On December 14, 1503, Michel de Nostredame began a life that was destined to be filled with political intrigues, Renaissance rationalism, and mysticism. Born in Saint-Remy in Provence, France, Nostradamus came from a long line of Jewish ancestors who had first come to Europe during the Dispersion. Sometime before his birth, Nostradamus's parents had publicly converted to Roman Catholicism because of a papal edict decreeing disfavor to all those who were not of the Christian faith. However, during their son's formative years, the religious practice of the family had become a curious blend of Catholic and Jewish customs. In addition, there was a strong current of mysticism in the family. Young Michel's grandfather was considered one of the most influential astrologists on the entire continent.
When he was old enough, Nostradamus was sent off to study liberal arts at Avignon. His great interest was in studying astrology, and this prompted his practical-minded father to reconsider the choice of vocation he had made for his son. The next time Nostradamus was sent to school it was to Paris, and there he studied to become a man of medicine. After almost four years of intensive study, Nostradamus passed his examinations and was allowed to establish a practice. His plans to continue study for the doctorate were disrupted when the plague struck Southern France.
Nostradamus is said to have been successful in his treatment of the Black Death, even though some of his fellow doctors complained that his methods were unorthodox. Later he returned to the University of Paris and there earned his doctorate. He accepted a position at the university and also married.
His unorthodox interests and unquenchable desire to travel made him unhappy in the university setting, but his deep affection for his family enabled him to achieve some satisfaction. After his wife had borne him two children, another outbreak of the plague swept his family away. Grief stricken, Nostradamus abandoned his practice and set about wandering across Europe. It was during this period that he first began to cultivate his prophetic powers.
As he wandered, he made predictions which would later make him famous. While traveling in Italy, Nostradamus saw a young Franciscan monk coming toward him. He was an ex-swineherd named Felice Peretti from Ancona. As the young monk passed, the prophet bent one knee to the ground devoutly, in an attitude of deep respect. Afterwards, Nostradamus's traveling companions questioned him about his strange behavior. His reply was that he must submit himself and bend a knee before His Holiness. In 1585, Cardinal Peretti became Pope Sixtus V (1520–1590).
Everywhere the seer went he was in great demand. Once, visiting a noble family in France, he spotted two pigs running together side by side. Nostradamus told his host that that evening they would eat the black one, and the wolf would eat the white one.
The host decided on a plot to foil the prophet. He ordered the cook to slaughter the white pig and serve it for supper. The cook did as he was ordered. But while he had his back to the spitted carcass, a wolf cub that the family had been attempting to domesticate stole up to it and began making a meal of the freshly killed animal. Eventually the cook chased the cub away, but he knew that he could not put an apple in a mutilated pig's mouth and drop it on the master's table. So the cook had the other pig, the black one, butchered and prepared for the master's table that evening.
That evening at dinner, the noble Frenchman explained to his guest how he had arranged to fool him by ordering the cook to prepare the white pig and not the black one. As respectfully as possible, Nostradamus disagreed. The cook was summoned to settle the matter, and the entire story was brought to light, showing the exact fulfillment of Nostradamus's prediction.
Later in his life, the great prophet was summoned to give a reading for Catherine de Medici (1519–1589), the queen mother and controller of France. She was concerned for her children, and no prophet in his right mind would have told her what was to happen to them even if he could have envisioned it. Catherine's children were all destined to die young as the result of political intrigues.
Perhaps because of the nature of the inspiration Nostradamus received, but more likely because of public response, the prophet began to hide his predictions in obscure poetic language. It would have been sheer folly to tell
In his astrological studies, which he turned to late in his career, Nostradamus, who believed he was guided in his prophecies by the angel Anael, also resorted to poetic quatrains, four-line verses, arranged in groups of 100 (Centuries). According to many Nostradamus scholars and enthusiasts, a large number of prophecies contained in these quatrains were fulfilled. Those who believe in his prophetic powers insist that Nostradamus foresaw airplanes, rockets, submarines, and many great historic events. Other more skeptical researchers believe the prophecies to be nonsensical gibberish.
In a famous quatrain that many feel refers to Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), Nostradamus writes that a son of Germany named "Hister" will obey no laws. Skeptic James Randi's translation, however, points out that "Hister" refers to a geographical region, rather than a person.
Some believe that Nostradamus foresaw the downfall of Communism in a quatrain that says "the law of More" (a widely read treatise on communal living in Nostradamus's time) will be seen to decline because of "another much more attractive doctrine." But the seer missed his target on another interesting prophecy that had to do with a masculine woman, who, at the time of the double eclipse in July and August 1999, would rise to power in Russia.
According to some interpreters, Nostradamus foresaw the decline of the papacy in the year 2000. While some may argue that such a decline has begun, others will counter that in many ways the papacy has a greater world influence in the twenty-first century that it has enjoyed for quite some time. Another quatrain tells of the next-to-last pope declaring Monday as his day of rest and wandering far because of a frantic need to deliver his people from economic pressures.
A last great battle, in which the "barbarian empire" shall be defeated, is determined by some interpreters of Nostradamus as being predicted for the year 2332. In this last battle of Armageddon, a young German leader will force the warring nations to lay down their arms and observe a lasting world peace. Nostradamus and a host of other prophets have designated Palestine as the site for this last desperate warfare.
Perhaps the controversial prophet's most unusual prediction was fulfilled in June 1566. That month, although Nostradamus had not suffered an unhealthy day in his life, he died after a short illness. Nostradamus had previously informed his physician that he would die on June 25, and he upheld his reputation as a seer by doing so.