Nostradamus: The Renaissance man

History remembers Nostradamus mostly for his uncanny gift of prophecy. This famous talent never dominated his attention. Along with being a noted doctor, capable of curing entire cities of plague, Nostradamus was a consummate gourmet and creator of fruit preservatives. His recipe for quince jelly earned him the praise of the Papal legate of Avignon for its nearly heavenly sweetness.

Nostradamus was also a master astrologer. The wealthy and noble-born of Europe beat the path to his door for horoscopes. High-born women of his day rushed to his residence in Salon de Provence to seek his advice on cosmetics. The author of prophetic works was also a noted translator of classics into French. He wrote a comprehensive book on the doctors and pharmacists he met throughout his travels in Southern Europe called Trakté des Fardemens. Often he would stay as a guest of the few doctors and pharmacists he respected, collaborating with them to cure the sick by day, becoming their eager pupil by night in occult instruction. These men, like himself, belonged to families of ex-Jews participating in an underground network of alchemists and cabalists seeking answers to mysteries beyond the absolutes preached in the outer Christian world.

Portrait of Nostradamus Making Predictions

By 1529 “Le Charbon” had subsided enough for Nostradamus to return to Montpellier for his doctorate degree. A large crowd gathered in the great hall to observe the already famous young man’s oral examination before the entire faculty. Nostradamus expertly countered arguments against his unorthodox practices, stressing his successes as defence. The dean was impressed enough to award him the distinctive cap and ring of a doctor of the medicine as well as a place in the faculty of Montpellier. He remained a professor for three years until restriction imposed on his liberal wanderings from accepted text resolved him to saddle up and once again take to the road.

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He made another circuit through the cities of his past successes, stopping at Toulouse to set up a more permanent practice. There he received a letter from Julius-Cesar Scaliger in 1534, inviting the doctor to Agen. Scaliger, respected as second only to Erasmus, was one of the greatest scholars and philosophers of the Renaissance.

They become fast friends. The doctor delighted in sharpening his wits with the mercurial mind of Scaliger. Nostradamus settled in Agen near the home of his mentor. He had fallen in love with the town’s bright sunny skies and dry climate. His medical practice flourished. Soon the wealthiest families in town were parading their daughters of marrying age before his eye. He married a young woman of great charm and beauty whose name cannot be confirmed 1. She bore him a beautiful boy and girl. Nostradamus lived an idyllic life for the next three years, spending his days at the Scaliger’s house surrounded by some of the greatest minds in Europe, and his nights nourished in the love and security of a happy home.

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In 1537 plague visited Agen with the clatter of death carts on cobblestone streets. Nostradamus sprang to action with all the confidence and energy of the past. Each day he bade farewell to his healthy young family, thanking the Divines for their continued good health while death stalked the households of Agen. One day he returned from his tour of wealthy patients to find his wife and children burning from the fever, their faces developing the black boils of the “Le Charbon”. Every technique failed to cure them. The healing hands which cured thousands wrung themselves helplessly as they all died.

Word of the doctor’s personal tragedy spread throughout town as a great scandal. Most of his patients deserted him. His wife’s family demanded he return her dowry at once. When he refused they took him to court. Nostradamus had terrible quarrel with Scaliger who was known for breaking his friendships and who chose this moment to strike out at the grieving and vulnerable doctor with singular cruelty.

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As if this were not enough Nostradamus suffered yet another blow, this time from a remark he made during happier days to a workman casting a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary. Nostradamus was known for having a biting sense of humour and his remark to the workman had been in reference to the “casting of demons”. The joke came back to haunt him three years after when the workman, nursing revenge, saw his chance to strike the fallen doctor by alerting the Church authorities of Nostradamus’ comment. The doctor was called to stand before a preliminary hearing on a charge of heresy. He defended his joke as an innocent description of the workman’s mediocrity and nothing more. The Church authorities remained suspicious and Nostradamus was instructed to stand trial before the Church Inquisitors at Toulouse.

He escaped from Agen under cover of darkness, heading his mule east to Italy. He would wander through Western and Southern Europe avoiding the Church Inquisitors for the next six years, trying to pick up the shattered pieces of his life in a pilgrimage of self-discovery. It was during this period that his prophetic powers awakened.


  1. possibly Henriette d’Encausse

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