The spiritual and intellectual ferment of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries commenced in Italy, spread across the Germanic states through the Low Countries, and poured into insular England. France, intimately connected with the church from the days of the papal exile in Avignon, experienced the Renaissance in its own way. While the New Learning sparked debate in Paris and other major universities, central Europe, always less tied to Rome, more readily accepted the Reformation. Whilst France resisted this unruly child of the Renaissance, the seeds sown led directly to the Enlightenment. Rejecting pressure to rebuild the institutions of Christendom through theological and moral reform, it yielded to an uncompromising rationality which threatened to obliterate traditional orthodoxies altogether. Whereas Erasmus laboured to restore beauty of expression as integral to the pursuit of the true and the good, Thomas More sought to reconstitute social philosophy on the basis of moral integrity. Throughout Europe courageous individuals pursued the third theme in the clarion call of Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man: the disciplines of magic and the secret sciences. Long before the Rosicrucians revealed their existence, Nostradamus consulted the mirror of futurity in his own soul.
Michel de Notre Dame was born at Saint Remy in Provence on December 14, 1503. James, his father, was a notary whose family had achieved sufficient social standing to be considered noble. Tradition holds that the ancestors of Nostradamus were of Jewish descent who had converted to Christianity. Nostradamus firmly believed that he was a descendant of the tribe of Issachar, one of the 'lost' tribes and especially connected with seership. His mother, Renée de Saint Remy, came from a family who for generations had been imbued with mathematics and medicine. One of her forebears had been physician to René, King of Jerusalem and Sicily, and another was physician to his son John, Duke of Calabria. History has preserved almost nothing of the childhood of Nostradamus, except for the fact that his grandfather was responsible for his earliest education. In addition to reading and writing, Nostradamus assimilated his first teacher's lifelong delight in astrology and astronomy. Such studies were given impetus and support by the strong manifestation in Nostradamus of the family aptitude for mathematics. When his grandfather died, he was sent to study the humanities in Avignon.
As a young man, Nostradamus entered the university at Montpellier to study philosophy and medicine. Founded by Arabian physicians, disciples of Averroes and Avicenna, in 1196, the school rose to prominence and emerged as a leading medical centre in France. Nostradamus excelled in medicine, advancing in his studies with insight and assurance. In 1525 a great plague swept through the region, and Nostradamus, now twenty-two years old, departed to take up his profession. During the next four years he travelled as a physician to Narbonne, Toulouse and Bordeaux, ministering to a wide variety of conditions with notable success. Returning to Montpellier, he quickly secured his doctor's degree with the highest honours, and he was appointed a professor of medicine. Eventually he decided to return to Toulouse, but when he passed through Agen he met Jules César Scaliger, an eminent Renaissance physician. Soon they were the best of friends, and Nostradamus felt moved to write that Scaliger was "a Virgil in poetry, a Cicero in eloquence, a Galen in medicine". Settling in Agen, the two doctors remained close until the skills of Nostradamus began to eclipse Scaliger's reputation and put a subtle distance between them.
Whilst living in Agen, Nostradamus married a charming and honourable woman who bore two children, but soon he suffered the pain of losing all three to early death. Once again alone, he decided to return to Provence. Upon his arrival in Marseilles, the parliament of Provence invited him to practise in Aix, where he was promised a salary. The plague that struck Aix in 1546 was especially violent, and though Nostradamus did not claim to understand its causes, he discovered a preventive medicine. Though no one at the time had guessed that the plague might be transmitted by fleas borne in the fur of rats, physicians had used herbal incense with modest success. Nostradamus intuited that the essences of the herbs somehow drove away the plague. This being so, he reasoned, herbs would be more effective if put directly into the air rather than being reduced to smoke. He devised a kind of bellows which could be used to spray finely powdered herbs into the air, and he found that occurrences of the plague were greatly reduced wherever he used them. When de Launay wrote of the plague in Le Théatre du Monde, he included medical reports written by Nostradamus, and after the disease passed, Aix voted their physician an extremely generous pension for several years. Nostradamus published his formula for plague powder and it survives to the present.
Sometime after his great service to Aix, he moved to Salon de Craux, a town situated between Avignon and Marseilles. He met and married Anne Ponce Genelle and began a family that eventually included three sons and at least one daughter. Here also he first felt stirring within himself that mysterious power of foresight that would make him famous and controversial. The ability to see into the future did not surprise Nostradamus, because foresight had manifested in his male ancestors for several generations. Perhaps this ability had sparked the family's interest in mathematics and astrology, the other great science of events. Throughout the Middle Ages gifts like foresight and insight into the hidden causes of things – the examination of the 'signatures' of natural objects and the noumenal relations between them – were treated with ambivalence. Many churchmen and a large portion of the laity were blindly superstitious, believing that extraordinary knowledge and unusual abilities were invariably demonic manifestations. Others, including scholars, physicians, and even some popes, knew that penetrating the interior mysteries of nature required and resulted in just such capacity. When Pico penned his luminous Oration, he brought discussions of magic and mystical consciousness into the public arena, thereby intensifying the division of attitudes. Nostradamus was very much aware of the consequences of any display of paranormal abilities: the seer would be pestered by throngs desiring to know the petty details of personal lives and hounded by superstitious dogmatists.
For several years he kept his insights to himself, though the promise and horror of future events drove him to perfect his visionary power, and finally he began to write down what he saw. As a physician, Nostradamus knew that the mind can insinuate subtle tinctures into what it otherwise beholds, so that one may think one sees what one wants or fears to discover. Whilst he was even more cautious in revealing his method than in disguising his predictions, the few clues he left behind strongly suggest that he disciplined his natural gift through rigorous meditation and confirmed his intuitions with mathematically exact astrological correlations. He veiled his method in the same obscure language used to express his predictions:
Whilst 'branches' suggest the sacred groves of antiquity and even the use of branches in some rites of the classical Mysteries, the use of emphatic type in the text calls attention to the traditions of the god Branchus. According to ancient legend, Branchus was a youth of Miletus, ostensibly the son of Smicrus but in fact conceived of Apollo, god of light, intelligence and prophecy, who plays the seven-stringed lyre. The mother of Branchus dreamt that the sun entered her mouth and passed through her system, causing her to conceive. When the child was born, she named him Branchus, for broncoV, bronchos, the throat. When a young man, he entered a dense wood where he met and kissed Apollo, and thereafter prophesied for a time and then disappeared. A great temple was built at Didyma and dedicated to Branchus and Apollo Philesius, from Filein, philein, 'to kiss'. In this case, Didyma was taken to refer to the double light of the sun, the light of day and its night light reflected from the moon. The oracles of Branchus were second only to Delphi. It was unlikely that Nostradamus simply re-enacted some ancient ritual, but this reference to ancient prophecy intimates his methods.
In his Préface à Mon Fils, composed in 1555 for his son Caesar, who was only a few months old, Nostradamus wrote: "The human understanding, being intellectually created, cannot penetrate occult causes otherwise than by the voice of a genius by means of the thin flame, showing to what direction future causes incline to develop themselves." Perhaps the poetic description of sitting on a tripod, invoking the presence of Branchus, was a symbolic indication of initial states of meditation required for foresight. Nostradamus also employed complex astrological calculations as a prelude to meditation. He would surround himself with natal and judicial charts, study them, and then calmly enter into his contemplation. His vision, he said, was remarkably clear, but he found the world heading towards momentous events that involved suffering and destruction. Recognizing the role of imagination as causal to the fulfilment of prophecy, he refused to write out details of future events, saying that people would find them too terrifying or depressing to make life worth living.
Nostradamus began to publish popular almanacs in the style of the times, including along with wit and advice a variety of predictions. These were borne out with consistent accuracy by events, and soon his almanacs were in great demand both in France and England. Other publishers seized upon the success of his work and began to publish every kind of sensational nonsense in his name. Soon he was publicly labelled a charlatan, and general opinion concerning him split into spirited defence and equally vigorous denunciation. Nostradamus had been aware that this would happen, and so he worked and wrote in quiet withdrawal from the din of the world. Cooler heads could distinguish between his work and cheap imitations, and soon individuals of power and influence began to consult him privately. Shortly after he published his first set of seven Centuries – collections of one hundred prophetic quatrains each – he was summoned to the court of Henry II and Catherine dei Medici at Paris. The Lord Constable accompanied him and presented him to the king, who ordered that he be lodged in the palace of the Cardinal de Bourbon. In Paris, Nostradamus succumbed to a severe attack of gout. The king immediately sent him a gift of two hundred écus d'or (gold crowns) and the queen dispatched another hundred from her own purse. Once recovered, he was sent to Blois to predict the future for the royal princes who would be crowned as Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III.
Once home, he produced three more Centuries and dedicated them in a long epistle to Henry II in 1557. Emanuel, Duke of Savoy, consulted him in Salon, followed by Princess Marguerite de France, after the death of Henry in an accident at the tournament of St. Quentin which fulfilled a prediction of Nostradamus. In 1564 Charles IX travelled throughout the kingdom to calm mutinies in several cities. On November 17 he arrived at Salon and called for Nostradamus. When he appeared, the king made him Physician-in-Ordinary and honoured him with the title Counsellor. When passing back through Salon on his return journey, he presented Nostradamus with two hundred écus d'or to support him through his increasingly frequent illnesses. Though growing weaker day by day, learned men from all across Europe came to consult him in such numbers that his friend Jean Aimes de Chavigny was compelled to write that "those who came to France sought Nostradamus as the only thing to be seen there".
In June 1566 Nostradamus showed Aimes that he had earlier written in his ephemeris next to the entries for July 2 the words, "Hic prope mors est" ("Here is death at hand"). When Aimes left late at night on the first, promising to return at dawn, Nostradamus calmly informed him, "You will not see me alive at sunrise." In the morning his brothers found his body seated on a bench at the foot of his bed, but he had departed this world. Nostradamus died in his annus climactericus, his climacteric year, which is sixty-three (7 x 9 and, according to Aulus Gellius, the most significant year for the Chaldeans since, Ficino added, it is the ninth presidency of Saturn). Nostradamus was interred with great honours in Les Cordeliers, the church of the Franciscan Friars at Salon. His wife erected a stone tablet which said in part:
Almost every aspect of the life and work of Nostradamus has been the subject of diverse interpretations and differing opinions. During life, some who read his predictions – or those falsely ascribed to him – called him a fraud, but the fact that none who knew him doubted his remarkable abilities is silent testimony to his integrity. His knowledge of astrology was profound, though he seemed to use a system of judicial patterns as a basis for intuitive inspiration rather than looking to the chart for specific details. In the Préface to his son, which is a general declaration for future generations, Nostradamus insisted that "the perfect knowledge of causes cannot be acquired without divine inspiration", and added that prophets were once called seers. Perhaps Nostradamus found in astrological configurations the cyclic return of forces and matrices of dynamic interaction, whilst intuition permitted their proper application to particular people, places and eras. For example:
The astrological pattern has suggested to some the end of the seventeenth century, but others find in it the latter days of the twentieth.
Another quatrain has suggested to many interpreters the coming of some powerful world leader, but a careful reading of the lines as easily suggests the advent of a remarkable spiritual Teacher.
Veiled in a mixture of antique Provençal and Latin, the quotations are obscure to all save the most intuitive, though any reader can sense the great, and often unnecessary, struggles Nostradamus saw that humanity would endure. His vision ranged across more than a millennium and a half. He wrote to his son:
As if to guarantee that his messages would not be too clearly deciphered, he added to his deliberately obscure speech the equally deliberate mixing of quatrains so that they follow no discernible temporal sequence. Perhaps he did not write to transmit the details of his foresight, not wishing to pass on his special art. He said that the intuitive skill which he had cultivated throughout his life would perish with himself. But he did transmit the illusive meaning of surface events, the fact that the terrible exertions of humanity striving for power, glory, riches and security are only reflections of prefigured cosmic combinations in which is hidden their true meaning. Grotius suggested that Nostradamus made much of his 'thin flame' because the confusion of tongues in Genesis that marks the scattering of mankind is reversed by the descent of the tongues of fire on Pentecost. Then the disciples of Jesus received the flames of Spirit and gained the power of speech in every tongue. If the first legend signifies the fragmentation of humanity, vividly portrayed in the dark oracles of Nostradamus, Pentecost symbolizes the restoration of brotherhood through the unifying power of the Word incarnated in all human beings. This may be the message of Nostradamus: contemplation of the quatrains shows the futility of life without the realization of a living awareness of universal brotherhood. When that is achieved, the prophecies will have run out, and the last quatrain may then be also a promise for the future: