One of the most controversial and widely discussed figures of his era, Nostradamus retains notoriety today as either a prophet, a charlatan, or one of the more misunderstood figures of his age. He has been credited by some with mystically foreseeing the death of Henry II of France, the rise of the sans-culottes, the flight, capture, and execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the accession of Napoleon Bonaparte, the rise of Adolf Hitler, and the coming of the Anti-christ in the twenty-first century. These and other prophecies, published in Nostradamus's Centuries, have been heatedly defended by believers in post-Biblical prophecy and vigorously debunked by Nostradamus's modern opponents.
Born in Saint-Rémy, Provence, Michel de Nostradame was the son of a respected physician. He was recognized as a precocious boy and schooled by his grandfathers, who taught him the fundamentals of mathematics, philosophy, rhetoric, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, as well as the rudiments of astrology. After the boy had mastered all his grandfathers could teach, he was sent to Avignon to study liberal arts, and later to the University of Montpellier for medical training. In 1522, at age nineteen, Nostradame received his bachelor's degree and license to practice medicine; that same year, he demonstrated remarkable success as a healer after the plague broke out in southern France. Leaving Montpellier for a time, he studied alchemy in Narbonne and works of magic and the occult in the library at Avignon. Returning to Montpellier to complete his medical studies, he received his doctorate in 1529, becoming known as Dr. Nostradamus. Three years later he moved to Agen, where he established a medical practice, married, and raised two children, but then lost his wife and children to a plague in 1535. At about the same time, Nostradamus ran afoul of the Inquisition for making disparaging remarks to a workman who was casting a bronze model of the Virgin. He left Agen and wandered about southern France and Italy for several years, treating victims of the recurrent plague. "Throughout his travels," wrote Edgar Leoni, "he seems to have sought contact with all who could in any way add to his medical and pharmaceutical knowledge. There is much reason to believe his round of calls included visits to alchemists, astrologers, cabalists, magicians and the like as well. But in those times … the distinction was only blurry." Eventually he settled in the village of Salon in Provence, where he remained the rest of his life, leaving only periodically to work among the sick in plague-stricken areas of France.
He published an almanac in 1550, issuing a new edition almost every year until his death. In 1554, he became convinced that a time of civil upheaval was ahead for France after a two-headed child and a two-headed horse were born within forty-five days of each other early in the year. In a short time he wrote ten "centuries," each century consisting of one hundred quatrains of mystical poetry containing prophecies for roughly two thousand years, through the year 3797. The centuries were published in 1555 as Les Prophéties de M. Michel Nostradamus. (Over time, this work became known as simply The Centuries.) Popular reaction was mixed, though the centuries were favorably received by the queen, Catherine de' Medici. After an audience with the queen in Paris, Nostradamus returned to Salon as a popular hero, the Oracle of France, one whose unorthodox beliefs were sanctioned by a royal protector. "Perhaps it is the immense eternity of the great God that has aroused the fervor of Nostradamus," wrote the poet Pierre de Ronsard in 1557. This last period of his life is filled with legends of his success as a possessor of second sight. After a time of suffering from arthritis and dropsy, Nostradamus died at his workbench in 1566.
Although he wrote several other works, Nostradamus is best known for his poetically stated prophecies, The Centuries. In a prefatory letter to Henry II in the first edition of this work, Nostradamus wrote that his prophecies concern events in Europe, Africa, and Asia. As Leoni has written, "The bulk of the quatrains deal with disasters of various sorts. The disasters include plagues, earthquakes, wars, floods, invasions, murders, droughts, battles and many other themes. Some quatrains cover these in over-all terms; others concern a single person or small group of persons. Some cover a single town, others several towns in several countries." Through the use of arcane geographical references, puns, anagrams, mythological allusions, and other devices, Nostradamus wrote in "a poetic furor, rather than according to the strict rules of poetry." Neither punctuation, rhymes, nor scansion are pronounced in The Centuries, though the quatrains are written in basic iambic pentameter.
Nothing substantial has been written about Nostradamus's almanacs and his few miscellaneous medical treatises. Much, however, has been written about the Centuries. Nostradamus's work has been commented upon periodically since the seventeenth century, with critics taking basically one of three views of the writer: true prophet, liar, or muddled mystic. In 1625, Gabriel Naudé wrote that the centuries, "so ambiguous, and so diverse, obscure and enigmatic," lend themselves to prophetic fulfillment by their very nature. As Jean Gimon wrote, in his Chroniques de Salon (1882), "The style of the Centuries is so multiform and nebulous that each may, with a little effort and good will, find in them what he seeks. Like airy vapors, they assume, as they unroll, the figures of which the spectator's imagination lends them, and this fact assures this sibylline work of an immense and eternal success with those who are devotees of the marvelous." In the English-speaking world, widespread interest in Nostradamus came into vogue in the late nineteenth century. Numerous books and articles on the subject have been published since then, notably Charles A. Ward's Oracles of Nostradamus (1891) and James Laver's Nostradamus; or, The Future Foretold (1942). These and other such works are marked by their writers' confident insistence upon Nostradamus's bona fides as a prophet of modern times. Several of these commentators are what Leoni calls "deependers," with one even claiming to be the reincarnation of Nostradamus. There are extreme opinions among the skeptics as well, with one critic charging that Nostradamus was little more than a sot who scrawled his quatrains nightly before passing out in a drunken stupor. The most complete treatment of Nostradamus's life and prophecies for many years has been Leoni's massive Nostradamus: Life and Literature (1961), which took a balanced, but fairly skeptical view. Perhaps the most detailed and recent rebuttal, rife with sarcasm, is The Mask of Nostradamus (1990), by James Randi. Although Randi, a professional magician and articulate debunker, allows that Nostradamus was "a person of considerable ability who would have succeeded in any age," he demonstrates rational explanations of the prophecies and that many interpretations of Nostradamus's quatrains often contradict each other. With the approach of the twenty-first century and the second millennium of the Common Era, coupled with a decline in Western religious belief, interest in Nostradamus and his prophecies continues to grow.