Nostradamus: The Modern Prophet of Doom

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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.
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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.

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.”

And yet, Nostradamus continues to loom in the West. The specter of a figure who lived so long ago has maintained a presence in our collective imagination. To ask why is to examine how we have determined what is reasonable, rational, and permissible at different points in history. It is also to examine our relationships to fear and horror, to uncertainty and loss and massive collective crises. These relationships are constantly changing, but they are also indebted to what happened in earlier centuries. The similarities are sometimes striking. The past thus beckons as a foreign land that must be studied in its own terms, and as a strangely familiar one that leaves us with unfocused but recognizable images.

The most common explanation for Nostradamus’s lasting appeal is that his arcane predictions could mean anything. The English priest Herbert Thurston makes the point as well as anyone in his 1915 book The War & theProphets. Nostradamus, he explains, is a “masterpiece of Delphic ambiguity” (a reference to the Greek Oracle of Delphi) whose success rests on the sheer number of quatrains and the Prophecies’ dearth of categorical statements and references to specific times and places. This makes it easy to uncover startling coincidences and impossible to claim that the prophet was mistaken. Nostradamus, Thurston concludes, “provides an ingenious system of divination in which the misses can never be recorded and only the hits come to the surface.”

Thurston is right on one point: there is a machine at work and we will have to figure out how it works. But there have been other predictions of the sort, and most have vanished. The machine alone does not explain why Nostradamus has appeared and receded from view and then returned again and again. It says nothing about Nostradamus as a political instrument, a cultural framework, a dramatic imprint of its world, a response to personal or collective crises, or a means of imparting meaning to external circumstances. We will not understand much about this phenomenon by falling back on what some call the Barnum effect, named after the showman P. T. Barnum (give a little bit of something to everyone), or the notion that the vaguer the statement, the more people recognize themselves in it.

The main idea that runs through this book is that the man and the phenomenon are creatures of the modern West rather than aberrations or vestiges from some antediluvian era. They captured some of its central volitions and ambivalences during the Renaissance and have continued doing so during the centuries that followed– largely because the Nostradamus phenomenon inhabits what might be called the   in-between. The historian Tony Judt spoke of edge people whose multiple identities, communities, and allegiances bump against one another. There is something of the edge person in Michel de Nostredame, the man who traveled from one realm to another, took it all in, digested it, maintained his distance throughout, and then incorporated this world into predictive or prophetic quatrains.

Nostredame the man was sandwiched between the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and the philosopher Giordano Bruno. The former placed the sun rather than the Earth at the center of the universe; the latter imagined that the universe could contain an infinite number of worlds that were similar to the earth. Both contributed to the process by which the notion of a closed, religious world faded behind a boundless and eventually godless cosmos. The Copernican revolution displaced humanity from the center of the world but also provided a rational purchase on the cosmos. Nostredame likewise came of age as several tectonic shifts shook the foundations of the West. The discovery of the Americas and its pagan inhabitants launched vast enterprises of exploration and conquest while challenging the boundaries of the known world and the conviction that Christ had spread the good word to all. The printing press opened up intellectual vistas and spread doctrines and ideas while allowing new forces to challenge the authority of dominant institutions. The Protestant Reformation’s assault on Catholic dogma and clergy fed yearnings for renewed spirituality and social equality while cracking the confessional unity of states and principalities, some of which now included both Catholic and Protestant residents.

Nostredame did not precipitate these sea changes, but his words embraced and concentrated the world that was coming into being, with its mix of the old and the new, its shifting forces and fault lines, its opportunities and its anxieties. They took in this overflowing multiplicity, made it visible and tangible, and gave it dramatic form without flattening out contradictions. There were other such cornucopian texts at that time, but this one had a tautness and yet also an elasticity, a sense of eternity and yet also an urgency of its own. At once empty and full of meaning, his inscrutable words have invited readers to decode, elucidate, and project their own concerns. They summon magical forces as well as logical deduction. They impart both knowledge about the world and the vertiginous feeling that nothing can be known. They feed optimism about human abilities and pessimism regarding human proclivities. They generate fear and desolation while tapping the past, reordering the present, outlining the future, and helping people respond to anxiety and collective crises. It is a welter of contradictions.

Major changes have taken place in the West since the Renaissance: science has come into its own, capitalism has taken off, the political sphere has moved toward democracy, and divination has by and large retreated into the private realm. But these contradictions have seeped into the fabric of modernity. Like the man, the phenomenon has inhabited this liminal realm, between rational and magical ways of being in the world, between legitimacy and invisibility, between high and low cultures, between our conflicting relationships with forces that escape us. More than anything else, it is this ability to distill diverse urges and ambivalence that has enabled Nostradamus to last. Ancient and modern forces overlap in a preindustrial world that is not as traditional and a late modern world that is not as modern as commonly portrayed.

Residing on the edge implies flux, instability, and sometimes marginality. It can also open the mind and yield flexibility and creative fusion. Both are true here, which explains the strange path of a phenomenon that has been omnipresent and yet difficult to pin down. This mix of ubiquity and elusiveness is, of course, what the skeptics I mentioned earlier find so disturbing about Nostradamus. These predictions are too powerful, they say. They are too popular, too seductive. Since the Renaissance, people have gone after Nostradamus, sometimes in vitriolic ways. The substance of the accusations has changed over time, but not the need to denounce abstract threats, distance oneself from off ending forces, and reaffirm fragile norms. While some people have believed in Nostradamus, others have found the phenomenon good to think against precisely because it both symbolizes archaic superstition and captures this inner edge of modernity. Lure and danger are intertwined.

When Nostradamus first crossed my path, I was finishing a book about the local past in modern France. Historians had taught that as Europe and nation states came into their own in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, love for the nation overpowered local and regional sentiments. If the latter survived, it was mainly as nostalgia for harmonious communities that democracy and capitalism now threatened. Alongside reactionary aristocrats, however, I uncovered local enthusiasts who placed high hopes in science and created new grassroots associations and other forms of civic participation. They devised new ways of thinking about France as at once national and local, abstract and tangible, unified and diverse. Ensconced in the margins, the local infused the center, outlined blueprints for collective life, and helped shape what we might call modernity. It was hard to miss the paradox.

It is possible to tell a similar story about Nostradamus. Everything for which the phenomenon stands– not just magic or astrology but also apocalypticism, unreason, and popular culture– has been pushed to the margins of the rational, liberal West. While Nostradamus is usually portrayed as a rearguard force, I realized early on that, far from remaining immobile, far from speaking to narrow segments of the population alone, the phenomenon has continuously refashioned itself, reaching out to people from disparate backgrounds. Precarious as it may be, the edge also affords freedom and opportunities to cross boundaries. If Nostradamus inhabits our outer banks, then these are broad, open expanses in which people sometimes grow dependent or paralyzed and sometimes explore new domains and give coherence to their world.

Nostradamus resides on the edge in yet another way. Historians have examined the ways esteemed individuals such as George Washington and Victor Hugo entered collective memory. The premise is that social forces– national and ethnic communities, religious traditions, political schools– underpin this memory and that without such a foundation, a given figure will disappear. But no regime or political formation, no organized religion or intellectual school has made Nostradamus its own. No learned academy, no pantheon, no national commemorations have recognized the astrologer. No secular or religious canon has deemed the predictions fit for inclusion. This is a story without collective institutions. It is also one without moral lessons or heroic qualities, without legitimacy or founding myths. Nostredame is not Lincoln, the glorious leader whom every American generation refashions in its own image. He is not Billy the Kid, the historical figure who spawned a legend while remaining tethered to a particular era. He is not even Robin Hood, the noble bandit who despite his fictional origins became a Saxon hero in modern Britain and then suffused mass culture. It is no surprise that Tony Soprano and his brother-in-law Bobby knew so little about the man.

Still, Nostradamus endures. The phenomenon takes us beyond conventions of virtue and heroism, into what we might call the crevices of memory. There are no gatekeepers here, few norms and hierarchies, and little oversight. This has opened up a space for individuals who entertain loose relationships to collective memory. None have played a more important role than the news and entertainment media. From the Renaissance to the present, Nostradamus has surfed every media wave, from almanacs to newspapers to movies and the Internet. Each one has both publicized and reshaped the phenomenon while making the world at once more comforting and more intimidating, more approachable and more distant. This is also a story, therefore, about editors, publishers, translators, interpreters, commentators, imitators, forgers, journalists, and others yet. These men and women took hold of the predictions, sometimes grappled with them, and rarely hesitated to alter them as they saw fit. Given Nostradamus’s controversial nature, many of them likewise chose or ended up on the margins, conversing with one another across centuries and national borders, all of them part of an underground and yet open to the broader world. They may have failed to solidify the image of Nostredame and make him respectable, but they imparted Nostradamus to others and brought it into the mainstream. In this story, the margins of the modern West are not only margins. They are also one of its driving forces.

A few years ago, a new port of call appeared on Nostradamus’s itinerary: December 21, 2012. The 2012 prophecies now take countless forms, but most commentators begin with the notion that the Maya’s Sacred Calendar (a 260-day count) and their Vague Year (a 365-day count) will converge on that fateful day. The date will also mark the end of two great cycles, which began respectively in 24000 and 3113 BCE. In recent years, media outlets and commentators have added Nostradamus to the mix. Some now say that, according to the Maya and Nostradamus, we should expect a cataclysmic event on that winter solstice. They announce a reversal of the earth’s magnetic poles and a shift of its axis, a pulse of light emanating from a black hole at the center of our galaxy, or star flares that will disturb our electrical grid. Others speak of a change of cycle, the end of an era, and perhaps transformative change as human civilization enters a millennial era of ecological harmony.

Whatever will come, the irrepressible Nostradamus tells us something about our times as well. It might be about loss and fright in an era of ever more salient risks and catastrophes (so it seems). Or it might be about something more subtle: forces that come together in ways that no one had anticipated, yearnings that seem to contradict one another, new ways of defining oneself and one’s world. We will see. Vertigo sets in, however, as one beholds this phenomenon over a half millennium. Jean Cocteau reportedly quipped that the only way to know a country is to stay there for either three hours or thirty years. I have spent considerable time in the company of Nostradamus, but three decades might not have sufficed to follow this story. There can be no illusions of exhaustivity, especially for someone like me, who is neither a lifelong aficionado nor a scholar of astrology or prophecy. Outsiders can contribute a new sensibility and ask different kinds of questions, but they also face a steep climb.

I thus decided at the outset to pay special attention to France, the country in which Nostredame first came into view and then remained most salient. Many of the insights that France provides have broader applications. But one must also look beyond the nation to grasp the phenomenon in its international and local dimensions, to understand how these predictions and the image of the man have circulated across space, and to retrieve its connotations– sometimes similar, sometimes not– in different parts of the world. This has required prolonged stays in Salon-de-Provence as well as incursions into Great Britain, Germany, Italy, the United States, and Japan.

Another early decision was to focus on both words and people: Nostredame himself, the interpreters and editors, the naysayers, and the men and women who have gravitated toward the predictions over the centuries. Determining how ordinary people related to written words in past eras is a challenging task given the dearth of sources. Historians of cultural reception, as it is called, must thus acknowledge that much will remain unknown and yet refuse to concede defeat. One of my strategies has been to comb archival catalogs for manuscript letters and diaries that mention Nostradamus (I found more than thirty). I also read a hundred travel accounts to Provence, paying special attention to what visitors wrote after visiting Nostredame’s tomb in Salon. Even if they sometimes cribbed from guidebooks or other accounts, these travelers put enough of their own selves into these texts to provide insights. Midway through my research, new electronic databases provided a final and unexpected window. These tools raise complicated questions (how representative, for example, are the occurrences found on Google Books?). Still, the three dozen databases that I mined have made it possible to watch all kinds of people, both famous and unknown, connect with Nostradamus out of sight.

My last decision was to organize the book around episodes and individuals who capture key facets or turning points in this story. First comes the Renaissance, with Nostredame the doctor with a horoscope practice, the poet and almanac writer, the published prophet, and the controversial celebrity. After his death in 1566, we enter Nostradamus’s afterlife in the company of his secretary and then jump from one historical moment to another. By following a blacksmith from Salon to the court of Louis XIV, we penetrate the early modern world of wonder and politics in which Nostradamus flourished. By sojourning in London during the Great Fire of 1666 and in Salon during the French Revolution, we grasp what his verses meant during natural and political crises. Public entertainment enters the story. In the nineteenth century, we meet a journalist, a priest, and a dime novelist who encapsulate Nostradamus’s presence between lowbrow, highbrow, and mass cultures. During World War II, totalitarian and democratic propaganda machines turn the quatrains into tools of mass persuasion. And at the turn of the third millennium, gloom settles upon the West like the white powder that blanketed lower Manhattan on 9/11.

Each of these moments is at once a contained unit, a chapter in a broader story, and a launching pad for further reflection. While this book is steeped in considerable research, it is best seen as a blend between a historical essay and a map of a little-traveled expanse. It sprouted from sheer curiosity and will, I hope, speak to readers who are equally intrigued–and may even go on to explore facets of this phenomenon in greater depth than is possible here. Some questions are elided; others are only touched upon. This is neither a religious history of millenarianism nor an intellectual study of time, for instance. There is nothing about Scandinavia, South America, and other places in which Nostradamus has acquired a presence. I have come to accept this, even if these lines from Walt Whitman were never far as I wrote: “You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here, / I believe that much unseen is also here.”

The unseen is everywhere when it comes to Nostradamus. We do not see the origins of the words. We do not perceive the powers on which they rest, or even the horizons to which they point. Nor do we necessarily discern the forces that push us in their direction. In the mid-1980s, I bid farewell to Nostradamus when I left Belgium for a bucolic American campus. Soon thereafter, the fall of the Berlin Wall lessened the threat of nuclear war and lowered anxieties. Why, then, had these predictions entered my life for a short but intense moment? And why had this fascination made me so uncomfortable that I kept it to myself ? Such questions did not enter my mind when I began this book, at least not consciously. This seems odd in retrospect, but historians do not always ponder why they do what they do. Conversing with the dead in the archives, as one scholar put it, may be easier than looking into one’s soul.

The vagaries of life can disrupt the most comfortable arrangements, however. As I wrote this book, my family was hit by a tragedy that made me feel all too viscerally those forces that we associate with Nostradamus. At first, I resisted broaching the matter in these pages, but I eventually had to acknowledge that, personal as it was, this experience became part of the broad story I set out to write. I could no longer dodge my own ambivalence. In life as in the archives, the dead sometimes take us to places that we can barely contemplate.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Nostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom, by Stéphane Gerson, published by St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

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