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Quack Prophet



Soothsayers have been around as long as recorded history, probably longer—after all, knowing what’s to come has always been accorded more value than knowing what’s already happened. Whether Isaiah shouting from the mountaintop or Jim Cramer shouting from the television screen, there has always been power and notoriety to be gained from prognostication. But considering that most (if not all) of these seers—whatever market expertise or God-given insight they might claim for themselves—are just shooting in the dark, it’s not altogether clear what makes a good prophet. Showmanship and some lucky guesses, to be sure, but beyond that? This is the question that surrounds the strange and enduring popularity of one of the unlikeliest prophets: an ex-doctor from southern France named Nostradamus.

His name is almost a byword for cataclysm, trotted out over the centuries in the wake of major disasters as evidence that long ago someone had figured out they had been foreordained. Such was the case in the aftermath of September 11, for instance, when Nostradamus most recently reappeared in the spotlight. Today, venture into any bookstore’s occult section, and you’re bound to find multiple translations of The Prophecies, his best-known work, alongside books hotly debating its significance and validity. Or turn on the History Channel, and you might catch repeats of The Nostradamus Effect, a show that explored apocalyptic prophecies throughout history, with episodes bearing titles like “The Third Anti-Christ?” and “Armageddon Battle Plan.” His name and work have permeated our experience of doom and destruction, but the man himself is almost a cipher. Getting any kind of reliable understanding or impression of him takes some work.

Before you even begin, forget the Internet. A Google search of his name would leave you mired in hordes of conspiracy theorists, New Age peddlers, devotees who give him the cloying nickname “Nosty” and credulously recycle the same badly translated lines and outright inventions that people have always cited as “proof” of his foresight. You’ll find apocryphal prophecies, such as the one which warns that “two steel birds will fall from the sky on the Metropolis,” or logical contortionists like Nostradamus “expert” and self-styled prophet John Hogue, who contends that the prophecy beginning “When 1999 is seven months over” can be made a reference to 9/11 if one only reverses “1999” to “9-11-1,” and translates the French sept as “September,” not “seven.” There are literally millions of web pages like this, and the man himself—Michel de Nostredame—is scarcely evident behind all this noise.

The authoritative sources aren’t much better, unfortunately. In its entry for Nostradamus, the current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica contains at least half a dozen basic factual errors. It gets known dates wrong: the years in which he began his medical practice, moved to the town of Salon, and began publishing The Prophecies, which it mistakenly calls Centuries. It also claims his books were banned by the Roman Catholic Church, which they never were.

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  • It's interesting to see the difference between our modern conceptions (and those of Nostradamus') of prophecy and earlier ideas of the prophet, both biblical and medieval. Even up to the twelfth century, the prophet (like Hildegard of Bingen) was commonly perceived as the trumpet of God, through whom God revealed not just some facts of the future but the whole of Christian theology and salvation history. Thus, prophecy is God's message to His people, a message that can both comfort and reassure with the promises of redemption, and admonish and castigate with the thunder of reformation.

    There seems to be a shift sometime around the end of the twelfth century from prophecy as the all-encompassing message of God to His people to prophecy as prediction of the future. The prophet's office, stripped of its deeper anagogical and moral claims, moves to the wild-eyed fringes. As theology is sliced and diced by the scholastic masters at university, the prophet's claim to theologian dwindles and soon evaporates.

    For more on this shift in the perception of the prophet, see my blog:

    Posted by Nathaniel Campbell on Wed 2 Nov 2011

  • The last sentence of the first quatrain you quote reads

    " Deux classes une, puis mourir, mort cruelle"

    which translates

    "Two wounds one, then die a cruel death"

    nothing to do with "fleets". Please correct your error.

    As for your interpretation of the other part translated, might I just note that a tilting helm does resemble a cage (as virtually every English school-boy knows as they are to be seen in most of our older museums) and Henri II's was in fact gilded ie would have appeared as a cage of gold. Oh, in case you do not know a tilting helm was what Henri II was wearing during his fateful combat with Montgomery.

    Also, if you take the trouble to read contemporary reports you will learn that indeed Henri was struck through the eye (into the brain), and according to his physicians both "eyes" where put out. Certainly too, there were two wounds that with the inadequate treatment of those days became one big septic mass - Henri look 10 days to die.

    Also, while we are here : I assume you mean Gabriel comte (count) of Montgomery. Who was in fact Gabriel de Lorges, not Gabriel Montgomery (quite another person), as you have mistakenly written.

    At the time of the combat, Henri was 40 years old - in Medieval France that would qualify as "old". Montgomery was 29 - again which would qualify as "young". You will note that there was more than 6 years between them. Please correct that elementary mistake.

    Might I suggest that you aquaint yourself with real authorities such as Histoire particuliere de la Cour de Henry II by de Chateauneauf (Secretary of state under Henri II) and other reliable works that you will not make such basic errors in the future.

    Posted by Anthony D on Sat 5 Nov 2011

  • For someone who places Nostradamus in the "Quack Prophet" category, your research does not match that of people who have put much more time and effort into the history of Nostradamus. Perhaps you should debate Peter Lemesurier over some facts? (Not that Peter Lemesurier has any answers beyond the historical facts and records of Nostradamus)

    As for the quatrain said to be about King Henry II being killed in a jousting accident, that accident occurred in mid-1559. That quatrain was first published in 1555. Before the accident, Henry demanded Nostradamus appear before him and explain the meaning of The Prophecies. Nostradamus responded with a letter, which was dated in 1558, and first published in 1566. Nowhere in the letter does Nostradamus explain, "I see you dying in a jousting accident, Sire." However, Catherine de Medici began the rumor that Nostradamus predicted that event, and the rumor never died down. If Nostradamus had been warned of his king's death (in some prophetic vision), he would have warned him before he did any future jousting. (In the end, quatrain I-35 is not about something past. It is a prediction of events still to come in the future.)

    The point is this: You ridicule EVERYONE who has wrongly interpreted a quatrain of The Prophecies. That proves nothing but how people who do not have any understanding of something can make wild and wrong staments of opinion about that something. Logic requires you submit factual evidence that disproves Nostradamus as a prophet; and if you wish to ridicule quatrain I-35, you need to first present evidence that proves what Nostradamus said that quatrain meant. You only show how foolish people think foolish things. Show where Nostradamus said what he meant, by referencing his letters that document what NOSTRADAMUS said his whole work meant, from which quatrain I-35 is 1/948th. Tell us how you see where Nostradamus explained, in his letter of preface, how to understand his poetic stylings in the quatrains, allowing one to realize a new syntax was used and must be followed to get the true meaning to appear.

    Oh. I am getting a psychic impression now. I see you running away from that challenge because it would require you understand what you ridicule. You do not understand anything written by Nostradamus that explains and prefaces his work. I assume that is because you seek not to understand. It is my opinion that you have taken the simpleton's approach to opining on the subject of Nostradamus. Readers beware.

    Posted by Robert T. on Sun 6 May 2012

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Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and the coeditor of Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices. His last essay for Lapham’s Quarterly appeared in the Fall 2010 issue, The City. He lives in Los Angeles.

The day the world ends, no one will be there, just as no one was there when it began. This is a scandal. Such a scandal for the human race that it is indeed capable collectively, out of spite, of hastening the end of the world by all means just so it can enjoy the show.
Jean Baudrillard, 1987
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