelle, who had inherited a respectable sum. The couple purchased a nice house near a mill, in a prosperous neighborhood that was home to Salon’s leading merchants. Nostredame continued to travel, but his wanderlust abated around 1550. Approaching the age of fifty, he may have grown tired of these journeys and become enticed by the charms of sedentary life. He may have harbored unfulfilled aspirations that required concentrated work in his study. He may also have looked for ways of providing for his new family (Anne gave birth to six children between 1551 and 1561). Nostredame still practiced medicine, but small-town physicians did not have it easy. With a small base of potential patients, meager appointments, and surgeon-barbers as competitors, many struggled to make a living. Nostredame soon ventured into other domains.17
He began by marketing his medical expertise in a treatise that provided all kinds of prescriptions for a healthy life. In the spring, people should open a vein, vomit, and purge their bodies. In the winter, they should eat meat and avoid bathing and sluggishness. The man who also fancied himself an apothecary and continued to experiment with plants now wrote elaborate recipes for restorative jams and cosmetics. His readers learned to prepare teeth-whitening pastes and hair colorings by mincing lemons or cuttlefish bone. His love philter was so powerful, he told his readers, that placing a few drops in a woman’s mouth while kissing her would trigger burning passion. Though Nostredame wrote little about alchemy, his treatise betrays sympathy for its combinations of minerals and metals. His most delicate balancing act, however, was to maintain his medical reputation while disclosing secrets that other physicians wished to keep within the corporation. The man of learning had read the classics and traveled great distances in search of plants and remedies. Yet he wrote in florid, accessible French, as if untrained readers could become as proficient as those who had pored over such recipes for years. Nostredame explained at one point that his book would prove useful but not miraculous. Do not expect to regain lost youth! he said. The learned physician who spoke a language of truth opened his trade to an uninitiated audience.18
Nostredame entered a second booming market, this one for astrological knowledge. Natural astrology perceived human beings as microcosms, or miniature versions of the universe. The celestial bodies governed various parts of the human body and mirrored character traits. The sun, for instance, was equivalent to the head and stood for ambition. Celestial bodies could exert a positive influence (Venus and the moon), or prove harmful (Mars and Saturn), or remain indifferent (Jupiter, Mercury, and the sun). Astrologers thus drew up horoscopes, or birth-chart commentaries, to grasp customers’ strengths and weaknesses and identify the influences that presided over their destiny. It was a two-step process. First, astrologers mapped the positions of the celestial bodies at the time and place of the customer’s birth and calculated their angular relationships to one another. The sky was divided into twelve houses, named after the zodiac signs, and each was linked to a specific domain, such as riches or friendship. The body in the first house, the ascendant, imprinted temperament and destiny. Astrologers used astrolabes to calculate the position of these celestial bodies and consulted tables of the phases of the moon (known as ephemerides). The second step, interpretation, involved fewer instruments but no less skill.19
Astrology had been part of the medical curriculum since the Middle Ages, but Neoplatonism magnified its resonance. This current held that a divine soul permeated all domains of celestial and terrestrial life, from cosmic fluxes to occult sympathies. Standing at the center of the universe, man could contemplate this harmony, unravel its secrets, master nature, and partially steer his own destiny. Astrology was one way of accomplishing this. But uncertainty surrounded the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm and, hence, the nature of the astrologer’s craft. Was astrology a divinely aided interpretation of warnings concealed in celestial events? Or was it a form of understanding rooted in natural science? Could apparent gatherings of two or more planets in a given location (they were called conjunctions) concentrate energy and explain universal history? Or did such explanations minimize the import of divine Providence?
Despite such debates, astrology retained its hold. Countless Europeans, including humanists, used it to understand their world and lessen its unpredictability. There were leading schools in cities such as Beauvais and Wittenberg. Thousands of treatises and handbooks were published across the continent. Paris alone numbered more than thirty thousand astrologers. On the shelves of his library, the archbishop of Avignon kept astrological treatises alongside his books on theology and law. Demand for horoscopes exploded. Neither a visionary nor a prophet, the astrologer was a learned savant with far-reaching insights and assumed goodwill. He could become eminent.20
By 1550, Nostredame was defining himself as an astrophile—one who loves the stars—and lauding this superior science. There was nothing more beautiful, he said, than scrutinizing the heavens for secrets of the cosmos and the shape of things to come. Nostredame reportedly did his scrutinizing from an observatory on an upper floor of his home. As a physician, he told patients that his diagnoses combined medicine, surgery, and horoscopes. By this time, medicine was beginning to separate itself from astrology. Some people were rejecting astral determinism, and they might have looked askance at Nostredame’s methods. But he was no aberration. Plenty of physicians continued to take astrology into consideration when prescribing remedies or deciding when to schedule a medical intervention. It is unclear whether Nostredame viewed astrology as a component of medicine or rather believed that medicine contributed to an astrological practice that identified the causes of diseases and gauged whether patients were truthful. Still, his medical use of astrology is unlikely to have fazed many patients.21
Nostredame’s horoscopes encompassed many concerns besides health. Some of his customers wondered about the fate of a commercial venture or the best profession for their son. Others asked when to begin a trip or launch a new enterprise. Still others sought insights that only a seer could provide, such as the name of the person who had stolen sacred objects from a local church or, more intimately, how to explain their sudden desires. A captain wanted to know about his next conquests; an Italian dignitary traveled to Salon to inquire about future plots against the duke of Florence. Customers were also concerned about broader political events, whether the impact of a forthcoming eclipse or France’s fate during looming wars. The mine owner Rosenberger, one of Nostredame’s most loyal customers, requested details about the calamities that threatened “our ill-fated Europe.”22
Nostredame answered such queries because, in addition to studying planetary influences, he practiced judicial astrology, the art of making forecasts about wars or epidemics based on the position of the planets. The technique rested on a cyclical conception of time and the conviction that astral conjunctions, like eclipses or comets, affected terrestrial events. Having identified a past event, the astrologer determined its longitude and latitude, the prevailing conjunction, and its location in the firmament. He then calculated the recurrence of this conjunction and hence of similar events. Lesser conjunctions returned every 20 years, major ones every 240 years, great ones every 960 years. The most infrequent were also the most destructive. Nostredame thus linked a conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter in the house of Cancer to religious strife. Whether or not these calculations came true, Nostredame’s dual status as a courageous physician and a practiced astrologer made him a legitimate guide. There were doubters, certainly, but Nostredame made sure that all saw him as a learned humanist. He dropped the names of ancient divinities and philosophers, he made references to mythology and history, and he sprinkled foreign words into his publications like raisins in a loaf of bread.23
* * *
Nostredame’s practice grew increasingly successful. Some customers called on him personally while others had couriers deliver messages and payments. There were merchants from Lyon and patricians from Augsburg, a judge from Salon, the bishop of Apt, and the son of an adviser to a German prince. Prelates stopped by on their way to Marseille. Requests flowed in at such a furious pace that Nostredame struggled to keep up. He made this clear in letters that ring true even if they also sought to boost his honoraria. He told clients that he had finished horoscopes after “many nights of vigil,” “at the price of long days and of enormous work, proportional to the importance of the subject.” The process was indeed labor intensive. Nostredame calculated the positions of the ascendant and ephemerides using the tools of the trade, wrote out horoscopes by hand, had a secretary transcribe them, and then showed or sent them to his customers. Sometimes he provided several birth charts, each one following a different method: the Indian one, the Babylonian, and a mysterious third method that he never defined. In some cases, he added details gleaned from portraits or medallions provided by his customers. When he was done, Nostredame summarized his findings in a letter, sealed it in wax, and signed his name along the edge. One could not be too careful.24
Things did not always go smoothly. Nostredame sometimes used several astronomical tables at once, rushed through calculations, and made errors in drawing up houses or determining ascendants. He balked when German customers asked for horoscopes in Latin rather than in French, which they did not understand. Perhaps Nostredame did not like to be told what to do; perhaps his Latin was not as good as he claimed. Some customers complained about unanswered letters and tardy responses. A resident of Padua inquired in a follow-up letter what month it was whose twenty-third day would prove dangerous. Disorganized and forgetful as he could be, Nostredame nonetheless retained his allure as a horoscope writer until the end of his life. New customers kept coming while many of the old ones, even those who grumbled, remained loyal. The mine owner Rosenberger wrote Nostredame that he had consulted several astrologers at once—a common practice at the time—but that his horoscopes alone had proved reliable. “I await [them] with great impatience. I am eager to read them … in order to know what awaits me in the future.”25
How, then, did Nostredame satisfy the likes of Rosenberger? The authority that he derived from his almanacs (more about which later) led customers to downplay or tolerate his limitations. This was the minor cost of doing business with a luminary. Rosenberger’s personal acquaintance with Nostredame then confirmed that, as he had suspected, his astrologer was incomparable. So many of Nostredame’s horoscopes had come true: the mine that burned down, the discovery of a new copper deposit, the onset of dropsy. There was also much to like in Nostredame’s high degree of conviction, his passion, even. The man clearly took such matters seriously. He provided lengthy horoscopes (one of them included forty-two chapters) and answered requests with polish and courtesy. His letters to Daniel Rechlinger extolled this Viennese courtier’s loyalty and integrity, his strong soul and noble heart. When another customer inquired impatiently about his horoscope, Nostredame firmly asked not to be disturbed until he had completed it. But he warmed up in his parting comment: “Your value shall increase in the future: your heart is in good shape, even though you are unaware of it.”26
Nostredame’s letters allow us to watch the astrologer forge relationships with customers. His psychological acumen jumps out. Ending missives on an encouraging note was a staple of his practice: “The stars promise you the greatest things.” Nostredame seemed to understand what his customers needed or wanted and, more often than not, he provided it. What they needed and wanted was not a stream of favorable predictions. They expected truth—all of it, the good and the bad—and sufficient warning to chart the best course of action. A French doctor asked Nostredame to tell him everything in order to “profit from what is good and resist adversity with courage.” Like other customers, he respected fate, but he also believed that human beings could parry the worst blows, if warned. Nostredame provided dark truths when his calculations led him toward them, but he couched them in comforting words and always included grounds of hope. The horoscope he sent to Prince Rudolf, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, spoke of enemies, illnesses, exile, and foreign captivity, but also of delights, inheritances, power, and authority. This, too, is what contemporaries expected from their personal astrologer, a person who today would be a family doctor, a financial adviser, and a therapist rolled into one.27
Nostredame also provided a path toward a satisfying existence. His counsel was simple and consistent: work hard, provoke your own good luck, prepare yourself for the peaks and valleys of life, and stay the course when adversity hits. “Effort is the true seasoning of all things human,” Nostredame wrote Rosenberger. “Any pleasure and any joy are always supplied with some sorrow. But the sorrow taken will be revealed profitable.” When Rosenberger’s silver mines seemed to have dried up, Nostredame counseled patience and perseverance. He then urged his customer to live in a wholesome manner: “Take care of your health. Give yourself over to gaiety, joy and light-heartedness. Avoid arguments, disputes, and torments.” And drink good wine with moderation. There was nothing dogmatic or judgmental about his philosophy of life, which was applicable to all. Nostredame gently furnished advice to which his customers were open. “I will continue to try, with perseverance,” Rosenberger promised Nostredame. “I will not let myself be cut down by these calamities which seem to have conspired against me.” Nostredame the physician, healer of minds and bodies, never strayed far from the horoscope writer.28
Neither did the friend. Reading these letters, one is struck by their continual references to love and friendship. A bishop asked Nostredame to examine the stars on his behalf if he loved him. Another customer wrote from Italy to obtain a horoscope as a testimony of love. The law student Tubbe engaged in intricate rituals of friendship in letter after letter, soliciting affection from his dear Nostredame: “I am one of your true friends,” he said—and he showed it. Tubbe opened up to his astrologer, discussing his travels, opining on current events, and disclosing his lifelong quest for honor and glory. He also offered to send new customers his way. These individuals sought love and friendship from Nostredame, and he apparently needed the same.29
Here, too, humanism provides an important backdrop. Drawing inspiration from Aristotle, Cicero, and evangelical notions of charity, humanists viewed friendship as the social glue of human community. Friendship was a virtuous bond of equality and reciprocity between men of reason and virtue, men of similar stations who shared interests or professional goals. It also constituted a higher form of love, which mirrored on earth the spiritual relationship between God and the faithful. Friendship thus entailed moral commitment, fellowship, and sometimes an emotional connection as well. Whether friends were mere allies and associates or else entertained deeper feelings, they elevated, protected, and provided for one another. These mutual obligations governed social exchanges, enhanced careers, and sealed alliances in the private and public realms alike. As tensions between Protestants and Catholics intensified and relations frayed, even within families and business partnerships, true friends became ever more indispensable.30
While Nostredame had his share of spats, acquaintances spoke of his good faith and generosity, of the advice and social introductions he gave to people he barely knew. He asked for reports on the health of his customers and conveyed his heartfelt sympathy before their misfortunes. “I sympathized, and still sympathize deep in my heart,” he wrote Tubbe, “with the misfortunes that have been befalling our friend, Hans Rosenberger.” He also told customers how much their letters meant to him and kept them apprised of the latest in his own life. Sometimes, he shared his “deepest thoughts,” including his fear that his predictions might one day become useless. Nostredame reached out to customers just as he had to readers of his jam and cosmetics recipes. He told them that his horoscopes originated in his heart as much as his mind, and he showed them that a gifted astrologer could be compassionate and faithful. But it was not only about sentiments. Nostredame sent these friends information and insights that would have a bearing on their businesses or careers. In return, he obtained affection, reverence, favors, gifts, and invitations. These relationships were nothing if not quid pro quos. When an Avignon lawyer asked his “venerated friend” for a horoscope in 1562, he promised to pay him well and to remain forever obligated to Nostredame and his descendants. The horoscope was ready within the month. It told the lawyer to expect attacks on his reputation during the following summer. Afterward, the stars promised nothing but prosperity and good fortune. Nostredame was a good friend in all senses of the word.31
* * *
And then came the queen mother, no ordinary friend. Orphaned very young, raised in Florence, Catherine de Médicis had married the French King Henri II in 1533, at the age of fourteen. Life at the court did not prove easy. In the courtesan Diane de Poitiers she faced a formidable rival for Henri’s affection. Catherine devised a deft strategy. If she could not own her husband’s heart, then she would win his mind and become his confidante. When Henri was away on long military campaigns, she wrote him often and fulfilled his requests. Those skills served Catherine well after Henri’s untimely death in 1559. Thrust into the center of courtly life, she assumed key roles. It fell upon her to tutor the young king, govern the court, and protect the kingdom. She parlayed traditional female virtues—submissive spouse, bereft widow, devoted mother—into a position of power. All officials now reported to her; all dispatches passed by her desk.32
Catherine was both anxious about the future and enthralled by the divine harmony that astrology could discern. She reportedly invited leading European astrologers to join her atop her Colonne de l’Horoscope, a Doric column that still stands in Paris’s first arrondissement, near the Halles. Catherine asked these astrologers to advise her on momentous decisions and lay out the destinies of her ten children. Other rulers did the same, of course. From Queen Elizabeth and margrave Johann of Küstrin to Philip II of Spain and Pope Urban VII, Protestants and Catholics alike consulted astrologers in preparation for campaigns and tournaments and other such matters. Horoscopes were a source of information and an instrument of rule. They were not quite commonplace, since some questioned their veracity, but widespread nonetheless (not unlike our own financial forecasts).33
In the 1980s, the organizers of Salon’s historical pageants claimed that Catherine had cherished Nostredame as much as she did her most trusted political councilors. He was not a permanent presence in her entourage, but he did serve a similar function. In 1555, Catherine had invited him to the court to provide horoscopes of her children. He stayed a few weeks, fulfilled his obligations, predicted that the queen would see all of her sons accede to the throne (a frightening prospect for it implied that some would die), found some members of the court more welcoming than others, fell ill, and then made the long journey back to Salon. Royal chroniclers relate that, during the following years, Henri II commonly asked for predictions about upcoming battles. His courtiers read him only favorable ones, but several astrologers warned the king about a head wound around his fortieth birthday. Catherine obtained confirmation from Nostredame, then sought to safeguard her husband. She succeeded for a while—until 1559.34
That June, France and Spain sealed a long-awaited peace treaty by organizing two weddings between members of their royal families. The highlight was a grand jousting tournament that featured the fit forty-year-old Henri. The king announced that he would fight all challengers in order to provide an example of virtuous behavior. Paris’s rue Saint-Antoine was closed off and decorated with triumphal arches and statues symbolizing the benefits of peace. Ladies watched from stands as the champions fought in embossed suits of armor and plumed helmets. Henri entered the competition on the third day, a hot afternoon. His daughter later reported that he did so despite the fact that Catherine had had a premonitory dream about his wounded eye the previous night. Henri wore black and white (the colors of Diane de Poitiers) and—this is true—rode a horse called Unfortunate (le malheureux). After defeating two opponents, he squared off against the young Gabriel de Lorges, count of Montgomery and lieutenant in the Scottish guard. The first round yielded no outcome. Catherine implored her husband to stop, but the king insisted that there be a victor. “I want my revenge,” he cried, “for he has shaken me and almost unhorsed me.” This time, the two riders collided violently. As their horses tumbled, their wooden lances shattered, and shards of the lieutenant’s slipped through the king’s visor. They pierced his right eye and entered his brain. Henri was taken to a nearby residence, where leading doctors and surgeons tended to him. Initial reports were hopeful, but the wound left him in agony. Ten days later, the king was dead.35
The contrite Montgomery secured forgiveness and retired to his estate, but Catherine was devastated. She wore black for the rest of her life and changed her emblem from a rainbow to a broken lance. Her husband’s death was both a private sorrow and a disaster for the kingdom, which was burdened with debt. The heir to the throne, François II, was only fifteen. Members of the court alleged at once that Nostredame had predicted this misfortune in his 1559 almanac. “The Great One to be no more”: this was the key verse. Others in France turned to quatrain 3.55, which spoke of a lord killing his friend, a befuddled court, and a troubled realm during “the year one eye over all France shall reign.” In later years, people linked the king’s death to quatrain 1.35, which remains to this day one of the most famous:
Henry was the old lion; Montgomery the young one (both jousters had lions as their emblems). The cage of gold stood for the king’s gilded helmet. The deux classes in the fourth line denoted the king’s two wounds, above and below the eye. When François II fell ill and died in turn eighteen months after his father, many members of the court summoned Nostradamus anew. Had the astrologer not foretold that this monarch would die before the age of eighteen, that heresy would follow, and that the royal house would lose its two youngest sons?36
The deaths of two monarchs created a deep crisis of political authority. In France as elsewhere in Europe, attacks against Catholicism and a proliferation of creeds furthermore opened up a space for alternative sources of guidance. Nostredame benefited from this. People consulted his predictions for intimations of the future as well as confirmation of unexpected events. In France, Nostradamus was deemed to have foreseen a recent military victory. In Germany, Rosenberger was convinced that the Frenchman had foreseen the Wars of Religion. In England, diplomats and ambassadors discussed quatrains about the accession of Queen Elizabeth and the marriage between Mary Queen of Scots and the French heir. His predictions made it to the court and into the homes of prominent elites. Some Puritans even complained that nobles were trusting Nostradamus more than they did God.37
People gave Nostredame credence because some of his predictions seemed to have come true and because they deemed him reliable. The man whom Catherine sought out in Salon was in one respect a seer whose intimations about political and religious affairs had been fulfilled. One Spanish diplomat reported that Catherine placed Nostradamus in the company of the Gospel writers John and Luke. But the queen mother was also visiting a horoscope author whom she trusted. Nostredame had drawn on humanist networks, medical knowledge, courage (or the impression of courage), empathy, astrological abilities, and reliability to establish his professional credibility. In the sixteenth century and for some time afterward, this proved pivotal. As cities expanded and states extended their reach, doctors, secretaries, and diplomats became members of nascent professions. This was a messy process, with vague norms and expectations of behavior that people struggled to decipher, but Nostredame seemed to grasp them better than most. Maybe it was his social background, or his varied experiences on and off the road. As he traveled from one domain to another—medicine, horoscopes, politics—he accumulated knowledge, mastered practical arts such as letter writing, and deftly managed relationships with ordinary customers and princes alike. He learned the virtues of caution, nowhere more so than at the court, a volatile world that could swiftly turn on a threatening individual. An ill-timed or unrealized prediction could provoke a rapid fall. Nostredame praised the royals in his publications and denounced their enemies. As a royal astrologer, he fed Catherine’s curiosity about princely alliances and delivered sanguine news about France. His vision of “peace, love, union, and concord” echoed all too clearly her own dreams for the kingdom. If he voiced criticism, he directed it at French or Christian society rather than the monarchy. It is no surprise that one of his friends congratulated Nostredame for his “success at Court with the King, the Queen and other dignitaries.”38
And yet, the accommodating professional, the man who circulated in the hallways of power and high intellectual reaches also challenged prevailing ways of doing things when they went against his convictions. Nostredame placed experimentation and the plants he collected above the abstract lectures of his Montpellier professors. He drew up birth charts according to an idiosyncratic method. He disclosed pharmacological secrets to a general audience. And he preferred Salon to the courtly gatherings of Saint-Germain or Blois. Ultimately, Nostredame charted his own singular course from his Provençal base, reaching out to customers and readers from different backgrounds, erecting bridges between diverse worlds.
* * *
Michel de Nostredame was not a peerless astrologer who proved superior to all competitors. He was not a cynical operative who sought worldly recompense alone. And he certainly was not a bewitching visionary who inhabited the margins of European society. The man was both simpler and more complicated. His motivations (to the extent that we can discern them) were mixed: sincerity tinged with guile, empathy coupled with thirst for recognition, audacity tempered by prudence. Beyond that, Nostredame circulated between the centers of power and their outermost reaches. At once a protected insider and a freestanding outsider, at once an establishment figure and a maverick, he followed the rules of the game while taking liberties with them. He operated at the crossroads of disparate domains, present in all yet confined to none.
As a master of the trade, Nostredame offered his contemporaries security and legitimate knowledge. As an inspired interloper, he promised adventure, freedom, and the thrill of unparalleled insight. And as a friend—a friend in life and on the page—he pledged to meet the expectations they harbored of their physicians and astrologers. He would listen and soothe anxieties and restore the order of a world that he knew from the inside out. So began the process by which Michel de Nostredame became Michael Nostradamus, Doctour of Phisike, of Salon of Craux in Provance.
Copyright © 2012 by Stéphane Gerson
1 A Good Friend in Renaissance Europe 13
2 The Power of Words 35
3 Unfathomable Afflictions 48
4 Fame and Infamy 71
5 The Nostradamian Underworld 86
6 Wonder and Politics at the Court of France 102
7 Amazing Bones: A Revolutionary Desecration 120
8 A World of One's Own 143
9 We Are Not Nostradamites! 164
10 Fin de Siècle Madness 182
11 Nostradamus Is Adolf Hitler 206
12 Apocalypse Now? 229
Epilogue: Times for Nostradamus 255
Illustration Credits 333