The rational path of history is sometimes crossed by mysterious figures or events. Take Nostradamus, a notorious 16th-century astrologist who spent most of his available time curing the plague, swapping jam recipes… and predicting the future. Or trying to.
Believe it or not, supernatural, magical and occult forces belong rightfully into history — for the simple reason that people sometimes believed in such irrational things, and it greatly influenced their deeds. Religion is perhaps the most telling example of how obscure beliefs (free of interpretation anyway) led to historical change: the Crusades, the shift in power from Kings to Popes, English Reformation and the ‘priest hunts’… had a profound impact on the affairs of the world. It is still the case nowadays.
How to make plagueproof jam
Since the early 1530’s, Michel de Nostredame had been wandering around the Midi (southern region of France) as an itinerant doctor, collecting herbs and plants to concoct remedies of his own invention. Because of the plague, his university had been closed off, but Michel soon faced the epidemic again through his travels. In 1546, the city of Aix was a mounting pile of cadavers, and the doctor prescribed a ‘cure’ made from cloves, sawdust and crushed roses. No one knows if this really worked out.
Michel de Nostredame was indeed practicing funny medicine. He was both an apothecary and an astrologer, and the first treaty he published — Traité des fardemens et confitures, 1555 — featured jam recipes, make-up tips, as well as secrets on how to whiten teeth or boost sexual performances. The multifaceted doctor nevertheless managed to get the attention of the French royal family, probably thanks to his star-reading abilities.
It was written in the stars
Michel was used to look at the starry sky. His journey through plague-infested villages and bloody battlefields (King of Spain Charles V was fighting French armies in the south of France) inspired him gloomy visions. It comes as no surprise that the word ‘disaster’ etymologically means ‘bad stars’… Michel published many predictions for the future. His first almanac, written in 1550, featured prophecies up until the year 3797, and was an instant bestseller! Michel therefore changed his name to ‘Nostradamus’ to sound more mystic and gained popularity under this mysterious stage name.
In 1555, following an official invitation from Catherine de’ Medici, Nostradamus discovered the Court of France. Was it surprising that an astrologist be introduced to the royal family? Not at all: at the same time, both Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and Queen Elizabeth I of England also received advice from personal seers, astrologists and alchemists. Monarchs liked to surround themselves with occult experts (this would last until way up into the 20th century, notoriously shaping Nazi ideology). Catherine de’ Medici herself wore astrological amulets as protection; she was certainly the one behind Nostradamus’ visit. Legend has it that she was concerned about some of his ill-omened predictions related to her husband, King Henry II.
Nostradamus had already published lots of prophecies — hundreds of them. Some were so unclear and cloudy (written in old French but sprinkled with bits of Greek, Latin and Provençal) that he could probably not make much sense of them himself. The astrologist did not usually mention people’s names, rather titles (Kings, Popes) which left his writings free of interpretation. Quatrain I, 35 is one of his most memorable:
“The young lion shall overcome the older one,
On the field of combat in a single duel;
He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage,
Two wounds made one, to die a cruel death.”
The reason for this popularity was a tragic event that ocurred in June 1559, years after Nostradamus had written the prophecy. During a jousting tournament held rue Saint-Antoine, in Paris, King Henry II faced the young Count of Montgomery, captain of his Scottish Guard. Catherine de’ Medici had warned — in vain — her husband against yet another joust, arguing that the King had had too much on that day. But Henry II still rode his horse, raised his lance… and the shock brutally brought him down. A piece of Montgomery’s lance, it turned out, had broken off and lodged itself into the King’s eye… In spite of the efforts of many a royal surgeon, Henry II died of sepsis ten days later.
A prophetic quatrain?
There are some unsettling details in Nostradamus’ prophecy that match the proceedings of the tournament: Henry II was 40, Gabriel de Montgomery 29 years of age, and both were said to be wearing lion insignia; the King was indeed wounded in the eye, and some claim the ‘golden cage’ refers to his gold-plated helmet; his death was undoubtedly gruesome and cruel, the result of a 10-day agony.
Nevertheless, should one consider that very prophecy something more than a pure coincidence? Amongst the hundreds that Nostradamus wrote, this one particularly stands out. But is it surprising that a few would actually match the reality? The astrologist himself did not link Henry’s accident to his prophecy (he had probably forgotten about it). Plus, some details of the tournament — the lion insignia, the golden-plated helmet — may have been retold later to match the exact terms of the prophecy.
Michel de Nostredame passed away in 1566, and his body was found ‘close to the bed and the bench’ as he had predicted in one of his last prophecies. Following his death, unscrupulous authors mimicked his style to get a share of his fame. As for the large number of prophecies still too weird and cloudy to be understood, people keep on studying them. Some claim Nostradamus predicted the 1666 Great Fire of London, Louis XVI desperate flight to Varennes, a couple apocalypses, and even the 9/11… Had the astrologist predicted the many hoaxes his writings would feed?
- Hervé Drévillon, Pierre Lagrange, Nostradamus, l’éternel retour (2003), Gallimard.
- Robert A. Nye, The Journal of Modern History, vol. 86, no. 4, 2014, pp. 866–868. JSTOR.
- Pierre Assouline, « Faut-il croire à Nostradamus ? » L’Histoire n°66, avril 1984.
- Eugène F. Parker, “La légende de Nostradamus et sa vie réelle”, Revue Du Seizième Siècle, vol. 10, 1923, pp. 93–106 et pp. 148-158. JSTOR (partie 1, partie 2).
- Jean Maguelonne, Nostradamus (2007), Editions de Vecchi.
- Michel Simonin, “Michel de Nostredame, Pierre Boaistuau, Chavigny et la peste aixoise de 1546”, Bibliothèque D’Humanisme Et Renaissance, vol. 45, no. 1, 1983, pp. 127–130. JSTOR.