Born: December 1503
Died: July 1566
French astrologer, physician, and author
Nostradamus was a physician (doctor) and astrologer (someone who believes that the future can be learned by studying the stars and planets). Today Nostradamus is remembered chiefly for the predictions he made of future events.
Michel de Notredame, commonly called Nostradamus, was born in December 1503 in the south of France. His family was of Jewish heritage but had converted to Catholicism during a period of religious intolerance (unwillingness to give freedom to people who have different beliefs) and prejudice (hostility aimed at a person or group of people based on their beliefs, looks, or habits). Both of his grandfathers were scholars and instructed Nostradamus themselves when he was young. One grandfather was a physician. The other taught him classical languages.
At the age of fourteen Nostradamus left his family to study in Avignon, France, a major ecclesiastical (church related) and academic center. In class he often voiced dissension (disagreement) with the teachings of the Catholic priests. Nostradamus later attended the University of Montpellier, where he studied both medicine and astrology. It was common to study both at that time. He graduated in 1522 and began calling himself Nostradamus, a Latin version of his name. This was a common practice of university graduates.
The first several years of Nostradamus's career as a doctor were spent traveling in France. Many towns and villages were being destroyed by the bubonic plague (a widespread destructive disease). It was called "Le Charbon" ("coal" or "carbon") because of the black sores it left on its victim's body. The epidemic (a disease that affects a large number of people or regions) had no cure. Doctors commonly "bled" (letting blood out) their patients, thinking it would take the disease with it. They knew nothing of how to prevent further infection or how unclean conditions helped spread the disease.
Nostradamus prescribed fresh air and water for the afflicted. He also recommended a low-fat diet and clean bedding. He often administered an herbal remedy made from rosehips, later discovered to be rich in vitamin C. Entire towns recovered under his care. Nostradamus's herbal remedies were common to the era. His beliefs about infection control, however, were contrary to the practices of his time. Such beliefs could have resulted in charges of heresy (opinions that are against church teachings) and a sentence of death.
Word of Nostradamus's healing powers made him a celebrated figure. He wrote a book listing the doctors and pharmacists he had met in southern Europe, translated anatomical texts, developed recipes for gourmet foods, and received his doctorate in 1529 from the University of Montpellier. He also taught at the university for three years, but left when his radical ideas about disease were criticized.
Nostradamus married and settled in the town of Agen, France, with his wife. They had two children. Unfortunately, Le Charbon came again. While Nostradamus was trying to heal others, his wife and two young children died of the plague. Citizens looked upon him with scorn because he could not
For the next several years Nostradamus traveled through southern Europe. By 1544 heavy rains were again helping to spread the plague to southern France. With his medicinal practices, Nostradamus managed to halt the spread of disease in one town. He was again celebrated for his skills.
Nostradamus moved to the town of Salon, France, set up a medical practice, remarried, and began a new family. Outwardly, Nostradamus was a devoted practicing Catholic. However, at night he spent the hours in his study meditating in front of a brass bowl filled with water and herbs. Meditation would bring on a trance. In such trances visions would come to him.
Nostradamus began writing about his visions when he wrote the first of his almanacs. It contained predictions of things to come in the next year. The almanacs appeared each year from 1550 to 1565. They were very popular with the public. The Almanacs spoke of astrological phases of the coming year and contained quatrains, or rhymed four-line verse, offering hints of upcoming events. The published works served to spread his fame across France to an even greater degree.
Nostradamus's visions had become such an important part of his studies that he decided to gather them into one massive work for future generations. He called this book Centuries. He planned that there would be ten volumes, each containing one hundred predictions in quatrain form. In it, the next two thousand years of humanity would be forecast—through the year 3797.
Nostradamus began working on Centuries in 1554. The first seven volumes were published the following year. He completed the other volumes soon after, but would not allow them to be published until after his death. The reception of the initial works made Nostradamus a celebrated figure.
Nostradamus's writings attracted the interest of France's royal family. He was invited to the Paris court of Henry II (1519–1559) and his wife, Catherine de' Medici (1519–1589). The Medicis were known for their Europe-wide political ambitions. The queen hoped that Nostradamus could give her guidance regarding her seven children. Nostradamus arrived in Paris in August of 1556.
Nostradamus explained that one of his quatrains referred to the king. It read: "The young lion will overcome the older one/On the field of combat in single battle/He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage/Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death." Nostradamus cautioned King Henry against attending any ceremonial jousting during his forty-first year, which the regent's own astrologer had also asserted.
The physician spent the next few years in the luxury of the royal court. He heard that Catholic authorities were again becoming suspicious of his soothsaying (making prophecies) and were about to investigate him. He returned to his hometown of Salon and his wife and children.
On June 28, 1559, when he was forty-one years old, Henry II was injured in a jousting tournament celebrating two marriages in his family. With thousands watching, his opponent's lance "pierced the King's golden visor, entered his head behind the eye, both blinding him and penetrating deep into his brain. He held onto life for ten agonizing days," wrote John Hogue in Nostradamus and the Millennium.
Already a celebrated individual in France, Nostradamus now became a figure inspiring both awe and fright among the populace. His other prophecies regarding France's royal line were consulted, and most seemed to predict only death and tragedy. Henry's surviving widow, now Queen Regent Catherine de' Medici, visited him in Salon during her royal tour of 1564. He again told her (as he had when he drew up their astrology charts) that all four of her sons would become kings. All did, but all died young.
Nostradamus died in Salon, France, in 1566. Many translations of his Centuries and treatises on their significance appeared in the generations following his death. They remain popular to the present day. Some critics point out that the verses are vague and can be read in many ways. Other interpreters claim Nostradamus predicted Adolf Hitler's (1889–1945) rise to power, the explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and many other events.
Hogue, John. Nostradamus and the Millennium: Predictions of the Future. New York: Doubleday, 1987.
Leoni, Edgar. Nostradamus and His Prophecies. New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1982. Reprint, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.
McCann, Lee. Nostradamus: The Man Who Saw Through Time. New York: Creative Age Press, 1941. Reprint, New York: Wings Books, 1995.
Randi, James. The Mask of Nostradamus. New York: Scribner, 1990.