Nostradamus, who today is known the world over by a single name, just like a rock star, was a 16th century French doctor and astrologer credited with predicting everything from the rise of Adolph Hitler to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Nostradamus (a Latinized version of his birth name, Michel de Nostredame) laid out his prophet-of-doom predictions, which often dealt with cataclysmic tragedies such as natural disasters and war, in a series of books originally published in 1555. Covering events from his lifetime to the end of the world, these prophecies have been a subject of controversy since they were first produced and their enigmatic creator, who has been labeled both a genius and a quack, remains an ongoing source of fascination.
Nostradamus was born on December 14, 1503, in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. Located in southern France, Saint-Remy's magnificent landscape and light later served as an inspiration to another man with an enduring legacy: Vincent Van Gogh. The artist spent a year in Saint-Remy, from 1889 to 1890, and experienced one of the most important, prolific periods of his career.
Nostradamus arrived in the world during the early years of the French Renaissance, a time of renewed interest in learning and exploration. Christopher Columbus made his famed voyage of discovery in the decade before Nostradamus' birth. Details about the prognosticator's childhood are sketchy. His father was a merchant and notary whose family converted from Judaism to Christianity. In the early 1500s, the French King Louis XII forced Jews to be baptized or leave the region. As a boy, Nostradamus is believed to have studied classical languages, astrology and possibly occult Jewish literature. As a teenager, he was educated in Avignon and later studied medicine at the well-regarded Montpellier Medical School.
After his student years, Nostradamus traveled around southern France caring for plague victims. The plague pandemic, also referred to as the Black Death, likely began in Asia in the 14th century and spread to Europe, where repeated outbreaks decimated the populations of various countries through the 17th century. The disease, which was transmitted through fleas and rodents, was highly contagious, fast-acting and painful, often causing delirium and leaving large black pustules all over a victim's body. Nostradamus began to develop a reputation for curing gravely ill patients with his innovative methods. He advocated clean water, air and bedding and reportedly didn't bleed patients, as was customary at the time. Additionally, he was said to have shunned the multi-colored "magic" robe worn by some plague doctors as a means of protection.
Following these years as a wandering healer, Nostradamus eventually returned to Montpellier to pursue doctoral studies in medicine. In the early 1530s, he was invited to live in the town of Agen by Julius-CÃ©sar Scaliger, a leading French scholar and philosopher. Around 1534, Nostradamus married a local woman (her exact identity remains unconfirmed) and they had a daughter and son. The plague subsequently hit Agen and Nostradamus labored tirelessly to treat its victims. However, when his wife and children were struck down by the disease, probably around 1537, the healer's effectiveness was called into question. His wife's family allegedly sued him to get her dowry back and his friendship with Scaliger soured. To add to his troubles, around this time Nostradamus, a devout Catholic, was charged with heresy for an inadvertent remark he'd made about a church statue. He was called by the Church Inquisitors at Toulouse, but opted to leave the area instead of standing trial. He spent the next six years traveling, most likely through Italy and other parts of France.
By 1544, Nostradamus returned to France and studied plague treatments with Louis Serre, a physician in Marseilles. Major flooding in the region during this time caused serious sanitation problems and led to another plague outbreak over the next few years. Nostradamus treated plague victims in Aix-en-Provence in 1546 and then moved to Salon-de-Provence. In 1547, he married for a second time, to Anne Ponsarde, with whom he would have six children. Upon settling in Salon, Nostradamus' study of astrology and the occult intensified. He would work late into the night in his study and reportedly go into a trancelike state in which he'd have visions. In 1550, he published his first almanac, which contained a general prediction for each month of the year. The book was a success and he went on to produce a new almanac annually until his death. As Nostradamus' fame grew, members of the elite flocked to him for horoscopes.
In 1555, Nostradamus published the first installment of his most ambitious project, a 10-part series of long-term predictions known as "Les Propheties" ("The Prophecies"). The work was divided into 10 "centuries," with each century consisting of 100 prophetic rhyming quatrains, or four lines of verse. For some unknown reason, Century VII only had 42 predictions. The centuries, which had nothing to do with 100-year spans of time, were intentionally cryptic and written in a variety of languages (French, Greek, Latin, Italian), as well as anagrams and riddles, in order to protect Nostradamus from accusations of being a magician.
The centuries brought Nostradamus greater celebrity and attracted the attention of the French queen, Catherine de Medici, who called the seer to the royal court in 1556 for a consultation. The queen became an admirer and Nostradamus was later appointed court physician and asked to produce horoscopes for the seven royal children. One prophecy said to be of particular interest to the queen was Quatrain 1.35, which was widely believed to predict the accidental death of her husband, King Henry II: "The young lion will overcome the older one/On the field of combat in single battle/He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage/Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death." Nostradamus reportedly warned the king he shouldn't engage in any duels in his 41st year. Nostradamus' reputation was furthered when this prediction appeared to come true in 1559, when the king, in his 41st year, was killed in a jousting accident. In the wake of this event, some detractors called Nostradamus evil and destructive; however, his supporters continued to seek him out and the queen remained a fan, even visiting him in Salon-de-Provence in 1564.
Nostradamus' fame has only increased since his death. His followers claim he had true prophetic powers and foretold a long list of world events, including the French Revolution, the Great Fire of London, World War I, the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Princess Diana, and the U.S. space shuttle Challenger disaster. Critics charge his predictions were mere guesswork and have been manipulated for propaganda purposes and misinterpreted by overenthusiastic believers. Additionally, his name has been attached to predictions he didn't write. The debate surrounding the man and his mysterious prophecies began over 400 years ago and will likely continue for years to come.
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