Nostradamus: The Modern Prophet of Doom

Author Stéphane Gerson discusses the life of "the modern prophet of doom" and traces the varied interpretations of Nostradamus' writings across the centuries.

  • Nostradamus Cover
    In "Nostradamus," historian Stéphane Gerson explores 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.
    Cover Courtesy St. Martin's Press
  • Stephane Gerson Author
    Stéphane Gerson is a cultural historian and professor of history at New York University. He lives in Manhattan and Woodstock, New York, with his family.
    Photo Courtesy Gay Block

  • Nostradamus Cover
  • Stephane Gerson Author

Nostradamus' predictions endured long after his lifetime and continue to hold a firm place in contemporary pop culture and philosophical debate. Nostradamus (St. Martin's Press, 2012) is a biography  of both man and belief—the endless faith that we can know tomorrow and master our fears through the powers of an extraordinary seer. Stéphane Gerson, the author, lists his reasons and lays out a course for his study of "the modern prophet of doom" in this excerpt from the introduction. 

Someone once wrote that, inch per printed inch, the most quoted Frenchman in history was neither Voltaire nor Charles de Gaulle, but Nostradamus. I cannot vouch for this, but the claim feels true as one begins to delve into the reams of material surrounding these predictions. It is a lot to take in, but a few things quickly become clear. First, there is indeed a man behind the name: a Frenchman of Jewish descent named Michel de Nostredame who was born in Provence in 1503 and died there in 1566. He was a true Renaissance polymath: a plague doctor, a botanist, an avid traveler and letter writer, an astrologer who made mathematical calculations and wrote horoscopes for clients across Europe, and a publishing maven who produced countless almanacs for a competitive market. He was also the author of the Prophecies, a collection of prophetic verse that first came out in 1555. In his day and for a long time afterward, Europeans knew exactly who this Nostredame was. They felt the power of his ferocious predictions.

I also realized fairly quickly that the astrologer has left hundreds of predictions but no consensus regarding their meaning or import. During his lifetime and afterward, his words have fascinated and flummoxed the West. There have clearly been moments of shining visibility—typically linked to national and international crises—and others during which Nostradamus has receded into the background. The cocktail has always contained equal parts fascination, consternation, and discomfort. Legitimacy has been an issue from the start. But Nostradamus has never fully vanished, which is odd since most Renaissance soothsayers, and there were many, are now forgotten. Alongside the man, there has been a long-lasting phenomenon: to distinguish between them, I refer to the first as Nostredame and to the second as Nostradamus. Nostredame wove rich relationships with people and cultural realms and, intentionally or not, set into motion forces that have played out across centuries.

But biography does not explain everything: Nostredame did not singlehandedly shape his posterity. We must thus look beyond his intentions and the question of what he really sought to accomplish and instead consider the power of his words. These words acquired a singular force during his lifetime. Afterward, they were parsed again and again— during the Wars of Religion and other early modern conflicts, the Great Fire of London and England’s Glorious Revolution, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire, the age of romanticism and mass culture in the nineteenth century, nearly every conflict between the U.S. Civil War and the Cold War, and the anxious closing decades of the twentieth century. Readers have ranged from kings and queens to businessmen and lawyers, from peasants and artisans to journalists and students. Men and women have plunged into this universe with awe and uncertainty, curiosity and apprehension, glee and irony. Some have done so in the midst of cataclysms, while others have parsed the predictions in calmer times. Some have simply dipped in, while others have devoted days and nights to unraveling these mysteries. This does not mean that a majority of the population has been drawn toward the predictions, or that people have read them in a consistent and resolute fashion. But Nostradamus clearly draws us into the maelstrom of social and political life, into a universe in which the Apocalypse is present, but not the only thing. Wonder, politics, entertainment, and the quest for meaning lie at the heart of this story.

The next thing that became apparent is that Nostradamus’s commentators have by and large fallen into two camps over the centuries. In one corner stand the enthusiasts, captivated by predictions that, with the right lens, promise to illuminate the course of the world. In the opposite corner are the skeptics, the cynics, the debunkers who took aim during the Renaissance and have never let Nostradamus out of their sight. Six days after 9/11, an American journalist complained that “the kooks are coming out of the woodwork.” This language is typical. Intellectuals and scholars, too, are wary of a phenomenon that reeks of astrology and magic. Nostradamus has long been seen as either an imminent casualty of secular progress or a nefarious remnant of times past. In the 1970s, NYU offered a continuing education course on Witchcraft, Magic, and Astrology. Its instructor (one Owen Rachleff ) was the author of several books on astrology and parapsychology. He apparently sought to warn impressionable young minds about the perils of the occult, which included Nostradamus. It is easy today to find serious studies of astrology or our perceptions of time that either exclude this charlatan or mention him only to illustrate the inconsistency of the human mind.

This stance softened somewhat in the 1990s, when scholars began questioning the notion that science, rationality, and secularism had displaced wonder, spirituality, and mystery in the modern West. As they punctured holes in this story of disenchantment, they rediscovered prophets, astrologers, spiritualists, magicians, and occultists who in reality had been hiding in plain sight. Historians of science had already been examining astrology as a specific form of knowledge. Renaissance specialists now began paying attention to Nostradamus’s almanacs and melancholy poems. But unease continues to surround a mode of thinking that seems so foreign, especially for scholars who study recent times. The word Nostradamus has a way of eliciting blank stares and incredulous questions in certain circles. I vividly remember a dinner party at which a historian found my object of research so perplexing that he stared at me in silence for long seconds. Unable to muster a response, he simply looked the other way and began a conversation with somebody else. I have in all honesty received plenty of support from colleagues, but never did I better grasp the meaning of guilt by association than on that evening. Such encounters capture the way in which Nostradamus became a kind of detritus, consigned to what the critic Walter Benjamin called “the refuse of history.”

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