As I wandered the cobblestoned, tree-lined boulevards of Saint-Rémy-de Provence, I couldn’t help noticing the legacy of Nostradamus that lives on. What I didn’t know, was what a courageous legacy it was, a story of a man who continued on his path, even though many found him insane.
While taking tacky tourist photos beside various plaques and street art, as well as beneath the door of his actual birthplace, I also learned about the life of the famous French physician, astrologer and seer, who’s predictions and prophesies earned him fame throughout his lifetime and centuries thereafter.
Nostradamus was born in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1503 and was raised in a family of Roman Catholics and a famous grandfather who was the local physician. Nostradamus attended medical school in Avignon, but had to leave after one year due to an outbreak of bubonic plague.
From there, he began to travel throughout the countryside treating victims of the plague, researching herbal remedies and working as an apothecary, becoming somewhat of a local celebrity for his success in healing, and use of progressive methods. He was invited to study under Renaissance scholars and mentors. Nostradamus also married and had two children.
Shortly thereafter, on a medical mission to Italy, his wife and children died, presumably from the plague. Not being able to save his wife and children caused a huge fallout from his followers and mentors. The Catholic church began an inquiry into his practices, wanting to charge him for heresy, which caused him to flee from Provence and travel to Italy, Greece and Turkey, exploring ancient mystery schools. It was here that he was said to begin to have his psychic awakenings.
Finally feeling he was safe from the inquisition, he returned to Provence, where he settled in Salon-de-Provence, remarried and had six children. He published a few medical books but began to shift his focus on his visions and psychic abilities, meditating for hours in front of a bowl of water and herbs.
Using these visions and predictions and following popular trends of the time, Nostradamus wrote an almanac for 1550, and for the first time, latinized his name from Nostradame to Nostradamus. He was so encouraged by the almanac’s success that he continued publishing them, year after year.
It was in response to these almanacs that nobility and other prominent persons from afar started asking for horoscopes and ‘psychic’ advice from him. In 1555, he wrote and published ‘Les Prophesies,’ a collection of major long term predictions. Feeling vulnerable to being convicted of heresy again, and other religious persecutions, he devised a method to obscure the meanings using quatrains– rhymed four-lined verses and a mixture of other languages he’d studied– Greek, Italian, Latin, and Provençal, a dialect of Southern France.
‘Les Prophesies’ was received with a mixed reaction. Many thought of Nostradamus as a servant of evil, a fake, or insane, while others of the elite identity thought him a genius.
Catherine de Medici, wife of Kind Henry II of France, was one of his admirers. After reading his almanac for 1555, which hinted at unnamed threats to the royal family, she summoned Nostradamus to Paris to explain, and draw up horoscopes for her children. He feared beheading but cooperated, and the Queen eventually made him Counselor and lead physician to her son, the young King Charles IX of France.
As much as Nostradamus lived in fear of being persecuted for heresy by the inquisition, for the most part he managed to keep a healthy relationship with the church, partly because neither prophesy nor astrology fell under the bracket of heresy. The only way he would have been prosecuted would have been if he’d admitted using magic in his psychic abilities. The church can believe whatever they want. I loved walking the streets of his birthplace, picturing him as an inquisitive child, then later as an adult meditating in front of his bowl of water and herbs. Getting still, letting the visions come. As I look all around me at the buildings, the people, the plane trees and arbre de judea in bloom, I can still feel the magic in the air.