Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Do you believe in Nostradamus?

To us, he is a symbol or presents a question - either a Merlin-like figure of supernatural power or the eternal charlatan. What is the truth about the man?

Michel de Nostredame was born in Provence in 1503 and died in 1566. He was clever: he could read and write. Perhaps his young dream was to be a physician, but an outbreak of plague closed the university he went to and he became a self-taught apothecary or herbalist. He developed a ‘rose pill’ that protected against the plague. Sadly, it did not save his wife and two children, who appear to have died in a later outbreak. This may have made him more determined to fight the plague across southern France in the 1540s. He became well known and married again - provident chap, to a rich widow this time - and had six more children. He adopted a Latin name: it marked out a man as a scholar and helped his reputation. How has such a normal history made that name - ‘Nostradamus’ - a byword for the paranormal?

In those days, high and low believed in what we would call, broadly, ‘magic’. People met and talked to ghosts. The Roman church taught they were the restless souls of those in Purgatory or, more terrifyingly, demons sent by the Devil to lure the unwary to hell. People also feared the fairies. Though not evil, fairies were not the innocent children’s playmates we know. Their mischief might stop the milk turning to cream. They might kill your pig or steal your baby and leave behind a changeling. People put food and drink out for the fairies at night, to keep on the right side of them.

There was no difference in the mind between the material and spiritual. The church bells were rung in a storm to drive off the devils that were making the thunder.  Magnetic rocks, the hills and valleys changing with light, the dark forest and splashing waterfall, were alive with sprites and spirits. Eclipses and comets in the sky, a frog hopping across your path, a chair collapsing under you, were seen as omens. In times of ceaseless civil and religious war, famine and plague, these signs could only portend worse to come.

Every village had a ‘cunning man’ or ‘wise woman’. They offered comfort and cures with magic charms and séances, herbs gathered at some sacred spot by full moon, and countless other age-old remedies science would deem mumbo-jumbo. The rich would pay well, the poor what they could, to recover their health; to find out who had stolen a hat or a saucepan; to locate buried treasure; to trace a loved one who had gone missing.

Records show these magic consultations concerned very human problems. Young maids wanted to know which man they would marry, wives when their husbands would die, and husbands when their wives would.

A learned writer had a living in all this. Nostradamus began to produce almanacs. These were enormously popular publications. They predicted the weather for farmers and pointed to changes in politics and personal lives, brought on by changes in the heavens. Almanacs are the distant ancestors of the ‘Stars’ you read in today’s periodicals for fun. But astrology was a serious matter in Europe in 1550.

There was nothing unusual in Nostradamus prophesying then: the difference was, he was famous. Borrowing from biblical sources and collections of ancient occult writings, he made thousands of prophecies for people who wanted to look into the future. As with forecasts today, things did not look good. One of his most famous quatrains - four line verses - allegedly foretold that the French king Henry II would be killed in a joust, and is said to have proved Nostradamus’s miraculous powers to everyone when the disaster actually happened on June 30 1559.

The story is certainly a later invention. Besides inviting the charge of witchcraft, it was terribly dangerous to prophesy the death of a reigning monarch and Nostradamus would hardly have been so foolish. Earlier he had met the king, whose patronage was obviously priceless, and dedicated some of his prophecies to him. Also, Henry’s Queen, Catherine de Medici, made Nostradamus her court seer, advising her and her sons, the future kings of France.

What Nostradamus foretells, tells as much about us as about him. Envy, gossip and rumour over the years have built on our love of mysteries; and despite centuries of science, we find it frightening to be all alone in a cold universe from which the living spirits have departed.    

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