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.