Portrait de Nostradamus
Gravures Actualité



Nostradamus-historian: Herodotus and two quatrains

par Alexey Penzensky

    One of the most amazing facts for a historian examining the prophecies of Nostradamus is the persistent neglect by authors of popular interpretations of the following lines from the letter to Henry II: I have predicted almost the same number of events to come as [the number of the events] of the past including the present. It may seem that these words give evidence of the fact that the origins of at least half of the subject matters of the quatrains should be searched for in the past. However, very few adherents to Nostradamus’ theory who are working in a traditional way agree to admit the obvious. Poor knowledge of history excuses them in a certain way but it doesn’t help to clarify the meaning of the “Prophecies” in any way.

   Meanwhile the allusions to the historical events, which in the time of Nostradamus had already become legends, run into dozens. The reader will get to know them while reading our translation and commentaries to it.

   It is important to warn the reader against rushing to conclusions. With a superfluous and biased familiarization with our translation of the “Prophecies” and especially with the commentaries it is easy to make a serious mistake. One can suspect Nostradamus of plagiarism in the first place and of premeditated mystification in the second place. This subject is of such an importance that it should be examined in detail.

   Having come across so many allusions to the events of ancient and contemporary with Nostradamus history in the “Prophecies”, rich in rephrased ideas borrowed from works of other authors, great may be the temptation to qualify the work of the prophet as a compilation or, even worse, a result of plagiarism and even a mockery over the reader who is being tricked by the author who passes off some historical tales as prophesies. This conclusion, however, it totally wrong being an example of a way of looking at the reality of the XVIth century from a modern point of view which is first of all anti-historical.

   We should not forget that the XVIth century was not familiar with the theory of historical evolution. In ancient thinkers’ minds the world – since ancient times – was moving in a circle. Seasonal changes, the lunar cycle gave people confidence that cyclicity is inherent to the human history and to the Earth’s destiny as well. Christianity introduced the theory of Apocalypse into this chain of repeating periods. However, until it happened, the world had to continue its circular motions (Latin revolutio – “circulation”, “circumrotation”). Historical reminiscences can be found almost in every work; they are often noticed in the Nostradamus’ “Almanacs” and even in his recipe book. Authors of those ages could see a certain link of times in similarity of historical characters and collisions, happening to nations, and also a motivation for historical research. After all it is much easier to understand an event if one manages to find its exact analogy in the past. This paradoxical, as it seems, perception of history as a source of knowledge about the future had far-reaching consequences in the Renaissance. Russian historian Yuri Malinin, the translator of the “Memoirs” of French prominent statesman of the XVth century Philippe de Commynes, writes:

   Orientation towards ethic values made it impossible to see any development or changes in history not to mention historical progress. Only those historical marks were certain that were marked out by Christianity. The events unfolding in the time of history seemed to be just a repetition of one and the same situation where one and the same human quality manifest itself. In the course of our life, as we know, nothing did happen that hadn’t had its similarities in the past and therefore, – P[ierre] Choinet writes1, – retrospective evaluation of the past events is very helpful not only in terms of providing consolation, moral instructions, and in terms of strengthening oneself against misery but also in terms of providing inspiration and strength for righteous deeds. It was almost a contemporary life that was seen in the past, except that the characters were different, and therefore no wonder it was considered that knowledge of history made it possible to foresee the future directly and gave the key to any life situation, a solution to any problem. And when, for example, the Chancellor of the States General in 1484 assured the deputies of the fact that the new king Charles VIII would rule the country in the best way, his only arguments being that the king had enough foresight gained by reading and learning about the past. This is the reason why historical knowledge at that age had such an exceptional value in the eyes of others.2

   The Roman Empire with its alternation of enlightened emperors and cruel tyrants seemed to be a valuable material for research of historical connections. Amid the incredible upsurge of interest in the ancient world, which took place during the Renaissance, Rome was a vivid illustration to the theory of circles, which the world is bound to spin before it comes to its end. In particular, it was easy to “match” the persecutions of the first Christians in the age of the early Roman principate to the analogies of the incidents of battles between Catholic and Protestant. As is known, both thought of themselves as true Christians and they saw their opponents as pagans. The same Nostradamus was exasperated by the persecutions of Huguenots in his home Provence: What an awful barbarism against Christian it is! We live in the vile time and worse is coming; how I long for seeing this no more!3

   The “Prophecies” are mostly based on the concept of “repeating history”. At the same time Nostradamus didn’t draw the distinction in his text between the past and the future (the possible reason for this will be revealed below). Therefore one should be very careful in classifying his prophecies: one or another historical character or event can turn out to be a description of a real prototype as well as a sketch of its future “look-alike”.

   All the more so, the Nostradamus’ quatrains are not at all a simple retelling of historical events. In most cases historical realities form a background, where future events are taking place and sometimes new details are included by the author into the new framework.

For example, the two following quatrains —

Vn an deuant le conflit Italique,
Germain,Gaulois, Hespagnols pour le fort:
Cherra l'escolle maison de republique,
Ou, hors mis peu, seront suffoqués morts.

A year before the Italian War -
German, Gaul and Spanish fight for a fortress,
A school will collapse, a government building,
Where, with few exceptions, will be those suffocated to death.

Vn peu apres non point longue interualle.
Par mer & terre sera fait grand tumulte,
Beaucoup plus grande sera pugne nauale,
Feus anim[e]ux, qui plus feront d'insulte.

A little later, after a short period,
Upon the earth and sea, there will be a great disturbance.
A sea battle will be much greater.
[There will be] raging fire which will bring the most harm, —

are based on the Herodotus’ statement about the events, which had taken place before the Chian fleet was defeated by Phoenician ships and before Chios was placed under the authority of Histiaios, the tyrant:

   And heaven is wont perhaps to give signs beforehand whenever great evils are about to happen to a city or a race of men; for to the Chians also before these events remarkable signs had come. In the first place when they had sent to Delphi a chorus of a hundred youths, two only returned home, the remaining ninety-eight of them having been seized by a plague and carried off; and then secondly in their city about the same time, that is shortly before the sea-fight, as some children were being taught in school the roof fell in upon them, so that of a hundred and twenty children only one escaped. These signs God showed to them beforehand; and after this the sea-fight came upon them and brought their State down upon its knees; and as the Chians had suffered great loss, he without difficulty effected the conquest of them (VI, 27, translated by G.C. Macaulay).4

   Here the presage (the collapse of a public school) and the fact that the sea battle occurs literally coincide. However, the geography of the events, the people who took part in the events, and other minor parts are totally different from Nostradamus’. Here we have not a retelling of Herodotus at all, but a prophecy, which uses distinct images of “History” in the sequence of events scheme: school collapses, people die — and a severe war upon the earth and sea that follows. Thus the single statement of the “father of history” becomes a bridge to the future.

   Very many allusions are still not revealed. It could be of great help to study the books which Nostradamus used to read. A list of some of his books from his private library has been published5; it is also necessary to look closely through all the available almanacs and other texts written by Nostradamus in order to localize the works, which were familiar to the prophet but not included in that list. (Here are only some names: French poet of the XVIth century Clement Marot, ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, Italian writer Giovanni Bocaccio, ancient Roman orator Cicero; these are the authors whom Nostradamus mentioned in his personal correspondence and “Almanacs”).

   Nostradamus also used the works of his direct predecessors-astrologers such as Torquato and Lichtenberger. However these borrowings are very selective and are always provided with important details, which the origins lack.

   It appears that all said above is enough to agree that the historical analogies in the quatrains as they are don’t reveal the retrospective nature of the “Prophecies” alone. And borrowings and periphrasis from the works of other authors by no means make them a dependant work or far less a compilation6. Nor is it a scientific (including theological) treatise. It is a literary evaluation of history, where the past, the present and the future are seen as one flow. In the “Preface” to Cesar, Nostradamus repeats the generally recognized among the Christians idea that God sees time as one whole. A prophet’s soul thrilled with the divine ecstasy, having ascended to the throne of God, gets an opportunity to look upon the march of history with His eyes.

Moscow, 2004-2007, Alexey Penzensky
2007, Ekaterina Sinitsyna, translation


1 Choinet was a physician and astrologer of Louis XI and a presumable author of Le Rozier des Guerres. Retour

2 Philip de Kommin. Memuary. Perevod Y.P.Malinina. Moskva, Nauka, 1986

— PP. 406-407. The article by Y. P. Malinin about de Commynes, particularly its section devoted to historical thought of the XV-XVI centuries, is exceptionally important to understand the concept of “repeating history” which is also a basis of Nostradamus’ “Prophecies”. Retour

3 Jean Dupèbe. Nostradamus. Lettres inédites. Genève, Droz, 1983. P. 131. Retour

4 French translation by Larcher: Lorsqu'une nation ou une ville doit éprouver quelque grand malheur, ce malheur est ordinairement précédé de quelques signes. Aussi ceux de Chios eurent-ils des présages avant-coureurs de leur désastre. D'un chœur de cent jeunes garçons qu'ils avaient envoyé à Delphes, il n'en revint que deux; les quatre-vingt-dix-huit autres périrent de la peste. Vers le même temps, et un peu avant le combat naval, le toit d’une école de la ville tomba sur des enfants à qui on enseignait les lettres; de cent vingt qu'ils étaient, il n'en réchappa qu'un seul. Tels furent les signes avant-coureurs que la Divinité leur envoya. Ils furent suivis de la perte de la bataille navale qui fit tomber leur ville sur le genou. Survint ensuite Histiée avec les Lesbiens, qui eut d'autant moins de peine à les subjuguer qu'ils étaient déjà épuisés. Retour

5 Michel Chomarat. Catalogue provisoire de la bibliothèque de Michel Nostradamus // Nostradamus ou le savoir transmis. Lyon, Editions Michel Chomarat, 1997. Retour

6 A vivid example of a true compilation is “The Book of Omens” by ancient Roman author Julius Obsequent. Retour


Retour Analyse

Tous droits réservés © 2004 - 2007 Alexey Penzensky