NOSTRADAMUS (1503 - 1566)

(Investigator 70, 2000 January)

Michel de Nostredame was born in Provence on December 14, 1503, changing his name to the Latin form while a student at university.

His grandfathers taught him classical languages, Hebrew and astrology, he studied philosophy at Avignon and took up medicine at the University of Montpellier. His fame as a doctor spread rapidly during an outbreak of plague when he saved many patients otherwise thought condemned to die.

He began to take a consuming interest in alchemy, magic and the occult, travelling extensively throughout France, eventually settling down in Agen where he married and raised a family, but the return of the plague claimed his wife and children, his expertise and skills unable to save them. After six years wandering in France, Corsica and Italy, he settled down again in Provence in 1547, where he married a rich widow. It was here in Salon that his prophetic gift came to the fore.

In 1550, Nostradamus published an almanac containing predictions for the coming year. It was so accurate and successful that he continued producing them until he came up with the idea of a complete series of prophecies from his time until the end of the world which he predicted for the year 2000. The prophecies were divided into ten books of one hundred predictions each, which he called Centuries. The predictions, or quatrains – verses of four lines each, were deliberately confused, being out of chronological order and written in a mixture of old French, symbols and anagrams.

The method he employed to divine the future was much the same as a crystal gazer used to scry. He would crouch over a bowl of water, the rim of which was divided into astrological segments, and rotate a divining rod while gazing into its depths as the rod dipped and swerved.

Hundreds of books have been written on Nostradamus and many of his predictions are held to have come true. Among these are the great fire of London in 1665; the beheading of Charles 1 of England; Napoleon's rise and fall; the abdication of Edward VIII; the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both World Wars; the Iraq-Iran conflict and a great social upheaval toward the end of this century. A prophet for all seasons, his prophecies have endured for nearly 450 years, his name immortalised in print, and of late, the electronic media. Why this should be so, appears to be a greater enigma than the true meaning of the messages supposedly enciphered in his quatrains.

Nostradamus' works have been subject to counterfeiting and alteration to suit the purposes of the church, governments and others who would interpret them to suit their own ends. Recent evidence of this was the utilisation of several of Nostradamus' predictions by the Nazi Propaganda Minister, Dr Goebbels, to forecast victory for Germany in 1939-45. Not to be outdone, the British employed another astrologer, Louis de Wohl, to compose fifty new quatrains predicting Germany's defeat. Written in German and smuggled into Germany in the form of astrological leaflets, they were such perfect imitations that many are still quoted today as genuine translations.

Sorting the wheat from the chaff then is an impossibility, the ultimate interpretation being subject to the predilection and whim of the scholar involved. Take for example two of the best known quatrains, Century 11, verse 51: and Century 1, verse 35:

Le sang du juste Londres fera faulte,
Brus1es par fouldres de vint trois les six.
La dame antique cherra de place haute:
De mesme secte plusieurs seront occis.


The blood of the just shall be wanting at London.
Burned by the thunders, at twenty three the sixes.
The foolish woman shall fall from highplace,
Of the same sect a greater number shall be killed.

Some interpret this as referring to the Great Fire of London in 1666, identifying the "antique dame" with St. Paul's Cathedral, and "of the same sect" with other Protestant churches. Others see it as a corroboration of the events at that time – perhaps the attempt to eradicate Protestantism by "Bloody Mary" (Queen Mary I of England) in 1555, when several groups of six heretics were tried and burned at the stake. Instead of a prediction therefore it becomes a contemporary record of a historical happening – a diary entry.

The second, which has been altered at a later date to agree more accurately with the events, is the oft-quoted death of Henry II of France. 

Le lyon jeune le vieux surmontera,
En champ bellique par singulier duelle,
Dans caige d'or les veux luy creuera:
Deux classes une, puis mourir, mort cruelle.

The young lion shall overcome the old
On the field of battle in single combat,
In a cage of gold he shall pierce his eyes
Two knells, (then) one, then a cruel death.

Henry was killed in combat – during a joust with a captain of the guard. However, his helmet was not of gold, there was little age difference between the combatants, neither used the lion as a heraldic symbol, and the king died from a wound caused by a sliver of broken lance which pierced his skull, not through the eyes.

The big lie however is in the contradiction. Henry II was Nostradamus' benefactor, and in two other verses, VI:7 and IX:41, the seer predicts great future events for the king.

Less well known is Nostradamus' creation of a vision of the future for the wife of Henry II, the credulous Queen Catherine. Curious about her three sons' future accession to the throne after the predicted death of her husband, Nostradamus arranged for her to see a vision of the future in a mirror. A French writer on optics three hundred years later demonstrated how it could have been done. The subject (Queen Catherine) sat in front of a mirror just above eye level and which was tilted downwards. Another mirror at the reverse angle and concealed by a screen behind her reflected the images before it onto the first. Three impersonators took it in turns to sit on a throne as the future kings of France. A simple device, the prototype of the modern periscope.

The most likely explanation of Nostradamus' "prophecies" is that they are probably not! As many of them can be equated with sixteenth century happenings they are more likely to be diaries commenting on contemporary politics and therefore potentially dangerous should they fall into the wrong hands. Why else should he go to such extraordinary lengths to disguise supposedly future events? Only he is ever likely to know.

That their popularity has endured is probably due to the fact that most of us with our innate fears, anxieties, and doubts about the future, need to be re-assured; prophecy, based on an immutable or pre-ordained future provides that assurance.


Cheetham, E. 1979. The Prophecies of Nostradamus. Corgi Books.
__________ 1985. Further Prophecies of Nostradamus. New York.
__________ 1989. The Final Prophecies of Nostradamus. New York.
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Hill, D. and Williams, P. 1989. The Supernatural. Bloomsbury. London.
Leoni, Edgar. 1961. Nostradamus and his Prophecies. New York.
Lewinsohn, Richard. 1961. Science, Prophecy and Prediction. N.Y
MacDougall, C.B. 1983. Superstition and the Press. Prometheus Books.
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Randi. James. 1982. Nostradamus: The Prophet for all Seasons. Skeptical Inquirer. 7(1)30-37.
_______________ 1990. The Mask of Nostradamus. Charles Scribner's Sons. NY.
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Roberts, Henry C. 1947. The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus. New York.
Wilson. C. 1973. The Occult. Granada Publishing Ltd. UK.

From: A Skeptic’s Guide to the New Age, Harry Edwards.

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