Nostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom

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9780312613686: Nostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom

We all know the name Nostradamus, but who was he really? Why did his predictions become so influential in Renaissance Europe and then keep resurfacing for nearly five centuries? And what does Nostradamus's endurance in the West say about us and our own world?

In Nostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom, historian Stéphane Gerson takes readers on a journey back in time to explore the life and afterlife of Michel de Nostredame, the astrologer whose Prophecies have been interpreted, adopted by successive media, and eventually transformed into the Gospel of Doom for the modern age. Whenever we seem to 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 quatrain about the Great Fire of London. In 1942, the Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky latched her hopes for survival 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 the 9/11 attacks coming.

Through prodigious research in European and American archives, Gerson shows that Nostradamus ― a creature of the modern West rather than a vestige from some antediluvian era ― tells us more about our past and our present than about our future. In chronicling the life of this mystifying figure and the lasting fascination with his predictions, Gerson's book becomes a historical biography of a belief: the faith that we can know tomorrow and master our anxieties through the powers of an extraordinary but ever more elusive seer.

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About the Author :

STÉPHANE GERSON is a cultural historian of modern France and the editor of a new edition of Nostradamus's Prophecies for Penguin Classics. He has won several awards, including the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History and the Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies. He has also contributed to Publishers Weekly and the Jewish Daily Forward. Gerson teaches French history at New York University and lives in Manhattan and Woodstock, NY, with his family.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

Chapter 1
 
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, Nost...

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Description du livre St Martin s Press, United States, 2012. Hardback. État : New. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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 Irene Nemirovsky 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 Nostrademe 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. N° de réf. du libraire POW9780312613686

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Description du livre St Martin s Press, United States, 2012. Hardback. État : New. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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 Irene Nemirovsky 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 Nostrademe 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. N° de réf. du libraire POW9780312613686

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