The Tragedy Of Nostradamus Explained

Nostradamus: forced Christian convert, medical school expellee, widower, target of the Inquisition, and sufferer of chronic painful ailments. He didn't have the easiest life. Ah yes, and he's also that prophet-poet guy whose preoccupation with mysticism and staring into fragrant bowls of water led him to become history's most well-known and often-quoted "prophet." Ever since penning his 1555 doomsday hit "Les Prophéties," Nostradamus has become everyone's favorite go-to for 20/20 hindsight regarding "See, I told you he was right" cataclysmic historical events.

If Nostradamus really did see the future then he's got a pretty impressive prophetic event roster. As the prophecies go, Nostradamus might have correctly predicted the Great Fire of London in 1666, Napoleon Bonaparte's rise to power during the French Revolution, Adolf Hitler's rise to power in between World Wars I and II, the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, JFK's assassination, the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks, and more. Granted, he didn't only foresee doom and gloom, just mostly.

But for a man like Michel de Nostredame — Nostradamus' given name — doom and gloom was the norm. He may have been born into a well-to-do family in St. Remy, France, but that's where his luck ended. Like we mentioned, he endured quite a few setbacks in his life. Sometimes this was his own fault, like when he drew the ire of the Inquisition. More often, though, he was just on the butt end of fortune.

Nostradamus was forced to convert to Christianity

Low on the list of known Nostradamus facts is his Jewish heritage. As the Jewish Virtual Library explains, Nostradamus' family was Jewish, his father a notary, and his grandfathers both doctors. Nostradamus received quite the excellent education growing up. In addition to learning mathematics, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, his family planted the seed of his future esoteric studies by passing along their interest in alchemy, Kabbalah, and herbal medicine. While we don't know if Nostradamus' family were ardent Judaic practitioners, they at least cared about their heritage enough to teach the young Nostradamus about both common (the Hebrew language) and uncommon (Kabbalah) facets of Judaism.

Their practice would change with King Louis XII, who ruled France from 1498 to 1515. Louis XII might have kept taxes down and prevented civil war from cropping up across France, but he wasn't too great to Jewish people. Mirroring the actions of King Philip IV and King Charles VI — who'd previously expelled Jews from France in 1306 and 1394 — Louis XII kicked any remaining Jews out of Provence in 1501. Unless they converted to Christianity and were baptized, that is. And even after that, they had to pay a special "tax of the neophytes" to make up for the economic loss of those Jews who left. Nostradamus and his family stayed in Provence, paid the tax, and converted to Christianity — at least on the outside. They continued practicing Judaism in secret.

Nostradamus was kicked out of medical school

Nostradamus followed in his grandfathers' footsteps and studied medicine at the University of Montpellier starting in 1529. He'd actually had some real-world medical experience by then, as he'd worked as a traveling doctor in the years leading up to his enrollment. Or more accurately, he worked as an apothecary — a profession similar to a modern pharmacist — dispensing herbal medicine across Italy, France, and Spain. The bubonic plague had already cropped up across Europe by then, a point which would greatly affect Nostradamus in the future.

While those whom Nostradamus helped were no doubt grateful for the care, the faculty at the University of Montpellier thought otherwise. To university professors and doctors, apothecaries were lowbrow. The university directly banned such "manual professions" from their grounds, which at the time included surgeons, per the Montpellier Faculty of Medicine. Come 1572 the university created a College of Apothecaries, but that wasn't until 50 years after Nostradamus enrolled. 

As soon as medical professor and head of student registrar Guillaume Rondelet discovered Nostradamus' horrible past of helping people, he kicked him out. Before then, Nostradamus had butted heads with faculty about the importance of hygiene and the ineffectiveness of bloodletting. At the same time — and a bit more riskily — Nostradamus was vocal in his opposition to Catholicism and talked openly about astrology. Ultimately, Nostradamus was a student whom the university didn't want. He was expelled, and his expulsion letter still lives in the university's library.

Nostradamus' family died from plague

And so we come to a truly tragic chapter of Nostradamus' life. Like others, it didn't start out too bad. After getting ousted from medical school, Nostradamus made the most of things by doing what he'd done before: set about France and Italy acting as a traveling doctor. The bubonic plague was going strong, and Nostradamus doled out common sense prescriptions like keeping bed sheets, air, and streets clean. He also collected rose petals and crushed them into a kind of vitamin C drop that apparently worked fairly well for patients. Nostradamus did not treat the plague the way the doctors at the University of Montpellier taught: prescribe drinking mercury, wearing robes soaked in garlic, and having one's blood drained.   

Nostradamus' work brought him some measure of renown, and he received financial support from people in Provence. He even got a job in 1531 working in the town of Agen with a well-known doctor, Jules-Cesar Scaliger. Once there he settled down, got married, had two children, and started a family life.

That's precisely when tragedy struck. A mere three years later in 1534 his wife and his children died from the precise plague that Nostradamus had been fighting. He was out of town at the time and doing his itinerant doctor thing in Italy. Back in France, the death of his family broke public confidence in his methods. He not only lost his family but his local patrons and his job at the same time.  

Nostradamus was hunted by the Inquisition

Responsibility for the next tragic chapter of Nostradamus' life falls squarely at his own feet. Details are sparce but we know that in 1538 — four years after his wife and children died — Nostradamus got on the wrong side of the Catholic church. All we know is that Nostradamus made "an offhand remark" about some statue somewhere, as History puts it. Apparently, this is all it took for him to be accused of heresy. But rather than stick around France and be captured and tortured, Nostradamus hightailed it and once again set out on the road, this time through Greece, Turkey, and Italy. 

We don't know exactly what Nostradamus got up to while fleeing from the Inquisition, but we do know that this is when he starting shifting away from the medical arts and towards the mystical ones. One tale claims that Nostradamus had a "psychic awakening" while distressed and on the run, per History, and even accurately predicted the next pope. 

Regardless, Nostradamus remained without a permanent home for nine years, all the way to 1547 when he figured it was safe to head back to France. He resettled in his hometown of Provence and once again he tried his hand at settling down. He got married again, had six children this time around, started writing books, and started harnessing the psychic visions that would lead to his 1555 tome of prophecy, "Les Prophéties."

Nostradamus suffered from painful physical conditions

Finally, we move into the phase of Nostradamus' life when he had the most peace and comfort — at least on the outside. Even while Nostradamus grew famous for his supposedly predictive powers, garnered the favor of Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II, and got appointed Counselor and Physician-in-Ordinary to the king's court, his body was failing him. Every moment of the day as he sat, wrote, and spoke he suffered from a host of debilitating, painful illnesses that grew worse year by year. Namely: arthritis, gout, and eventually dropsy.

Arthritis might be the most well-known of these conditions. There are various types of arthritis, all with different causes but centering around inflammation of the joints. Gout, meanwhile, is a specific form of arthritis involving intense and painful flare-ups. Dropsy, the last condition that Nostradamus developed in his final years, more often goes by the name "edema" nowadays. It's characterized by an accumulation of fluid in and between bodily tissues, particularly the lower legs, ankles, and feet. If left untreated it can cause heart failure.

Nostradamus died in 1566, 11 years after he penned his book of prophecies. He left his final prophecy for himself. Perhaps sensing the end coming, he drafted his will in late June 1566. Come July 1 he allegedly told his secretary, "You will not find me alive at sunrise." The following morning Nostradamus was dead.