The name Nostradamus is synonymous with prediction and foresight. Most people are aware of him as someone who prophesied major events in history – most notably as part of the hysteria surrounding the end of the world in 2012. However, many sceptics argue that his prophecies were nothing more than nebulous babble, which have had their meanings twisted and tailored to appear as though they had some substance. In spite of this, he is one of the most celebrated psychics of the last 500 years. The question that keeps popping up when his name is mentioned is: was Nostradamus really a psychic?
An Introduction to Astrology
Nostradamus began his life as Michel de Nostradame, one of nine children to Renyiere de St Remy and her husband, Jaume de Nostradame. Although not a great deal is known about his early life, what is known is that he was thought to be very intellectual – even from an early age. At a time when education was the monopoly of the wealthy, young Michel was tutored at home by his grandfather, Jean de St Remy, while the rest of the family set about maintaining the grain business that was the source of their income.
In addition to teaching Michel the basics of Latin, Greek, Hebrew and maths, it’s also believed that Jean was the first to expose Michel to the notion of divine forces governing man’s destiny, by schooling him in the rudiments of astrology. In the 1500s astrology was considered to be a science and while its teachings were not unusual, Jean’s student lapped up the ideas voraciously.
Learning his Trade
By the time he was 14, Michel left home to study medicine at the University of Avignon. However, a year later, an outbreak of the Black Death forced him to leave his studies and he travelled through France researching herbal medicines and working as an apothecary. In 1522, he enrolled at the University of Montpelier to complete his training as a physician. The University, however, was run by Catholics and his beliefs in the power of astrology did not sit well with their religious beliefs. In fact, on discovering that Michel had worked as an apothecary, they took the opportunity to expel him, believing that anyone who was willing to work in a manual trade was unfit to train in the higher science of medicine. It was during his time at Montpelier that Michel Latinised his surname, from Nostradame to Nostradamus; a common practice among students at the time.
Nostradamus spent several years travelling through France and administering the benefits of his herbal and medicinal training to victims of the Plague. While most physicians relied on treatment based around herbal compounds and mercury, Nostradamus had some foresight, preferring to focus on hygiene and ensuring that infected corpses and their clothes were burnt well away from populated areas. As his methods gained some success, Nostradamus gained a following and even received financial support from the citizens of Provence. He also attracted the attentions of Jules-Cesar Scaliger, a leading scholar of the time, who invited Nostradamus to study with him. However, after Nostradamus lost his wife and children to the Plague, public interest in him waned and he lost his celebrity status.
The Search for the Occult
An offhand remark about a religious law saw charges of heresy brought against the young scholar. Whilst he was ordered to appear before the Inquisition to answer the charges, Nostradamus absconded and travelled through Italy, Greece and Turkey for a number of years. On his journey, Nostradamus’ interest in astrology was reignited, particularly by his visits to the numerous ‘mystery schools’ – schools which taught occult beliefs and astrology. It is thought that during this time, Nostradamus experienced something of a psychic awakening. One story tells that during a visit to a Franciscan friary, he correctly predicted the inauguration of one of the friars as a future pope.
Although he dabbled with medicine and healing for the next five years, astrology and prediction had captured Nostradamus’ imagination. It was reported that he spent hours in his study, often at night, meditating over bowls of water, infused with specially selected herbs. These meditations would reportedly induce trances and visions, in which Nostradamus was given access to future events. In 1550, Nostradamus set these predictions to paper, publishing them in an almanac. The almanac was so well received that he submitted more. He had re-established his celebrity status, but this time as a psychic.
As word spread, Nostradamus’ fame grew and he felt compelled to write even more. His grand plan was to write a book called Centuries, in which he sought to publish his predictions for the next 2,000 years. The first volume of this book, Les Prophesies, was published in 1555. However, mindful of his earlier run-in with the Church Inquisition, Nostradamus was careful to ‘code’ his predictions, writing them as four-line verses, often incorporating other languages such as Greek and Italian, to obscure their meanings. However, his reputation continued to spread and soon he was charting astrological horoscopes for royalty and other eminent figures, such as Catherine Medici. In one report, Nostradamus prophesied the death of her son, Henri. He described a young lion, who would overcome by an older lion, by piercing his eye. At the age of 41, Henri was killed in a jousting match; the lance of a younger competitor pierced his visor and entered his brain.
Whether Nostradamus was psychic or not is open to debate. Certainly, he has left behind a massive body of work, which many scholars and theologians are still trying to decipher. Occasionally, an event will take place that seems to tie in with some of Nostradamus’ writings, but they are always spotted after the event, rather than as a pre-emptive warning. It may be that Nostradamus was indeed psychic and that we need to try harder to uncover the meanings behind his archaic quatrains or it may simply be that he was a man possessed of an extraordinary self-belief. However, it seems a large leap to believe that he was simply a man who thought enough of himself to write a series of cataclysmic predictions. Whatever the truth is, it is safe to assume that Nostradamus believed that he had awakened his psychic abilities to the point where he was able to divine events long before they unfolded.