THE PREDICTIONS OF NOSTRADAMUS
By JAMES LAVER
FEW people in this country have even heard of Nostra- damus, and to those who have he is little more than a name. In general works of reference he is usually dismissed as a charlatan, although it is sometimes grudgingly conceded that he prophesied some remarkable things about the French Revo- lution. Even this, when we consider that he was born in 1503 and died in 1559, was perhaps no mean feat.
He was a Jew of Provence, born at St. Remy-en-Crau, and he spent most of his life at Salon. Space is lacking to describe his work as a physician, his struggle against the plague, his treatises on simples, "fardemens " and preserves. He lives by his Centuries, a series of rhyming quatrains, which were first published in 1555. An augmented edition came out in 1558, and there have been innumerable publications since. Pascal had a copy in his library. Aubrey remarks that in his time the work was " common."
Most of the quatrains are in crabbed French (a few are in Provencal), which reads as if it had been translated from an earlier version in Latin. The style is extremely, and perhaps wilfully, obscure, and the quatrains are not in any chrono- logical sequence. Each Centurie is a century of quatrains, not of years, and no one has ever succeeded in interpreting the future by their aid, although many attempts have been made. None the less, it is impossible to study Nostradamus without being convinced that he was not writing entirely at random.
The quatrain which made his contemporary reputation runs as follows: Le lyon jeune le vieux surmontera En champ bellique par singulier duelle : Dans cage d'or les yeux luy crevera Deux classes une, puffs mourir, mart cruelle.
Three years later, Henri II of France was killed in a tourna- ment by the young Montgomery, whose lance pierced his master's eye. Cage d'or is particularly apt for the King's golden helm.
Other quatrains deal, in the same symbolic language, with the extinction of the Valois, the rise of Henri IV, and the greatness of Louis XIV. One particularly striking one con- cerns Richelieu: Vieux Cardinal par le jeune deceu, Hors de sa charge se verra desarme, Arles ne mcmstres double soil apperceu ; Et Liqueduct et le Prince embaume.
The old cardinal saw himself supplanted by the young Cinq- Mars, his protege, but soon afterwards received from Arles a copy (un double) of the treaty which Cinq-Mars had treacher- ously negotiated with Spain. Richelieu had Cinq-Mars arrested, and with him remounted the Rhone on a barge, on which his own bed was set, as he was desperately ill. He died two months afterwards, and Louis XIII followed him to the grave in the following year. Both Cardinal and Prince were embalmed ; but what strikes the imagination is the use by Nostradamus, nearly ninety years before the event, of the very strange word Liqueduct.
The quatrains are studded with the names of famous towns to all of which many disasters have happened in the course of their long history; but when the eye strikes the word Varennes the curiosity is immediately aroused, for it will be conceded that Varennes has only come into history on one particular occasion, and is perhaps unlikely to do so again. And, strange to relate, the quatrain which mentions Varennes is concerned with a nocturnal flight through a forest and ends with the startling line:
Esleu Cap. cause ternpeste, feu, sang, tranche.
Esleu Cap. (it is printed with a full stop after it in the original text) is interpreted as meaning " the elected Capet," the first King of France to owe his position not to divine right, but to the vote of a constituent assembly. If that be granted the word tranche leaps to the eye, and almost to the ear like the sound of the falling knife.
Quite a large number of quatrains refer to Napoleon—" Utt Empereur naistra pres d'Italie," " De simple soldat parviendra en empire," &c., but it is time to turn to Nostradamus' predic- tion concerning this country. "Sena/. de Londres mettront a mort leur Roy" is sufficiently remarkable when we consider how unlikely such an event must have seemed in the middle of the sixteenth century. Equally daring (for a prophecy issued thirty years before the Armada) is the following: Le grand empire sera par Angleterre
Le pernpotam des ans plus de trois tens . . .
"Pempotam" is a word derived from pan-potens, imply- ing the all-powerfulness of the British fleet for more than three hundred years. But are we to reckon it from 1588 or from the Dutch Wars?
Many attempts were made, in France, during the nineteenth century, to relate the quatrains of Nostradamus to current events. Unfortunately, the task of interpretation fell almost entirely into the hands of the fanatical royalists, and the abbe Tome, one of the most indefatigable of these, brought some ridicule on the prophet by being so very certain that the fall of Napoleon III (which he correctly foretold) would be followed by the restoration of the monarchy—by the advent of that Henri V, which the Comte de Chambord so nearly succeeded in becom- ing. Subsequent commentators have seen references to Waldeck-Rousseau, Felix Faure, to l'affaire Dreyfus, and even to M. Blum, which the rest of the world has found somewhat unconvincing.
What of the War of 1914-18 and of the present conflict? Singularly little. It is as if the vision of Nostradamus, having reached as far into the future as the French Revolution and the two Napoleons, began to weaken as our era reached the beginning of the twentieth century. The commentators lose themselves in a thick apocalyptic fog through which moves the dim figure of the " Grand Celtique," and the formidable shade of Antichrist himself. Occasionally the eye is caught by a line or a quatrain:
Sera laisse feu vif, mart cache,
Dedans les globes, horrible espourantabla. De nuict a classe cite en poudre lasche, La cite a feu, Pennemy favorable.
This might pass for a prophecy of aerial bombardment, if Le Pelletier, one of the most learned of the commentators, had not (writing under the Second Empire) annexed it for Orsini's attempt to assassinate Napoleon III.
A translation of the Papacy (by no means so improbable an event as it would have seemed a few years ago) is hinted at in the following lines:
Par la puissance des trois Rois teniporels, En autre lieu sera mis le sainct Siege . . .
One should add, in passing, that Nostradamus uses the mon- archical language of his period, and that " roi " might equally well mean dictator. Some have seen in the lines:
Mars esleve en son plus haul befroy Fera retraire les Allobrox de France . . .
a hint of the cession of Savoy (Allobroges = Savoyards). The reader may perhaps find his own interpretation of:
Long temps sera sans estre habitie Oft Signe (ie Seine) et Marne autour vient arrouser De la Tamise et marticrux tentee . . .
But it is impossible to pretend that Nostradamus offers any clear guidance in our present perplexities. Yet there remain enough quatrains to convince any unprejudiced reader that the sixteenth-century Jew had some power of seeing into the future, and to those who cling to a rationalistic interpretation of his- tory, Nostradamus must remain an enigma as insoluble as he is disquieting.