Nostradamus lived during a period torn between two divergent systems of thought. One was the occult, which strove to interpret the world supernaturally and which was even then falling out of favor. The other was the scientific, which has increasingly but never totally predominated in Western civilization.
It was a time of enormous upheaval. France’s political situation was chaotic, and Protestantism vied with Catholicism for supremacy throughout Europe. The plague ravaged southwestern Europe several times during Nostradamus’ lifetime, and although he seems to have established a reputation as an effective plague doctor, he lost his own family to the dreadful disease. Thus his preoccupation as expressed throughout the Centuries with disaster of all kinds is easy to understand, and may have been fueled by fears for his own safety as a Protestant sympathizer.
Neither is it difficult to understand the keen interest that subsequent generations have taken in Nostradamus. Although Europe has experienced periods of stability since his day, the desire to know the future seems to be a constant. Scholars have demonstrated that Nostradamus filled his many prophecies with topical and contemporary references—a great many of them lost to modern readers—but the poet’s allusive style lends his work mystery and ambiguity. Thanks to these characteristics, later readers have discovered “references” to such leaders and tyrants as Napoleon and Adolf Hitler and have been able to make persuasive arguments for their discoveries. The mirror that Nostradamus holds up to his readers is so clouded, it seems, that almost anything for which one looks may be found there.