Nostradamus: Prophet or Charlatan?

Nostradamus is famous for predicting major world events and is believed by some to have prophesied the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, the Assassination of President Kennedy, and the attack upon the World Trade Centre; that wrote of a new source of energy widely interpreted as meaning nuclear, and that the last King of England would be Charles III. But the most common thread running throughout his Quatrains, was his apocalyptic vision of a Christian West under sustained attack from the East. That an anti-Christ figure would ally with a major European power, possibly Russia, bringing war, pestilence, famine, and death upon a world that after many years of torment will result in the end of times.

Could this be true? Could he really such these things? Or was he merely exploiting his fame for personal gain? His Quatrains, after all, are wide open to interpretation.

Michel de Nostradame, was born in St-Remy-de-Provence in the South of France on 1 December 1503, to a family of Jewish converts to Christianity. His father Reyniere was a wealthy grain dealer, notary, and respected member of the local community.

Little is known of the young Nostradamus's childhood though he is believed to have been educated by his maternal grandmother and he was obviously a prodigious child for at the age of just fifteen he was admitted to the University of Avignon where he studied grammar, rhetoric, and logic but he was never to complete his studies as the University was soon closed down following an outbreak of the plague.

The origins and near-always fatal consequences of the plague fascinated Nostradamus who now embarked upon an eight year odyssey of the countryside where he studied herbal remedies and in 1529 qualified as an apothecary. A little later he enrolled at the University of Montpellier to study medicine.

In 1531 he married Henrietta d'Encausse who quickly bore him two children. Tragedy was to strike just three years later however, when Henrietta succumbed to another outbreak of the plague and his children died not long after.

Nostradamus responded to these tragic events by confronting the disease that had killed them. He visited the plague areas that most physicians steered cleared off either out of fear or aware that they did not have the medical knowledge to cope with it.

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Not to confront an issue was not Nostradamus's way and driven as much by curiosity as any dedication to treat the sick in 1545 he travelled to Marseilles to tackle a major outbreak of the plague where he was soon being praised for both his courage and his skill as a physician.

Indeed, he is reputed to have cured a great many plague victims. We have little proof of this, neither do we know how he may have achieved it, but we do know that it was being said at the time.

By 1547, he had made enough money to buy a house in Salon-de-Provence where a little later he married Anne Ponsarde with whom he would sire six children.

By now he was well-established as a physician and with a family to take care of he could very easily have disappeared into a life of comfortable obscurity, but he also had interests outside of medicine. In particular, he was fascinated by alchemy, or the turning of base metals into gold, and in the occult. He was also convinced that he could see the future. Writing later he explained his method:

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"Sitting alone at night in a secret study; the bowl is placed upon a tripod. A slight flame comes out of the emptiness and makes successful that which should not be believed in vain."

He regularly used the technique of water gazing where its stillness calmed the soul and freed the mind. He was in no doubt that he could predict future events and he wanted people to know it.

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In 1550 he published his first Almanac of Predictions. It was a commercial success and he was to produce an Almanac every January for the next eleven years and his career began to flourish once more but not now as a physician but as a seer and prophet, and as his reputation grew prominent people began to approach him for advice and to do horoscopes for themselves and their families.

But prophecy was also a perilous business and Nostradamus lived in constant fear of being accused of heresy and witchcraft. Though prophesy itself was not a capital offence it could be so if it was believed that the information had been obtained by the use of magic. The penalty for which, if found guilty, was death by fire.

As such, the more than one thousand Quatrains, or predictions, he produced in his Le Propheties are couched in deliberately vague language. He avoids mentioning specific dates and uses generic terms for locations.

He was very aware of the fate that had befallen Savonarola who had been convicted of heresy and burned at the stake for having tried to rule Florence by prophecy and in 1550 he was to destroy all the occult books in his library.

In January of the same year when walking near his home he encountered a group of men, falling to his knees before one of them he referred to him as Holy Father and begged his blessing. The following month that same man, Cardinal Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte, was elected Pope Julius III, even though he was unfavoured and had not even at first been considered as a possible compromise candidate.

The story of Nostradamus recognising the new Pope before he had ever even been considered for elevation spread like wildfire.

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In 1556 he was summoned to attend the French Court by Catherine de Medici. Unknown to Nostradamus, who was fearful of the summons, Catherine had read his Almanac for 1555, and had been impressed.

Because of the imbecility of her children Catherine had become the de facto ruler of France and Nostradamus had hinted at unnamed threats to the Royal Family. She also wanted him to do horoscopes for her sons who all would in turn become King.

Catherine was not disappointed by the man she met and over time he was to become her close confidante.

On 10 July 1559, Catherine's husband, King Henry II of France, died a slow and agonising death from septicaemia after his eye was pierced by a lance during a joust and Catherine had earlier read the Quatrain that had appeared to predict this tragic event:

"The young lion shall overcome the older one, on the field of combat in a single battle, he shall pierce his eyes in a golden cage, two forces one, then he shall die a cruel death."

Soon after Catherine appointed Nostradamus Court Physician which allowed him to resume his medical career, now some of the most eminent people in the land were not just admirers but also patients.

He was wealthy, respected, and admired but he never lost his fear of religious persecution. Indeed, with so many powerful friends, all of whom he was frightened to offend his predictions were to become even more obscure and uncertain.

By 1566, Nostradamus, who had been suffering from gout for many years, fell seriously ill, and his final prediction was to be his own death.

On the evening of 1 July he told his Secretary, Jean de Chauvigny:

"You will not find me alive at sunrise."

The following morning he was found dead, lying face down by the side of his bed.

It would appear from the story of his life that Nostradamus was a remarkable man but whether or not he was also a man of prophecy remains open to question. Many of his Quatrains are so, vague and obscure as to be almost meaningless, and there are wild and varying interpretations of others.

Some of his Quatrains mention the mysterious figure of Mabus:

"Mabus, then will soon die, and there will come of people and beasts a horrible rout. Then suddenly one will see vengeance, a hundred fold, thirst and hunger - when the comet will run."

This is one of his most famous predictions and has yet to be satisfactorily interpreted.

So who is this Mabus?

More than 500 years after his death, Nostradamus remains a controversial figure.

Could he really see the future or did he merely use his perceived powers of prophecy to hoodwink the gullible and climb the social ladder?

One believes or one does not.

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