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Nostradamus

Entry updated 19 July 2021. Tagged: Author.

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Latin rendering of the surname of French astrologer, physician and author Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566) who is of Proto SF interest primarily for his book-length poem Les Prophéties (1555; exp 1557; further exp 1568; best trans Richard Siburth as The Prophecies 2012) [for further editions see Checklist below], a non-systematic but immensely influential assemblage of linked quatrains, ultimately 942 of them grouped into ten "Centuries" (one broken), each quatrain ostensibly describing the significant event or events of a future year (all new editions for several decades after 1568 add spurious material). The surreal intensity of these quatrains, aided by the considerable linguistic skill of their composition, has haunted generations of readers with a sense – sometimes a conviction – that to unpack their codes, and to master the text's obscuring switches back and forth from French to Latin to Occitan, would open a door to the future [for Prophecy see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. As a poet, and creator of inspired images which intonated a troubled age, Nostradamus might however more usefully be considered alongside his great contemporary, François Rabelais.

An intuition that The Prophecies will be peculiarly resonant for the early twenty-first century readers may seem sentimental, but there is no doubt that Nostradamus, writing in an apocalyptic era, had some similar Disasters to breast. Europe in his lifetime was variously afflicted: by savage Climate Change in the form of the Little Ice Age; by Pandemic, one wave of plague killing his wife and children; and a dire mating of War and Religion: the rise of Protestantism and the Catholic Reformation were accompanied by waves of conflict, in consort with an unrelenting conflict between Christianity as a whole and Islam (see Eschatology). Inevitably his own experiences bled into the flensing projections of terrible times to come he disjointedly hinted at; a deep throb of anxiety underlies every topos of The Prophecies, whose 942 quatrains cumulatively amount to an artefact of dread, a jaggedly panoramic prolepsis of a future only intermittently salvageable by monarchs and Heroes, with eucatastrophes far outnumbered by Disasters, and Christ, perhaps prudently, referred to only once, en passant, and not by name. It should also be noted that an upwelling awareness in the sixteenth-century of the physical survival of artefacts of antiquity strongly infiltrates the text. Throughout The Prophecies, upthrusting ruins, pregnant with import (see Ruins and Futurity), explode into the present and iterate the future; and clearly sharpen the (highly unChristian) hints in the text that history was cyclical, and that the next era might be enfolded in a Long Night.

The rawly exorbitant, paratactic, carnivalesque, angst-ridden intensity of The Prophecies has of course worked as a salt-lick for the unwary, and its surreal abruptions of imagery have intermittently been understood (see above) as code for or paraphrasis of real events to come. More usefully perhaps, Nostradamus began to be seen in the early twentieth century as a guide to the experience of World War One, influencing artists like the Dadaist Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) in specific, and in general colouring a twentieth-century sense – consonances with the sixteenth century aside – that we had come to the brink of the End of the World. Specific uses of Nostradamus and his work are not, however, common. Bruce Pennington's Eschatus (graph 1976) comprises a series of cryptically-linked images directly based on The Prophecies; more recently he has figured in some novels of interest, including James Morrow's This Is the Way the World Ends (1986).

For a more detailed examination by E F Bleiler of Nostradamus's life and work from another perspective, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below. [JC]

Michel de Nostredame

born Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France: 14 December 1503

died Salon-de-Provence, France: 2 July 1566

works (selected; translations highly selected)

about the author

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