Cover page

Title page

Copyright page

Translator's Preface

Denis Crouzet is one of the most distinctive voices among France's early-modern historians. In a sequence of landmark books, he has changed the way we think about religious tension and violence in the period of the post-Reformation, and especially in France. His approach is unconventional, his methodologies unusual, and his style of writing idiosyncratic. Until now, however, none of his major books has been translated into English, and the anglophone world has not had an adequate opportunity to sample his work. That is why I, a historian of early-modern Europe and not a professional translator, offered to undertake this task.

Crouzet's study of Nostradamus provides us with excellent insights into what makes his work unique. The subject is a kind of North Face of the Eiger for the historian, for reasons that Crouzet explains. The resulting book is a non-biography, an essay which attempts to reconstruct the strange mental and emotional world of Nostradamus and his contemporaries (their collective imaginaire – the word is translated throughout this text as ‘imaginary’). In so doing, he teases the mysterious astrologer away from the myths which surround him and back into a historical context which is coherent and believable. The ‘astrophile’ (which is how Nostradamus described himself) was trained and practised as a physician, well-known for treating outbreaks of plague. Crouzet explains how he was also concerned to treat the mental and emotional epidemic of his time, the paroxysms created by the religious upheavals of the Reformation. A world in which religion is the subject and object of confrontation is the Ground Zero for Crouzet's analysis of the Nostradamian ‘cogito’ (or each person's perception and creation of his own existence). The word has been left in this text as in the original, because it is appropriated from the works of the literary critic, Georges Poulet – just one of several influences of what is known as the ‘Geneva School of Literary Criticism’ that emerges in this text.

Crouzet analyses the peculiar, obscure and complex writings of Nostradamus to uncover the philosophical project which lies beneath. He shows how, in parallel with the hippocratic way of treating patients, which looked for ways of preventing the spread of disease, Nostradamus used augury as a method of treatment, and enigma as an instrument of therapy. Nostradamus’ quatrains become a nebulous form of expression, expressly designed to create a sense of disorientation, a ‘hermeneutic’ of destabilization, in the reader. Real historical events and invented ones, geographical locations from here and there, Biblical points of reference and Kabbalistic allusions, past, present and future, are all mixed together to create a strange disorientating world in which terrible atrocities and massacres, monstrous births and deformed bodies become allegories for human pride and sin. Nostradamus writes his enigmas as allegories, just as his contemporary Hieronymus Bosch paints them – depictions of human folly, blindness and stupidity, a world imprisoned in sin. Nostradamus’ apocalyptic vision was intended to convey a truth over and above its superficial predictive logic, to create a ‘panic’ (angoisse – the word recurs in this text, and it has often been translated here as ‘angst’) in the mind of the reader. That angst was designed to have therapeutic value, to make the reader aware of man's essential weakness. It is at this point that Crouzet associates Nostradamus with some of the essential ways of thinking that eventually fed through into the Reformation movement in France. His shorthand for those patterns of thought is ‘evangelist’, and that word has been retained in this translation. There is perhaps no better word to characterize the distinctive blend of Christian mysticism, Biblicism, and unpolemicized sympathy for emerging Protestant theology, which was a feature of the early, pre-Calvinist, French Reformation. I have avoided, however, using ‘evangelism’ and ‘evangelical’ to steer the reader away from the associations which the words suggest in their minds with gospellers from different ages and contexts. Readers will discover that Crouzet historicizes Nostradamus by giving him a place alongside François Rabelais, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Desiderius Erasmus, and Marguerite de Navarre. I have drawn on translations of their works from the standard editions, as appropriate.

Retaining the distinctive sonorities of Denis Crouzet's writing in this translation has been a considerable challenge. Beyond it lay the ordeal of how best to render the works of Nostradamus himself in translation. The Prophecies have, of course, been translated into English before, and most notably in the seventeenth century by Theophilus de Garencières, a Paris-born physician who moved to England in the 1640s in the entourage of a French ambassador. Garencières’ initial claim to fame was to warn the world of the dangers of sugar to the human constitution, but it was his edition and translation of Nostradamus (The True Prophecies or Prognostications of Michel Nostradamus (1672)) in a bilingual edition that secured his reputation, and cemented Nostradamus’ as well.1 In the later twentieth century, there was a further translation of the work. In 1961, Edgar Leoni offered a ‘comprehensive, definitive study’ of the Prophecies with a bilingual text and a more literal and modern translation. His notes are often extremely informative, and his edition is frequently cited by contemporary futurologists; but he worked from a somewhat corrupt version of the text.2 In 2003, Peter Lemesurier published Nostradamus: The Illustrated Prophecies to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the astrophile's birth.3 He offered yet another ‘new and authoritative translation’ of the work into English, this time by a trained linguist and long-time Nostradamian aficionado, in a bilingual edition that helpfully reprints the published versions of the Prophecies. The translation is an impressive and imaginative attempt to render the poetry of the original in a verse translation, doing so by adopting a consciously portentous register. Finally, and most recently, the doyen of professional translators from French into English, and especially for Renaissance verse, Richard Sieburth, published a parallel text in a new verse translation in the Penguin Classics series in 2012, the year after Denis Crouzet's book appeared.4 The translation is in metred verse: clear, terse and readable. But, as Sieburth says: ‘Translations are always fated to be clearer than their originals’. That is because you cannot translate something which you do not understand. Crouzet emphasizes, however, that it was at the heart of Nostradamus’ philosophy and intentions to be ambiguous and ambivalent, obscure and enigmatic, in a measure incomprehensible. Yet to translate incomprehensibility is to bring into question the hermeneutics of translation itself. So, I have resorted here to undertaking my own translations of the passages which the author cites, conscious that, in doing so, I have sacrificed the metre and poetry of the original, which my predecessors (whose works have been on my desk throughout this project, and to whom I acknowledge a considerable debt) have struggled to render in English. But I have done so to preserve the qualities that Denis Crouzet has identified as essential in the quatrains.

This translation includes various modifications from the original 2011 French edition. They have all been undertaken with the approbation of the author. Some corrections have been incorporated into the notes (in line with those in the Russian translation of the work).5 A few works have been added to the bibliography and the footnotes to bring it up to date. Some of the longer footnotes have been shortened (these are indicated with an asterisk, so that the determined reader can trace back to the French edition for the full exposition). For the benefit of an Anglophone audience, less familiar, perhaps, with Nostradamus’ writings than a French one, the original French quatrains have also been added to the endnotes. For that purpose, I have mostly had recourse to the version reproduced by Richard Sieburth in the Penguin Classics, where the orthography has been modernized and regularized, reckoning that this would now be the most immediately accessible to readers of this book. Biblical quotations are from the King James Version (KJV – 1611), with occasional resort to the Douai-Rheims Bible (DRB – 1582) where the text does not concord. Quotations from François Rabelais’ works are taken from the Thomas Urquhart translation, edited and completed by Peter Anthony Motteux (1653, 1693). That is a monument, if ever there was one, to the proposition that translation is about conveying the spirit that lies behind the words – and that was something that French early sixteenth-century evangelists took very seriously as well.

Mark Greengrass

Nanterre, November 2016


Permissions and Acknowledgements

The translator and publisher gratefully acknowledge Knut Boeser (ed.), The Elixirs of Nostradamus. Nostradamus’ Original Recipes for Elixirs, scented water, beauty potions and sweetmeats (Wakefield, RI, 1996) for an extract of that translation (from pp. 87–8) with modifications; also the French emblems website ( for its translation of one of Guillaume de La Perrière's Latin tetrastichons from La Morosophie; also Peter Lemesurier for an extract of his translation of Nostradamus’ prologue to the Hiéroglyphes de Horapollo, located at They thank Sophie Bajard-Manchette, editor at Éditions Payot, Paris for her invaluable assistance in making this translation possible. The translator is grateful to an anonymous reviewer for suggestions to improve the translation, and to Paul Young at Polity for his patience in awaiting the delivery of the final version.


To my father, François Crouzet who, all of a sudden, on a day of despair, recited the opening lines of Dante's Divine Comedy (Paradiso, Canto 1 (1–3)):

La gloria di colui che tutto move per l’universo penetra,

e risplende in una parte più e meno altrove.

His glory, by whose might all things are moved,

Pierces the universe, and in one part

Sheds more resplendence, elsewhere less.6


Fragments of History

I have long regretted, these last three or four years, my decision to embark on a study of ‘Master Michel de Nostredame’, Michel Nostradamus. It has been an arduous task, verging on absurdity, even aberration. On the one hand, the prophetic astrologer remains a mystery, because the documents and sources that deal with him are scarce; on the other, because his prophecies remain impenetrable, they are unclear, and make no sense. The history, therefore, to the extent that it is feasible, is bound to remain fragmentary.

The reader will find at the back of the book a chronology of what historians know about Nostradamus, linking the few biographical details that have survived to the broader events of his time.

It will be evident that the biographical details are piecemeal and that there is little enough to go on in order to write about the most celebrated astrologer in history. That, however, is not the only problem. More importantly for the historian, the fragmentation applies also to the work of Michel Nostradamus, and so to his imaginary. There is a disjunction that baffles us, and which lies at the heart of his main work, the Prophecies; perhaps even, to use a stronger term, a dilution of meaning. Every quatrain in each of the ten centuries comprising the Prophecies can be likened to a bottomless pit, where anything that might serve as a foothold on which to resolve the enigma posed by Nostredamus crumbles or disintegrates, each quatrain beginning to oscillate and vibrate, becoming unreadable or evanescent. The meaning is lost in contradiction and polysemy; it leaches away into a sort of unbridled linguistic extravagance.1 Nostradamus, the prophet from Salon-de-Provence, creates just such a quicksand for the reader, luring him into it by the fascination of his writing. Once sucked in, he leaves the reader struggling, avoiding or dodging his questions and possible answers, dragging him down into ‘a whole range of variations and permutations’, like a metaphor for the absurd.2 That absurdity is doubled, moreover, by the way that charlatanism has always been inherent in prediction, i.e. in the presumption that there is a dynamic knowledge of what is to come, hidden in the disconcerting agency of Nostradamus’ words. Anachronism haunts Nostradamus’ Prophecies, takes hold of them, overworks their meaning, and endlessly refashions them in the light of present-day events and current hopes and fears. It leads the historian to doubt his own calling, which relies on quite the reverse premise, namely, to try humbly and to the degree that it is possible to do so, to penetrate the imaginaries of the past. The historian's task is to recreate the imaginary with all its fragility and potentiality in the most plausible way possible.

I should add in passing that this is a subject where dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalists and augury merchants from temples of divination of every hue are much in evidence, outdoing one another in their hallucinatory delusions. My starting-point has been to ignore them, and their eschatological lunacies serving only to second-guess catastrophic events, even when I have experienced my own dark nights of doubt. That is because one must remain both rational and agnostic when confronting Nostradamus and the misuses to which he has been put. There are those who will be irritated by this approach but that is not my problem. They have no understanding of history, its methods or its hermeneutics. As Erasmus, the humanist whose presence will be felt throughout this book, put it in his Praise of Folly, ‘better to pass over them in silence without “stirring the mud of Camarina” or touching that noxious weed’.3 I shall be equally deaf to the recriminations of devotees of fact-ridden and realist history, those (Erasmus again) ‘whose beard and cape inspire respect, and who proclaim themselves alone wise whilst all other mortals are mere fluttering shadows’. A little idealism, in the Marxist sense of the term, does not come amiss from time to time in the human sciences.

To summarize, whilst also emphasizing the limitations of my astrological erudition and my conclusions regarding the authenticity of the different editions of Nostradamus’ Prophecies, I find myself compelled, so as to preserve the identity of the past and go in search of the astrophile from Salon-de-Crau, to follow the presuppositions of Alphonse Dupront, who wrote:4

To live and not to take account of what one is living, is a commonplace of existence. The grace of history is precisely to permits us, with the benefit of hindsight, to understand those depths that are generally a closed book to contemporaries, assuming that the essential function of history is, as it were, to keep a register of the shifts from non-consciousness to consciousness. Yet we still know that we cannot pretend – or rather ought not to pretend – that we can penetrate to the heart of the mystery. The mystery makes itself felt, is tangible, locates itself; it does not explain itself lest it should cease to be mysterious … Ultimately, every explanation of a mystery appears a negation of the mystery.

I shall be applying the ‘mystery’ that Dupront saw as encompassing what is ‘myth’ to the imaginary of Nostradamus.

That is something to which I will return. I have thus spent endless difficult hours, day and night, because everything had to be repeatedly thought through again, where dwelling on a word, a couplet, or a quatrain, forever coming up against a brick wall, or rather feeling I was meandering in a maze, I was often sidetracked by the fabulous world of symbolic thought or by the pursuit of possible historical points of reference. I began to wonder, too, if I was truly engaged in a work of history or whether I too was being led astray into enigmas or puzzles, a fantasy world of epistemology, richly polysemous to the extent of disguising what was nothing other than a game. When there is such a multiplicity of signifiers, such a fragmentation of meaning, where is the history? How to coax Nostradamus into historicity if all that remains at the end of the day is an art of stylistic deconstruction5 focused on an approaching time of anxiety – ‘for God's forgiveness will n’er be spread forth, my son, but when my Prophecies are mostly come to pass and in the fullness of time accomplished’.6 My problem was that I persisted in my belief that Nostradamus had a meaningful objective, and that I struggled to grasp the meaning of the words as if each of them was a nut shell that could be cracked and opened. I struggled to believe it without suspecting that the text itself, like the time frame it constructed, was of a ‘cyclical’ nature, framed after the fashion of sybilline verse, whose symbolic principles revolve around enumeration and repetition. It is a poetry of incantation, which is evident when read as a continuum, but which is paradoxically concealed under the artificial labyrinth of a factual varietas, proceeding by a succession of myriad snatches of writing, isolated and separated one from another.7

And yet it became apparent to me after reading and re-reading Nostradamus that, in order to understand his enigmatic world, and grasp his intentions, we must (and this is often the case with the discursive logic of Renaissance thinkers) not allow ourselves to become obsessed by the need to interpret him. That would be to imagine that Nostradamus wanted to captivate his readers by furnishing them with the wherewithal to decrypt, unambiguously and with certitude, and reconstitute what he wanted to say. It is less a matter of reading Nostradamus and more one of deconstructing the principle of such a readability, and therefore of a hidden knowledge.8 There is a genuine ‘occult’ philosophy buried in the prophet's writings, but it is a philosophy of non-knowledge, of an awareness of aporia. Nostradamus himself encourages this, by a number of indicators or markers inserted here and there in his writings. So, the final lines of the ‘Preface’ to his son César, are written ‘notwithstanding that their comprehension has been wrapped up under a thick cloud: sed quando submovenda erit ignorantia [but when the time comes for the removal of ignorance] the instance shall become clearer’. Nostradamus gives his reader to understand that he must allow himself to penetrate beyond the words. Quo de futuris non est determinata omnino veritas – i.e. ‘As to the future, none can be determined with absolute truth’. The path probably taken by Nostradamus throughout his writings is the one sketched out by Erasmus, that of Folly. As described by Jean-Claude Margolin, it is that of an ‘ironic awareness of the self’, an inverted discourse whose ‘momentum, from the closed and sclerotic world of dogma and appearances, summons up a world of infinite freedom and openness for man, for whom all truth, inward and outward, is a labour of research towards greater profundity’.9 I have eventually emerged, therefore, with what might seem to be a reductive hypothesis in the face of the infinite possibilities of Nostradamus’ oracular thought. For intelligibility is never complete, even when a quatrain seems to be completely straightforward. Full understanding is never achieved, and the meaning is always left hanging in the air.

So, what Nostradamus calls his ‘nocturnal and prophetic calculations, composed more out of a natural instinct, accompanied by a poetic fury, than according to the strict rules of poetry’10 must be a hermeneutics of semiotic excess. The only way in which the history of Nostradamus can make any sense is to accept that it has to be a history that is structured outside the linearity of language, beyond the words themselves, and therefore outside the received norms of historical analysis. I shall begin my analysis on that assumption.


The Place Beyond Words

Just when I was beginning to think that I should abandon this topic, a major piece of evidence caught my attention. Nostradamus, the writer of enigmas that he called ‘prophecies’ and ‘presages’, chose to call himself an ‘astrophile’. Yet if he tried to find an enduring science in the stars above, in the ‘movement of the celestial sphere’, ‘a Deo a natura’ (from God and from Nature), it was not without deeper reasons than those which determined his vocation as an astrologer. Like François Rabelais, his contemporary, he was first and foremost a ‘physician’ who, following his studies at the ‘perfect Faculty of Medicine’ in Montpellier, had practised medicine, probably from the end of the 1520s or the beginning of the 1530s. He looked after his patients at particularly critical junctures such as virulent epidemics. According to his son César, writing later in his History of Provence, the city of Aix-en-Provence hired Nostradamus on 30 May 1546 to help with the ‘preservation of the city’ during a ‘terrible’ plague that lasted nine months. Cemeteries were so full of bodies that the city ran out of consecrated ground in which to bury its victims. In the second day of the outbreak, those afflicted fell into a ‘frenzy’, albeit without any sign of marks (buboes being the characteristic swellings of bubonic plague) on their body: ‘And those who were visited with such marks, they died suddenly while talking, without any change to their mouth, but after their death, their whole body was covered with black buboes; and those who died in frenzy, their urine was the consistency of white wine, and after their death, half of the whole body was the colour of the sky, tinged with violet blood’. The account continues: ‘The epidemic was so malignant and violent that one only needed to come within five paces of a victim to be contaminated. Many people had malignant pustules on their fronts and backs, and even down their legs. Those who had them on the back could be lanced, and most of them escaped death. But not one of those who had them on the front escaped’. The victims lasted no more than six days. Bloodletting and medicines had no effect whatsoever. And, ‘after a house-to-house search of the city had been conducted, and all those found to be suffering from the plague ejected, there were more victims than ever the following day’. This was an atrocious world, in which fathers abandoned their children if they showed signs of being infected, ‘some people’ interpreting this as divine punishment, ‘for one league all around, good health prevailed, and the whole town was so infected that the glance alone of someone contaminated immediately infected another’. Some victims chose to throw themselves into a well, or jump out of a window. Nostradamus saw a woman herself sewing a shroud into which she slid to await death. Pregnant women had spontaneously aborted and died within four days, the new born dying suddenly, their body a vivid purple ‘as though blood had spread through the whole body’. Nostradamus prepared a powder from Provençal iris-lillies and cloves. A year later, it was in Lyon that he practised his craft in another plague, or more probably an outbreak of whooping cough.1

Rabelais also, as Michael Screech has pointed out, ‘handed out cures and palliative medicines for the ills of the body, mind and spirit’. His writing echoes medical practice because the same objectives inspire them both. ‘Master Alcofrybas Nasier’ (the anagram Rabelais uses for himself in his writings) – better known as the creator of the fictional characters in Gargantua and Pantagruel like Panurge or Friar John – used humour both to make people laugh, and to laugh at themselves. He used it too to make fun of all those Christians whom he regarded as lost in error, those suffering, as it were, from an illness which made them want to put to death or exterminate their fellow human beings because they did not share their own opinions. He regarded Christians as suffering from an all-consuming affliction, rendering them incapable of being the creatures they were, made by God in His own image, to give Him glory and honour in faith and charity. That surely meant that they were ‘worth more than a funeral pyre’.2 Rabelais’ humour, derived no doubt from the rituals of Carnival-tide, was above all a medicine to purge human beings of their passions, and take away the resulting worse excesses. Violence was not out of the question, though, and, as Gérard Defaux has emphasized, Friar John's extraordinary aggression shows how much Rabelais’ writing is to be understood as:3

what, for the Old Testament prophet, was a weapon of pure violence, sword, scourge and stick rolled into one, an instrument with which to curse and to fulminate, to punish and to exact revenge; but equally an instrument of … jubilation, of liberation . . .

Nostradamus, albeit via a different approach, also cared for souls. He wanted to put some distance between them and the dangerous world around them, with its mounting delusions and perils, which risked reinforcing the temptations of evil that worked away at them. I propose to consider the complex oeuvre of Nostradamus as a therapy for the soul, in which enigma was the operating mechanism, just as laughter was for Rabelais. Enigmas, for Nostradamus, draw Christians to the Logos. They are an instrument that harbours, in its inwardness and secrecy, the potential to unlock a true comprehension of the Scriptures.

In the sixteenth century, which witnessed massive conflict, there were two possible ways of inuring the soul to ‘philautocry’, that ‘love of self’ which was at the root, as moralists saw it, of all the world's horrors and atrocities. Rabelais chose the raucous way of laughing people out of themselves in the recounting of his gargantuan adventures. Nostradamus chose the more muted route, wanting to frighten people out of themselves with his enigmas and their hints at terrible things to come. On the one hand, Erasmus discovered in Psalm 2 the prophetic prefiguring of Christ's satiric laughter in the face of wicked men.4 The God who scorns his people in the Old Testament remains in the New Testament in the irony of Christ's laugh. Imitating Christ, we are invited to laugh at folly and fools too. On the opposite side, however, stands the upright and harsh figure of God, the avenger of human folly and offences, the God who chastises Israel's infidelity by war, plague and famine. Nostradamus accords that pathetic and tragic Deity a voice in his prophetic utterances when he amasses visions of atrocities and horrors. Fear stirs human beings from their lethargy and alerts them to their forgetfulness of God's commands, which is what Nostradamus says in a quatrain whose prediction is that when Taurus is in its twentieth degree there will be an earthquake so strong that the whole theatrum mundi, the theatre of the world, with us, its spectators, will collapse. Air, earth and sky will be covered in darkness and shaken such that the ‘faithless’ will be moved by fear to beg God and his saints for forgiveness.5 Faith and fear are conjoined in a theatrum mundi before the gaze of a jealous God.

The objective remains the same, whether God's temperament is that of angry invective or satiric derision, wrath or risibility: to quicken souls to be alert to God's will, to sensitize them to human insanity, avarice, luxury, crime and ambition, and guide them to God's Word. Nostradamus sees his initial vision of an era of peace between Christians, ‘in the accomplishment of God's word’ as occurring when Habsburg Spain is reconciled with France, but it is followed immediately afterwards by the prediction of a coming great catastrophe, accompanied by an extremely cruel combat. Brave hearts all will then feel the earth tremble beneath their feet.6 Is not this how Nostradamus wants to make his reader afraid by conveying to him the measure of this earth-shaking event so that he will have no part in the worldly failings that will lead to such a chastisement of humanity? Is not this how Nostradamus hopes to heal his reader of the affliction that makes him ignore the fact that everything is transient on this mortal earth, and that violence and misery inevitably follow happiness? Was this not to cure him, too, of the ailment that attaches him to the wealth and hopes here below, which then incite him to attack, kill, massacre and tyrannize his fellow creatures? Is this not Nostradamus’ way of indicating that we, the reader, can only expect tribulations on this mortal earth and that it is only by fixing all our hopes on God alone that we can find that quietude of spirit which will allow ourselves to prepare our soul for the Hereafter? Nostradamus explores the human soul, its entire evil proclivity in the great theatre of the world, to turn it around upon itself (to ‘convertere’, ‘convert’). It is not simply that we (as Montaigne put it in his Essays): ‘recognize in the shadow and in theatrical performances the display of the magical tricks of human fortune’.7 It is above all because, piling up misfortune upon misfortune leads, in the Bible, to a moment of awakening. That awakening is to the glory of the One whom humankind, in its violence and cruelty, has banished from its world, the Christ who is sacrificed for the propitiation of its sins. That awakening (or rather re-awakening) is emphatically present in Jacques Grévin's Brief Discourse for the Comprehension of Theatre (Brief discours pour l’intelligence du theatre), published in 1561. Jean de la Taille reiterated it in his Art of Tragedy (Art de la tragédie) because it is tragedy's objective to disturb us.8 Nostradamus is a prophet of what is tragic in the human condition. So too is his contemporary, Jules César Scaliger (d.1558), expressing it in Aristotelian terms in his Eight Books on Poetics (Poetices libri VIII), published after his death in 1561. When he depicts a horror-struck humanity, Nostradamus comes close to that sense of the impact of that horror on his readers when he evokes King Saul's tragic vision, terrified as he comes to realize the power of divine wrath:9

To be thus human, His anger will I suffer

And to be cruel, will he be kind to me.

To understand this further, we have to explore the concept of the word ‘prognostic’ in the context of hippocratic medicine. Nostradamus had learnt to be a ‘physician’ at the University of Montpellier. He treated patients at the same time as he developed his personal prophetic revelation. Ailments and illnesses afflicted the human frame, from the cradle to the grave. Natural or supernatural forces, harmful to varying degrees, dictated those sufferings. That perspective directed his search for what might be therapeutic. This crucial element in Nostradamus’ prophetic vision is situated in a period when ‘the new style of hippocratic thought’ was in vogue. Hippocrates was set up as a ‘model for applied medicine’ whilst the ‘conciseness of his aphorisms’ was applauded, as was ‘his way of presenting medical case-studies in his Epidemics, and the clarity and brevity of his precepts on the role of the physician and on prognosis’.10 Through the close observation of the human body and its ailments, hippocratic medicine sought to anticipate what was likely to happen. All the signs are that Nostradamus was an adept of hippocratic, or pseudo-hippocratic preventative medicine. He was doubtless familiar with the works of the ‘wise and learned’ Jules César Scaliger, ‘a second Marsilio Ficino in Platonic philosophy’, whose translation and commentary on Hippocrates’ Insomniæ (Hippocratis liber de somniis) saw the light of day in 1538–9 from the Lyon publishing house of Sébastien Gryphe.11 Nostradamus also had close contact with the physician Louis Serres, known as a ‘new Hippocrates’. Should we not regard his Prophecies as offering a system of beliefs – an episteme, located somewhere beyond the words themselves? That, at least, is what I shall attempt to demonstrate in the remainder of this book, by developing the notion of a dynamic system of symbolic transfer at the heart of his writings, with God at its core: Soli Deo, God alone.

It is no coincidence that Nostradamus’ prophetic utterances often presage things to come. In his Præsagia (Coaca præsagia or Coan Prenotions), a collection of sayings, as also in his Prognostics and Prorrhetics, Hippocrates is the theoretician of a corporal semiotics synonymous with ‘prognostics’. By retracing the medical history of a human being he thought one could analyse the symptoms or immediate signs of illness in order to chart its future course, treating with confidence what was amiss or, at the very least, predicting its progression or remission. ‘Feeling cold, with tremors and rolling of the eyes, fever and great anxiety is mortal; drowsiness in patients is a bad sign …’ – hippocratic medicine was based around case-histories (‘anameses’) and an analysis of the symptoms (‘signs’). It progressed through diagnosis to prognosis, the latter being the final stage involving predicting what would happen to the patient. This latter was devoted towards preventing what was predicted from actually taking place. For the future state of the human being in question was not the physician's first preoccupation. What was essential was to treat the patient here and now.12

‘Particularize’ was the term Nostradamus used to describe the application of the methodology of the Kos medical school (that of Hippocrates) to human nature. Starting from a point in human time, it involved reconstituting the past to determine the factual consequences for the immediate present, leaving the reader to comprehend and interpret the ‘prognostics’ or, more explicitly, the ‘omens’ for the future. Just as it was possible, as François Valleriola proposed, to establish Medical Commonplaces (Loci medicinæ communes, Lyon, 1562) with which to interrogate the human body, just so there were ‘commonplaces’ to human temporality, from which the Centuries of Nostradamus were derived and which were to be found in contemporary almanacs and books of prognostications. Nostradamus the astrophile and prophet was also Nostradamus the physician, who transferred and applied his medical epistemology to the understanding of human time in an attempt to offer a therapy to contemporaries in the grip of anxiety about what was going to happen to them. His method involved oscillating between aphorisms, maxims, proverbial expressions and enigmatic oracle-like remarks.13 Alongside a Biblical mode of discourse, Nostradamus would deploy these particular forms of expression that his medical training and practice had taught him and which together account for the peculiar stylistic form of his own discourse.

The first edition of the Centuries was published at the press of Macé Bonhomme in Lyon on 4 May 1555, probably alongside an Avignon edition from that of Pierre Roux. It was entitled The Prophecies of M. Michel Nostradamus (Les Prophéties de M. Michel Nostradamus) and it is quite possible that this was a reference to the hippocratic Præsagia. The hippocratic methods offered a way of communicating meaning, a semiology, linking indissolubly the past, present and the future, to establish conjectures and to proceed towards the discovery (ordo inventionis) of truth. Nostradamus applied it to human kind in general, conceived of and treated metaphorically as a patient, its pulse (as it were) monitored after the fashion of loci communes through the quatrains. Thus, the patient, although foolishly ignorant of his own medical condition, will be cured of his ailment. There is a logic at work here since the physician (medicus) is also a minister of nature (minister naturæ)14 and, as François Valleriola reminds his readers, nature ‘is the creator of everything, and the physician is its minister’.

Nostradamus the astrophile wanted to see himself as God's coadjutor in the battle against evil and the physick of souls. Nostradamus’ ethos was to be found precisely there, located in the ‘the representation of the speaking self, operating through discourse’. That was precisely the sense in which contemporary epistolary manuals referred to the ethics of letter-writing.151617

Mirror of the Sinful SoulHeptaméron18