Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom

Stéphane Gerson

St. Martin's Press




We all know the name Nostradamus, but who was he really? Why did his predictions become so influential in Renaissance Europe and then keep resurfacing for nearly five centuries? And what does Nostradamus's endurance in the West say about us and our own world?

In Nostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom, historian Stéphane Gerson takes readers on a journey back in time to explore the life and afterlife of Michel de Nostredame, the astrologer whose Prophecies have been interpreted, adopted by successive media, and eventually transformed into the Gospel of Doom for the modern age. Whenever we seem to enter a new era, whenever the premises of our worldview are questioned or imperiled, Nostradamus offers certainty and solace. In 1666, guests at posh English dinner parties discussed his quatrain about the Great Fire of London. In 1942, the Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky latched her hopes for survival to Nostradamus' prediction that the war would soon end. And on September 12, 2001, teenagers proclaimed on the streets of Brooklyn that "this guy, Nostradamus" had seen the 9/11 attacks coming.
Through prodigious research in European and American archives, Gerson shows that Nostradamus — a creature of the modern West rather than a vestige from some antediluvian era — tells us more about our past and our present than about our future. In chronicling the life of this mystifying figure and the lasting fascination with his predictions, Gerson's book becomes a historical biography of a belief: the faith that we can know tomorrow and master our anxieties through the powers of an extraordinary but ever more elusive seer.


Chapter 1

A Good Friend in Renaissance Europe

Today we associate Nostradamus with New York, Paris, and other megacities whose demises are linked to his name. Back in the sixteenth century, however, people visited or...


Praise for Nostradamus

“Gerson, a history professor and coeditor of a new edition of Nostradamus' Prophecies, takes a rationalist's approach to the sixteenth-century physician-apothecary whose four-line verses are thought by some to offer glimpses into the future. Michel de Nostredame, to use his full name, is credited by some people with predicting the September 11, 2011, terrorist attacks (among various other key world events through the centuries), but others have pointed out that Nostradamus' quatrains are too unspecific and open to interpretation to be considered genuine predictions. The author wisely avoids this debate, for the most part, and focuses instead on the man's life, his legacy, and the way his verses have entered and affected the world's culture. Relatively little is known by the general public about the life of Nostradamus, and this well-researched and evenhanded biography definitely fills a void. Some readers might be immediately put off by the book's subtitle, assuming this is another Nostradamus-as-visionary tract, but give the book a chance: it's a solid and enlightening story of a man who, whether you believe the pro-prophecy crowd or not, led a fascinating life.” —Booklist

“Cultural historian Gerson (History/New York Univ.; The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in Modern France, 2003, etc.) shares his vast knowledge of and fascination with the legendary seer. The author attempts to explain how Nostradamus' (1503–1566) mystique has endured for more than five centuries. Trained as a doctor, he found that writing almanacs was much more to his pleasure, and this interest eventually begat his most famous work, Prophecies. He categorized his quatrains in groups of 100 and wrote a total of 942, although new ones appeared after his death. Nostradamus eventually became a good excuse for disasters, and few were above writing quatrains in his style; he was a matter of wonder and public amusement as well as an answer to anxieties and fears. While he was a Catholic of Jewish heritage, he never really accepted a religion, cult or political faction. The growth of communications in the 16th century enabled his writings to proliferate throughout his native France and elsewhere in Europe. Like the Oracle at Delphi, Nostradamus' quatrains are worded so that interpretation is just a matter of the reader's tendencies. There are few dates in any of his work, and he wrote in veiled terms, switched verbs and often changed tenses. While some of his obscurity could have been involuntary, it is much more likely that he did it deliberately. He also predicted that he would have detractors, and his mysterious death only adds to his mystique. Gerson deftly explains the lure of Nostradamus, but no one can possibly translate his verses. Just like poetry, only the author knows what he meant.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A vibrant and vivid account of a complex humanist of untold sympathy and generosity. Gerson leads us through a life mirroring the Renaissance: its humanism, its religious strife, its mix of occult and nascent science, and its poetry. With uncommon clarity and elegance Gerson draws into his portrait of Nostradamus events of his own life and ours. This eminently accessible and informative biography is also an enthralling history: it unravels the enigmas of a heralded individual responding to the doubt and fear about a world that are cause for us to reflect on our own.” —Tom Conley, Abbot Lawrence Lowell Professor, Depts. of Romance Languages and Visual/Environmental Studies, Harvard University

“In this brave and impeccable work of scholarship, Stéphane Gerson accomplishes what dozens of writers have failed to for generations: he brings a truly engaging, incisive, and reliable reckoning to a vexing figure who probably ranks as the most famous prophet in history. Our understanding of modern life is incomplete without coming to terms with Nostradamus and his legacy -- and Gerson does so in a historical journey that is packed with surprises, strange events, and illuminative connections between people, places, and ideas that will leave you by turns delighted and astonished. This study immediately becomes the flagship of its kind, and it is difficult to imagine it being surpassed.” —Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation

“Stéphane Gerson's Nostradamus is an exemplary piece of scholarship and critical sophistication. This book represents the best of cultural studies and is a must for anyone interested in early modern studies and its importance today. Reading Gerson is an extraordinary intellectual adventure.” —Lawrence D. Kritzman, John D. Willard Prof of French and Comparative Literature, Dartmouth College

“Stéphane Gerson has written a remarkable book about a renaissance astrologer and prophet, whose pithy but obscure predictions garnered as many devotees as denouncers. Gerson' immaculately-researched, beautifully-written, and thought-provoking work unearths the story of Nostradramus' life, and then traces his undying allure over five succeeding centuries. Nostradamus came back into vogue when the world seemed out of kilter, whether it be the Great Fire of London, the French Revolution, World War II or in the aftermath of 9/11. Gerson does more, though, than chart the re-appearance of fear and disorientation. He analyses, above all, why and how Nostradamus' quatrains continue to fascinate, console and repel.” —Ruth Harris, Professor of Modern History, New College, Oxford University

In the Press

In a new biography, Stephane Gerson explains how Nostradamus became the world’s foremost prophet of doom. - The Washington Post

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Stéphane Gerson

STÉPHANE GERSON is a cultural historian of modern France and the editor of a new edition of Nostradamus's Prophecies for Penguin Classics. He has won several awards, including the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History and the Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies. He has also contributed to Publishers Weekly and the Jewish Daily Forward. Gerson teaches French history at New York University and lives in Manhattan and Woodstock, NY, with his family.

Stéphane Gerson

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Stéphane Gerson

From the Publisher

St. Martin's Press

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