French seer, born Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566) in Provence, France, where he spent most of his life, maintaining a medical practice and conducting his literary activities. Educated at Montpellier and apparently a competent physician, he began his prophetic writings (> Prophecy) in the early 1540s with a series of short yearly almanacs in which he made predictions in verse. The new art of printing gratified a popular demand for supernaturally acquired "certainty", and such almanacs were a common literary production of the day.
It was with Les Prophéties de Me. Michel Nostradamus (1555), however, that Nostradamus became an author of contemporary reputation and a figure who has had an impact on later history and one taken seriously by many people even today. The Prophéties contain 353 quatrains like those of the almanacs, arranged in "centuries" of 100 verses, to which were added additional quatrains in 1557 and 1558, bringing the total up to 1040, plus eight posthumous verses. They constitute the largest body of prophetic verse prepared to that day, perhaps in all literature.
Although they evolved directly from the popular press, the quatrains were also linked to the strong stream of religious prophetic verse that continued from the Middle Ages, particularly the Sibylline Oracles (> Sibyl). Presenting a strange blending of classical erudition and popular folk material, they were fashioned according to the strict poetic techniques of the French Renaissance.
Nostradamus's quatrains are linguistically and poetically interesting in that they are often presented in a metalanguage that effectively permits multiple interpretations of individual quatrains to fit varied circumstances. Grammatically, Nostradamus often negated time by using infinitives and past participles that could be read with different tenses and voices; he omitted copulas, used ambiguous prepositions and distributed modifiers. He made considerable use of phonetic homonyms (cent, sang; Po, Pau), spelling homonyms (nef – "ship" or "nave of a church"), puns, fractured words, anagrams (Rapis for Paris) and autantonyms (like Latin inhabitabilis, which may mean "inhabitable" or "uninhabitable"). Particularly useful were metaphoric words with multiple possible meanings; e.g., sol might be astrologically the sun, alchemically gold, politically the Emperor. In such cases he invoked symbol-sets current at the time: heraldic, alchemical, religious, contemporary political, astrological, etc. The result of this wordplay, which was often combined with considerable ingenuity, was a fantasy Diction that probably has not been excelled for its purpose until modern times.
Nostradamus was writing about the world around him, in order to sell books. He thus covered court scandal, possible calamities in towns in southern France, religious topics of the Reformation, military adventures in Italy, rivalry between the Valois and Habsburgs, Turkish raids, crimes and social horrors of the day. Much of his verse is based on identifiable – albeit cryptically rendered – major events in the past, like the Imperial sack of Rome (1527) and the Battle of Preveza (1538). His attempts at datable future history are relatively few.
Maintaining a persona suitable for the verses, he liked to describe himself as a prophet inspired by watching the heavens and receiving a divine afflatus; he also suggested he received his prophetic voice from a family acquaintance with the supernatural, though there is no evidence that his ancestors, who were petty officials and merchants, had any concern with occult matters. In his quatrains he also described traditional procedures of ritual Magic. Oddly enough, he rejected the title "astrologer", although he did prepare horoscopes, some of which survive.
How much of this fitted the real Nostradamus and how much was a pose? The best answer is that Nostradamus, who was really a very bad prophet if his predictions are examined closely, was a man who liked to versify (i.e., was a minor poet) and consciously and cynically wrote cryptic verse for a market. In this he was successful, for he died a wealthy man. As for Nostradamus in his times, we know a little from recently published correspondence. His concealed religious sympathies (in an age of religious persecution) were with the Reformation, but he tried to remain on good terms with the Catholic Church. On one occasion, however, he had to leave Provence to avoid an interview with the Inquisition. Speculations in the older literature that he was secretly a practising Jew are incorrect, even though his ancestors, generations back, were mostly converts from Judaism.
During his lifetime Nostradamus received limited recognition. A trip to Paris to visit Queen Catherine de Médici, who was fascinated with the occult, was a failure, though Catherine seems to have maintained contact with him. He achieved considerable attention when one of his verses (I-35) seemed to prophesy the accidental death of King Henry II in a ceremonial joust in 1559. But in fact the wording of the verse was changed in later editions of the Prophéties – i.e., after the event – to fit the circumstances: in 1558 Nostradamus had predicted a long, glorious reign for Henry.
Two years before his death Nostradamus received recognition from Catherine and the young King Charles IX, who appointed him court physician. After his death his reputation increased, and his quatrains were frequently republished, even in fraudulently backdated editions with spurious material added for political purposes. The first English translation, a wretched piece of work with a very corrupt text and inaccurate renderings, appeared in 1672.
During the 20th century Nostradamus has been much in the public consciousness. The Nazis made use of his verses during WWII, and there are scores of books currently in print that utilize bad texts, mistranslations, and curious interpretations to discover, after the event, prophecies of just about every important calamity in recent history. In literature Nostradamus makes no significant appearance, although T H White's rendering of a traditional anecdote about him in The Maharaja and Other Stories (1981) is pleasant. In addition to several tv programmes, including one hosted by Orson Welles (1915-1985), there have been a few movies – like Nostradamus (1995) – celebrating the Prophet of Provence, but none are of note.
An additional claim, made by L Sprague de Camp in his heavily researched article "You Too Can Be a Nostradamus" (1942 Esquire) and cited by Bergen Evans in The Spoor of Spooks (1951 UK), is that "there were many Nostradamuses – some 20 in all – the name having become a generic term for prophets". [EFB]
further reading: Prophecies and Enigmas of Nostradamus (1979) ed and trans Liberté E Levert (E F Bleiler) establishes texts on a scholarly basis and offers correct translations that recognize 16th-century French, contemporary allusions and multivalences; The Mask of Nostradamus (1990) by James Randi provides a general, if somewhat rambling, account, incorporating recent scholarship and new insights on the man and his work. Bruce Pennington's Eschatus (1977) is a book of Fantasy Art inspired by Nostradamus.