Early Life

(Renaissance Biographies, Revised Edition)

Nostradamus was born Michel Notredame (or Nostredame, the Provençal spelling) near the end of 1503 in St. Rémy de Provence in southern France. Although he would later claim that his father and grandfather were physicians, it appears more likely that they were in fact prosperous grain merchants. What is certain is that the family had recently converted from Judaism to Christianity and dropped its original name in order to remain in Catholic France.

The young Michel received his earliest education from his grandfathers, who found him a promising student. He was then able to continue his studies at two nearby cities renowned for their intellectual and cultural life, Avignon and Montpellier. Michel began secondary school at the former in 1517, where the prescribed course of study included grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, mathematics, and astronomy (which encompassed astrology as well). At the time, Avignon was under direct control of the Catholic Church; there, as in all seats of learning, classes were taught in Latin.

Michel went on to study medicine at the University of Montpellier in 1522, where once again astrology played a role alongside such subjects as anatomy and surgery. Tradition has it that he concentrated upon pharmacology and various methods of treating the plague. When he was graduated in 1525 at the age of twenty-two, he followed the custom of signaling his accomplishment by Latinizing his last name, thus adopting the form by which he is best known today.

Life’s Work

(Renaissance Biographies, Revised Edition)

Nostradamus (as he would henceforth be known) was now fully qualified to practice medicine, and did so for several years, but he undertook further study and teaching at the University of Montpellier, from which he received an advanced medical degree. He eventually apprenticed himself to eminent physician and scholar Jules-César Scaliger of Agen in 1532. Soon afterward he married, and the couple bore two children.

However, Nostradamus’ family were to die of the plague in 1537 while he was traveling to treat other victims. He subsequently quarreled with the notoriously irascible Scaliger and was accused of making heretical remarks, events that were to lead to his quitting Agen. After ten more years of travel, practice, and teaching in France and Italy, Nostradamus met and married Anna Ponce Gemelle of Salon de Provence, a town not far from his birthplace. The couple eventually produced six children.

Nostradamus began compiling astrological almanacs—popular and highly salable publications—in 1550. He followed with two collections of medical and cosmetic formulas in 1552, Traicté des fardemens and Vray et parfaict embellissement de la face. These were combined in 1555 as Excellent et moult utile Opuscule à touts necessaire qui desirent auoir cognoissance de plusiers exquises Receptes (“excellent and very useful treatise necessary for all those who desire to have knowledge of several exquisite recipes”). Nostradamus also published Orus Apollo, fils de Osiris, roi de Ægipte niliacque (“the book of Orus Apollo, son of Osiris, king of Egypt”), a collection of maxims of dubious origin. More important was his translation from Galen, the classical Greek physician, Paraphrase de C. Galen sur l’exortation de Menodote, in 1557. This translation was criticized as inaccurate, although Nostradamus may have been working from an imperfect manuscript.

Nostradamus’ most famous works, however, were his Centuries, originally published in French as Les Prophéties de M. Michel Nostradamus, a series of ambiguously worded prophecies. Unlike his almanacs, which forecast events one year at a time, these new works predicted events to the year 3797, although in no particular order. The first three series appeared in 1555; by 1558, seven more had been published, although their exact dates are not...

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(Renaissance Biographies, Revised Edition)

Gould, Rupert T. “Nostradamus.” In Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1928. A noted but skeptical student of anomalies, Gould compares Nostradamus with other “prophets” and astrologers. He concludes that Nostradamus produced puzzlingly accurate prophecies in a few cases.

Laver, James. Nostradamus: Or, The Future Foretold. London: Collins, 1942. An influential historian of art and fashion, Laver summarizes Nostradamus’ life and devotes most of his attention to the prophecies, which he argues are valid.

Leoni, Edgar. Nostradamus: Life and Literature. New York: Exposition Press, 1961. The most thorough study of the Centuries to have appeared in English, Leoni’s book was originally submitted to Harvard as his B.A. thesis. It contains complete texts and translations of the Centuries and a survey of all pertinent literature. Reprinted as Nostradamus and His Prophecies in 1982.

LeVert, Liberté E. (pseudonym of Everett Bleiler). The Prophecies and Enigmas of Nostradamus. Glen Rock, N.J.: Firebell Books, 1979. An acknowledged expert in the field of speculative fiction, Bleiler argues that Nostradamus was a fascinating personality and a skillful, though not great, poet, and that the Centuries repay careful study for these reasons alone. Objective and evenhanded.

Randi, James. The Mask of Nostradamus: The...

(The entire section is 461 words.)