Early life of Nostradamus
1503, the year Michel de Nostredame – later known as Nostradamus – was born. Jean the Remy, the grandfather of Michel de Nostredame died when Michel was only eight. His grandfather had been a doctor by profession but also instructed him in astrology, magic and alchemy. These skills were inextricably linked with medicine in those days. His other grandfather Pierre de Nostredame took over the role as a teacher and instructed him.
He was indeed a brilliant scholar. At the age of fourteen, he was considered to be ready to enter the university at Avignon.
Michel’s first task was to persuade the university examiners to allow him to the University. Oral examinations were custom those days. That was the reason Michel was put to the test in grammar, rhetoric and philosophy. The first two subjects seemed to cost him little effort. Mostly it meant reciting prepared texts and him memory was astonishingly good. Where he generally excelled, however, was in matters of philosophy.
By the time he was eighteen, pure academics had tired him. He mentioned becoming a physician, like his grandfathers before him. He enrolled in the academy of Montpellier , THE school of medicine those days. The professors were among the first to dissect bodies of executed convicted criminals. Anatomy was taught there. It was normally forbidden to do so, but the Duke of Anjou had extended his permission in 1376. Also he had provided them with the corpses of criminals. one per annum. Obviously this didn’t suffice the students. But it was forbidden then, it was thought to be necromancy. Montpellier turned out to be the perfect university for the young Michel. He was able to attend to the finest and latest lectures from the finest physicians.
Medicine had changed little since his grandfathers days.
To modern eyes a mixture of science, alchemy and magic. After three years of college, Nostradamus was considered to be ready to graduate. Michel did pass all the examinations and he was now a scholar, but not a physician. He now had to teach under supervision for three months, then he had to undergo more examinations. Nostradamus passed these exams with great ease. One day he decided to write a thesis about an aphorism of Hippocrates. His conclusions were declared sound. A week later, Nostradamus was presented his license. He was now officially able to practice medicine by the Bishop of Montpellier.
He only practiced medicine for a few weeks when disaster struck Montpellier in the form of bubonic plague. A horrible disease which kills in a matter of days. It is transmitted by fleas which drank the blood of infected rats. It still has outbreaks in Asia from time to time. The remedy back then was a mixture of science and magic. Mumbo-jumbo for short, when you compare it with a contemporary point of view. Although his methods are partly strange, some of the elements were quite revolutionary. These were mainly clean water and good hygiene about the disease. The people of Montpellier were grateful and didn’t seem to care how Michel de Nostredame did it. He became known as the plague doctor and the word spread round to the nearby villages.
After nearly four years he returned to Montpellier to complete his doctorate and re-enrolled on 23rd October 1529. Nostradamus had some trouble in explaining his unorthodox remedies and treatments he used in the countryside. Nevertheless his learning and ability could not be denied and he obtained his doctorate. He remained teaching at Montpellier for a year. By this time his new theories, for instance his refusal to bleed patients, were causing trouble and he set off upon another spate of wandering.
While practicing in Toulouse he received a letter from Julius-Cesar Scaliger. This was the philosopher considered second only to Erasmus throughout Europe. Apparently Nostradamus’ reply so pleased Scaliger that he invited him to stay at his home in Agen. This life suited Nostradamus admirably, and circa 1534 he married a young girl “of high estate. She was very beautiful and admirable.” Her name was lost to us. He had a son and a daughter with her and his life seemed complete.
Then a series of tragedies struck. The plague came to Agen. Unfortunately, despite all his efforts, the plague killed Nostradamus’ wife and two children. The fact that he was unable to save his own family had a disastrous effect on his practice. Then he quarreled with Scaliger and lost his friendship. His late wife’s family tried to sue him for the return of her dowry. As the final straw, in 1538, he was accused of heresy because of a chance remark made some years before. To a workman casting a bronze statue of the Virgin, Nostradamus had commented that he was making devils. His plea that he was only describing the lack of aesthetic appeal inherent in the statue was ignored and the Inquisitors sent for him to go to Toulouse.
Nostradamus, having no wish to stand trial, set out on his wandering again and kept well clear of the Church authorities for the next six years. We know little of this period. From references in later books we know he travelled in the Lorraine and went to Venice and Sicily. Legends about Nostradamus’ prophetic powers also start to appear at this time.
By 1554 Nostradamus had settled in Marseilles. In November that year, the Provence experienced one of the worst floods of its history. The plague redoubled in virulence, spread by the waters and the polluted corpses. Nostradamus worked ceaselessly.
Once the city had recovered, Nostradamus moved on to Salon, which he found so pleasant a town that he determined to settle there for the rest of his life. In November he married Anne Ponsart Gemelle, a rich widow. The house in which he spent the remainder of his days can still be seen off the Place de la Poissonnerie.
After 1550 he produced a yearly Almanac. And after 1554 The Prognostications. Both seem to have been successful. These works encouraged him to undertake the much more onerous task of the Prophecies. He converted the top room of his house at Salon into a study and as he tells us in the Prophecies. He worked there at night with his occult books. The main source of his magical inspirations was a book called De Mysteriis Egyptorum.
By 1555 Nostradamus had completed the first part of his book of prophecies. This contains predictions from his time to the end of the world. The word Century has nothing to do with one hundred years however. It was so called because there were a hundred verses or quatrains in each book. The verses are written in a crabbed, obscure style, with a polyglot of vocabulary. Languages used ar French, Provencal, Italian, Greek and Latin. In order to avoid being prosecuted as a magician, Nostradamus writes that he deliberately confused the time sequence of the Prophecies. So that the secrets would not be revealed to the non-initiate.
It is extraordinary how quickly the fame of Nostradamus spread. All across France and Europe it spread on the strength of the Prophecies. These works were published in their incomplete form of 1555. The book contained only the first three Centuries and part of the fourth. The prophecies became all the rage at Court. The Queen, Catherine de Medici, sent for Nostradamus to come to Court, and he set out for Paris on 14th July 1556. On 15th August, Nostradamus booked a room at the Inn of St. Michel, and the next day the queen sent for him.
One could only wish that there had been a witness to record their meeting. Nostradamus and the Queen spoke together for two hours. She is reputed to have asked him about the quatrain concerning the king’s death and to have been satisfied with Nostradamus’ answer. Certainly she continued to believe in Nostradamus’ predictions until her death. The king, Henri II, granted Nostradamus only a brief audience and was obviously not greatly interested.
Two weeks later the queen sent for him a second time and now Nostradamus was faced with the delicate and difficult task of drawing up the horoscopes of the seven Valois children, whose tragic fates he had already revealed in the centuries. All he would tell Catherine was that all of her sons would be kings, which is slightly inaccurate since one of them, Francois, died before he could inherit.
Soon afterwards Nostradamus was warned that the Justices of Paris were inquiring about his magic practices, and he swiftly returned to Salon. From this time on, suffering from gout and arthritis, he seems to have done little except draw up horoscopes for his many distinguished visitors and complete the writing of the Prophecies. Apparently he allowed a few manuscript copies to circulate before publication. He did this because many of the predictions were understood and quoted before the completed book came off the printing press in 1568. Which was two years after his death.
The reason for this reticence was probably the king’s death in 1559. Nostradamus had predicted it in I.35 and may have felt that it was too explicit for comfort and that it would be advisable to wait some years until things had quietened down. But the following year, 1560, King Francis II died, and this time he was openly quoted.
In 1564 Catherine, now Queen Regent, decided to make a Royal Progress through France. While travelling she came to Salon and visited Nostradamus. They dined and Catherine gave Nostradamus the title of Physician in Ordinary, which carried with it a salary and other benefits.
But by now the gout from which Nostradamus suffered was turning to dropsy and he, the doctor, realized that his end was near. He made his will on 17th June 1566 and left the large sum, for those days, of 3444 crowns over and above his other possessions. On 1st July he sent for the local priest to give him the last rites, and when Chavigny took leave of him that night, he told him that he would not see him alive again. As he himself had predicted, his body was found the next morning.
He was buried upright in one of the walls of the Church of the Cordeliers at Salon, and his wife Anne erected a splendid marble plaque to his memory. Nostradamus’ grave was opened by superstitious soldiers during the Revolution but his remains were reburied in the other church at Salon, the Church of St. Laurent, where his grave and portrait can still be seen.