Why are Nostradamus’s ‘predictions’ still winning converts? – Stuart Jeffries

Nostradamus (December 1503 – July 1566)

Jeffries StuartThe beauty of Nostradamus is you can read whatever you wish into what he wrote. What some may consider his charlatanry is, viewed from another angle, his genius, says Liberte E. LeVert in Prophecies and Enigmas of Nostradamus: “Circumlocution and evasion of directness play a large part. … He invoked obscure Latin words to create possibilities of double meanings; he omitted prepositions, articles, reflexives and connectives, and favoured the infinitive as a timeless, personless form that can be read many ways.” – Stuart Jeffries

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that, as you may have noticed, the world didn’t end on 4 July 1999. Hence the headline in The Guardian on Monday, 5 July 1999: “Nostradamus wrong (please ignore if the world ended yesterday).”

Writing 450 years earlier, the French astrologer seemed to have predicted the end in, for him, unusually date-specific terms: “The year one thousand nine ninety-nine seven month / From the sky shall come a great King of terror / [Shall be] revived the great King of Angolmois. Before and after, Mars [shall] reign as chance will have it.”

The king of terror, Nostradamus’s interpreters suggested, was the Antichrist. Others argued that, because Angolmois is a (near) anagram of Mongolais, the 16th-century French term for Mongolians, invasion of Europe from the east was imminent—though whether by Russians, Chinese or tooled-up descendants of Genghis Khan riding like Dothraki hordes was uncertain. Nostradamus expert Prof Alexander Tollmann found the matter so worrying that he retreated to his bunker in lower Austria to wait out the catastrophe that never came.

The bad news is that if you thought 2022 was a rotten year, don’t delude yourself that 2023 will be any better. Nostradamus’s writings are now being used to forecast a European apocalypse. The basis of this prediction is the following quotation: “Seven months the Great War, people dead of evil-doing. / Rouen, Evreux shall not fall to the King.”

Some have interpreted this to mean that escalation of the Ukraine conflict to a third world war is imminent. The Daily Star’s futurological correspondent offers sensible advice: “The seven-month timeline on the conflict may initially seem like a cause for celebration, but with the terrifying nuclear arsenals of countries including America and Russia, perhaps it’s best to err on the side of caution.” Parisians would be well advised to hole up in Rouen until things calm down.

Perhaps Nostradamus is an unreliable guide to the future. Between about 1547 and 1555, he reportedly dictated 942 poetic, prophetic quatrains to his secretary while high on nutmeg, which causes hallucinations when taken in large doses. Even in his lifetime he was trolled mercilessly. “A certain brainless and lunatic idiot,” ran 1558’s First Invective of the Lord Hercules the Frenchman Against Monstradamus, “who is shouting nonsense and publishing his prognostications and fantasies on the streets.”

But Nostradamus posthumously triumphed over his detractors. His quatrains, published in 1555 as Les Prophéties, have never gone out of print and have been claimed to have predicted the execution of Charles I, the Great Fire of London, the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and Hitler, the shooting of JFK, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the 9/11 attacks, the 2015 mass murders in Paris, even the abdication of King Charles III (of which more later).

Certainly in 2022, Nostradamus is a literary phenomenon. A book of interpretations of his supposed prophecies last month topped The Sunday Times bestsellers list after apparently predicting when Queen Elizabeth II would die. Nostradamus: The Complete Prophecies for the Future, by Mario Reading, sold almost 8,000 copies in the week ending 17 September, after selling only five copies the week before the Queen’s death.

In his book, published in 2006, Reading claimed to have found something that others who had pored over Nostradamus had missed: that his quatrains are number-indexed to correlate with dates. Hence, for instance, quatrain 10/22, purporting to forecast the death of the Queen, reads: “Because they disapproved of his divorce / A man who later they considered unworthy / The People will force out the King of the islands / A Man will replace who never expected to be king.”

“This Quatrain,” wrote Reading, “will come as no surprise to the British people and it has wide implications. The first is that Queen Elizabeth will die, circa 2022, at the age of around 96.” Reading, who died in 2017, went on to claim the 10/22 Quatrain predicts that King Charles will abdicate because he is “weary at the persistent attacks on both himself and second wife” because of “resentments held against him by a certain proportion of the British population, following his divorce from Diana, Princess of Wales”. His interpretation didn’t end there. He also reckoned that Prince Harry will become the next king, instead of his older brother William.

Michel de Nostradame was born in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1503. Though Catholic, he later traded on his Jewish ancestry by saying his natural instinct for prophecy was “inherited from my forebears”. He made his early living as a travelling apothecary, much in demand for the treatment of plague victims. “His time was comparable to ours,” says historian Dan Jones. “He lived when there were also massive social divisions and catastrophes. It was also a time in which the new invention of the printing press made the transmission of ideas, and crazy mad bullshit, incredibly easy. It was the social media of its day.”

Nostradamus took advantage of this new means of spreading ideas. From 1550 onwards he produced annual almanacs that included prophetic verses. In 1554, he started writing Les Prophéties, in which he aimed to set out the future history of the world in 1,000 quatrains, arranged in 10 “centuries”. As his fame grew, Nostradamus became a close friend of the queen of France, Catherine de Médici, the death of whose husband Henry II he is supposed to have predicted in the following verse:

“The young lion will overcome the older one / On the field of combat in a single battle / He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage / Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death.”

This has been taken to refer to a jousting tournament in 1559, when Gabriel, Comte de Montgomery’s importunate lance burst through the king’s poorly secured visor, skewing the king’s eye, throat and temple, resulting in his death 11 days later. But the prophecy’s veracity is in doubt because it didn’t appear in print until long after that fatal encounter.

Perhaps Nostradamus didn’t predict the king’s death so much as make it look to future readers as if he had. That is not to suggest that Nostradamus was a charlatan, but something more interesting. “The point of prophecy is not to give you tipoffs about share-price fluctuations but to be able after the event to affirm that they were foreseen,” argues Steven Connor, professor of English at Cambridge University, “Prophecy is only ever retroactively potent, or by the kind of anticipated retrospection that we could call ‘posticipation’, which always means knowing too late what you might have known in advance.”

That said, at least Nostradamus predicted his own death in 1566. Mind you, given that the prediction was made a day before he died, and that he was almost bedridden with arthritis, dropsy and arteriosclerosis, perhaps this was not so much a symptom of his prophetic genius as a statement of the obvious.

The beauty of Nostradamus is you can read whatever you wish into what he wrote. What some may consider his charlatanry is, viewed from another angle, his genius, says Everett F. Blieler, author, under the pseudonym Liberte E. LeVert, of Prophecies and Enigmas of Nostradamus: “Circumlocution and evasion of directness play a large part. He usually waffled in his astrological datings, since conjunctions are repeated. He invoked obscure Latin words to create possibilities of double meanings; he omitted prepositions, articles, reflexives and connectives, and favoured the infinitive as a timeless, personless form that can be read many ways.”

As Jones puts it: “Nostradamus has the virtue of vagueness combined with apocalyptic fervour. That’s not unusual. Many sayers of sooth, from Merlin and Geoffrey of Monmouth onwards, have done the same. This vagueness lends itself to what we now know as confirmation bias. In desperate times, soothsayers have a ready audience for their insane nonsense. It’s the meeting point of cynicism and gullibility.”

That last point makes Nostradamus sound thoroughly modern. “Those guys didn’t have social media,” says Jones, “but what they were producing then would serve now as the fuel pellets on which social media runs. In fact, increasingly, Nostradamus is spreading through social media.”

T.S. Eliot wrote that humankind cannot bear much reality. Today, when life seems irremediably chaotic, our politicians catastrophic and the future more ungraspable, we desperately seek patterns, narratives and meaning. “At moments of great change or social anxiety we do tend to go looking for explanations,” says Jones. “We want the past and the future to make narrative sense.” The point of the prophet is to provide this by showing us mugs what we have not noticed, be it a providential working-out of a larger, perhaps God-determined, purpose, the march of progress, or, as Steven Connor puts it, “a redemptive parabola rising from fall to forgiveness”.

Nostradamus is anything but soothing. “His verses are almost pathologically noncommittal as to causes or deserts,” argues Connor. “The cost of knowing what is to come is, for Nostradamus, that history loses all direction and coherence.” But none of that matters to the thriving Nostradamus industry. Interpretations of looming disasters, based on fanciful readings of his verses, are still coming thick and fast. His remark that “man will be eating man” because “the bushel of wheat will become so high”, for example, is being seen as a reference to the calamitous effects of the interruption to Ukrainian grain exports, although its supposed corollary, the rise of cannibalism, seems a bit far-fetched.

Some have argued that this means Nostradamus also foresaw the looming impact of the climate crisis when he wrote: “For forty years the rainbow will not be seen. / For forty years it will be seen every day. / The dry earth will grow more parched, and there will be great floods when it is seen.”

But if the prospect of floods, droughts, murderers and King Harry and Queen Meghan live-streaming Netflix specials from Buckingham Palace aren’t enough to give you the willies about what’s upcoming, consider this last Nostradamus prediction. Quatrain 5/23 reads: “The two contenders will unite together / When most others unite with Mars / The African leader is fearful and trembles / The dual alliance is separated by the fleet.” In his 2006 book, Reading took this to mean that the world would see “two powers unite together” in order to combat global warfare.

But that interpretation was recently doubted by Reading’s son Laurie, who is clearly following in the family business of making Nostradamus’s words relevant to today’s world. He thinks that the “African leader” is a reference to the South African-born tech billionaire Elon Musk and his plans to colonise Mars. Indeed this quatrain, with the line from another verse, “the light of Mars shall go out”, indicate that Musk will have to shelve his audacious plans to leave Earth for the red planet and remain among us while the world ends. Which, if true, is disappointing news. Leonard Cohen put it best: “I have seen the future and, brother, it is murder.” – The Guardian, 10 October 2022

› Stuart Jeffries is a journalist and author. He works as a freelance writer, mostly for the GuardianSpectatorFinancial Times and the London Review of Books.


Nostradamus Cartoon

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