Born Michel de Nostredame in December 1503 in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, France, Nostradamus is considered to be one of the most famous prophets in history. His best-known work, “Les Propheties” (The Prophecies), recorded his prognostications in four-line poems, which were organized into groups of 100 quatrains known as “Centuries.” Obscured by the use of Greek, Latin and 16th-century Provençal, these deliberately obtuse predictions have enabled devoted followers to claim accuracy—from foretelling the death of King Henry II of France in a jousting accident in 1559 to the attacks on September 11, 2001—after the pivotal events have already occurred. Explore a few little-known facts about this wildly popular seer below.
Nostradamus was expelled from medical school.
Nostradamus enrolled in the University of Avignon in 1519 at the age of 15, but was forced to leave a year later when the town was stricken by plague and the university closed its doors. He subsequently spent eight years traveling throughout France, Italy and Spain researching herbal remedies while working as an apothecary and helping victims of the plague. In 1529, Nostradamus enrolled at the University of Montpellier (one of the world’s oldest medical institutions still in operation today) but was expelled shortly after the university learned that he had worked as an apothecary—a trade believed to be inferior to that of a doctor and one expressly banned by university regulations (it was not until 1572 that the College of Apothecaries was founded at Montpellier). There continues to be some debate as to whether he returned later to complete his medical degree, although there is no evidence to prove that he did. The expulsion document signed by procurator Guillaume Rondelet, however, still exists in the faculty library.
In addition to prophecies, Nostradamus published a cookbook.
One of Nostradamus’ earliest publications was entitled “Treatise on Cosmetics and Conserves.” In addition to providing instructions on how to make blonde hair dye, laxatives, toothpaste (using ground cuttlefish bone and sea-snail shells, or—if your teeth are really rotten and decayed—blue clay) and a ‘rose pill’ lozenge to treat the plague, the book offered recipes for marzipan paste, candied orange peel, marmalade, cherry jam, pear preserve and quince jelly “fit to set before a king.” Oh, and a love jam (made from mandrake apples, sparrows’ blood and eyelets from the arms of an octopus among other things) so powerful it would induce “a burning of her heart to perform the love-act” when the concoction combined with saliva in the midst of a kiss.
His predictions were based on events from the past.
Although the perception of Nostradamus as a prophet with an uncanny ability to accurately predict the future has persisted since the 16th century, scholars now believe that he didn’t actually possess a supernatural power to see into the hereafter, but rather the ability to project past events into the future. According to Peter Lemesurier, a former Cambridge linguist and professional translator who has written at least 10 books on the enigmatic figure, Nostradamus was neither an astrologer nor a seer; he simply believed that history will repeat itself. Using a technique dating back to biblical times known as bibliomancy, Nostradamus purportedly selected extracts from older sources at random and then used astrological calculations to project its recurrence in the future. One of the major sources used for his most famous work, “The Prophecies,” was the “Mirabilis liber” of 1522, an anthology of prophecies from well-known seers of the time, while “Livre de l’estat et mutations des temps” by Richard Roussat provided the basis for his astrological references.
His contemporaries criticized his astrological skills.
By the time the first edition of “The Prophecies” was published in 1555, Nostradamus had already garnered quite a bit of notoriety from his almanacs, which he had begun to publish on an annual basis beginning five years earlier. The texts provided useful weather information for farmers and predictions for the coming year, and eventually caught the attention of the queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici, who summoned Nostradamus to Paris to explain his predictions and draw up horoscopes for her children. However, not all of the attention he received was positive. Professional astrologers of the time criticized his incompetent methodology and failure to adjust the predictions for his client’s birth dates or place. Laurens Videl published a pamphlet in 1558 entitled “Declaration of the abuses, ignorances and seditions of Michel Nostradamus” in which he railed against both the content of Nostradamus’ predictions and his lack of basic astrological skills, stating: “I can say with complete confidence that of true astrology you understand less than nothing, as is evident not merely to the learned, but to learners in astrology too, as your works amply demonstrate, you who cannot calculate the least movement of any heavenly body whatever.”
Nostradamus’ prophecies were used as propaganda during World War II.
Shortly after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister, stumbled upon a passage in the book “Mysterien von Sonne und Seele” (Mysteries of the Sun and Soul) in which one of Nostradamus’ quatrains was believed to predict that crises would develop in England and Poland in 1939. After bringing the passage to her husband’s attention, Joseph Goebbels ordered the creation and distribution of a brochure that would convince those living in neutral countries that a Nazi victory was inevitable, as Nostradamus had predicted it centuries earlier. The Allies retaliated with a bit of psychological warfare of their own, airdropping large quantities of flyers over German-occupied territories, claiming that Nostradamus had actually foreseen Germany’s defeat. In an attempt to boost American morale, MGM also produced a series of short films about the famous soothsayer.