Nostradamus, the Man Who Saw Through Time, by Lee McCann , at sacred-texts.com
DOCTOR DE RÉMY, Michel's maternal grandfather, took upon himself the early education of his elder grandson. Even today such an education as Michel received from him would be considered out of the ordinary. It was for that period perhaps unique in France. Doctor de Rémy's scholarly prestige and the liberal intelligence with which he guided and inspired his pupil provided an opportunity not often found in any home, ancient or modern. The response of the boy's genius and native love of learning made the relationship between them easy and delightful. How different this was from the usual instruction in the sixteenth century can be appreciated from Rabelais’ account of Pantagruel's pilgrimage of learning.
"My will," said Gargantua, concerning the education of Pantagruel, "is to hand him over to some learned man to indoctrinate him according to his capacity and to spare nothing to that end."
"Indoctrination," in the early sixteenth century, meant stuffing the young mind like a Strasbourg goose.
[paragraph continues] Lack of humane, intelligent methods of teaching was eked out with sadistic technique. Education was driven into the memories of tough-skulled, resistant youngsters with blows and floggings. Rabelais, writing of what boys had to endure for the rudiments of knowledge, said of one especially cruel master:
"If for flogging poor little children, unoffending schoolboys, pedagogues are damned, he, upon my word of honor, is now on Ixion's wheel, flogging the dock-tailed cur that turns it."
There was no idea of home instruction, and public education lacked range and had little that was useful. Fruitless, prolonged study of words, followed by equally fruitless study of interminable subtleties, made a drawnout, bewildering misery of the boy's path of knowledge. Doctor Garencières, telling of his own education in France a century later, says that he and the other children, as soon as they had learned the primer, were set to studying the Centuries of Nostradamus. "This book was the first after my Primer, wherein I did learn to read, it being then the custom of France about the year 1618 to initiate children by that book; first because of the crabbedness of the words; secondly that they might be acquainted with the old and obsolete French; and thirdly for the delightfulness and variety of the matter." The picture of babes learning like puzzled parrots the stanzas that have challenged the wits of how many scholars is poor immortality for the man whose own training was so different.
Printing had so recently introduced the curse of schoolbooks to the young that there had not been time to create a pedagogic tradition. Before printing, children had grown up as free and untrammeled as Adam. They learned only to fish, hunt, roam, handle a bow and arrow and, if of good family, to buckle on a knight's armor. If the ways of doing these things improved, the pursuits were still those of the Stone Age. There was, of course, always a class of churchly scholars and a certain amount of mannered culture among the top social families. As a national development, however, few could read and write. But when printing brought books within popular reach, parents everywhere wanted their children to have this strange, new accessibility to knowledge which had been denied to them. So began the painful era of mental discipline for the young.
Doctor de Rémy and Rabelais, almost alone in their period, seemed to have envisioned the kind of education which today is taken for granted. Both believed that youth should be interested, and the book of knowledge unfolded in wonder and delight. Pantagruel, you will remember, spent years learning to say the alphabet backwards, and still more years and years on volumes of Latin commentaries, until Gargantua saw that he was turning out just a daft dreamer. So he chose a master of a different sort who taught Pantagruel the observation of nature and the examination of facts. Eventually Pantagruel returned to his father with a rounded development and an understanding of
the relationship of knowledge to living. Rabelais knew this the hard way, Nostradamus learned it the easy way. He had an early joyousness toward study, he never needed spurring, nor had to shrink from what was for most boys a physically and emotionally painful experience that left its mark indelibly on a sensitive nature.
Doctor de Rémy grounded his grandson thoroughly in Latin, mathematics and astronomy, and gave him a general knowledge of nature facts. Ease and fluency in writing and speaking Latin were then of prime cultural importance, for it was the language employed by scholars and public orators. It was much used at court, too, through the reign of Francis I. It is said that the royal family, in hours when they gathered informally, enjoyed chatting affably together in Latin--an accomplishment that is perhaps as difficult for moderns to imagine as anything in the sixteenth century. But children then were put to this study very young to gain the required proficiency. The Provençal tongue still retained more of a Roman heritage than of northern France. This made the study of Latin easier for boys born, as Michel, in the Midi than in other sections of the country. Mathematics went hand in hand with astronomy. Patrons, amateurs and profound scholars of "the celestial science" were very numerous and they had to be able to prepare their own ephemerides, and to make elaborate, difficult mathematical calculations which today are available in published, labor-saving tables. Both of Michel's grandfathers
were ranked as savants in mathematics and astronomy. Their teaching and his interest soon carried his knowledge far beyond his years.
For frosting on the educational cake, there were, from both grandfathers, endless memories of brilliant doings at King René's court, the little Athens of its day. History and geography took on romantic meanings from these stories. The boy never tired hearing of the gorgeous pageants and dramas which King René had never wearied of producing.
"The most splendid of them all," said grandfather, "was The War of The Seven Chiefs. It was a play out of Greek legend, about gods and men, and all the gods had golden faces. The king summoned one of the greatest artists in France to Aix to design the golden crown, the masque and the sceptre for the sun-god. The night the play was given, the King and Queen and all the court had dressed like the ancient Greeks. ’Twas like a country long gone, come back with all its music and soldiers and ladies and gods."
Another time grandfather would say, "When you are a man, Michel, you will travel. You will go to Italy, perhaps you will even see there such a singular man as Great Beard who came from Florence. Here, I will show you Florence on this map."
"--and Great Beard, grandfather?"
"A rich merchant who came to trade, and brought the king a Persian manuscript for a gift. To please the king Great Beard had gotten himself up in a splendid Turkish dress. He had on a robe of Eastern silk over a
broidered chemise. And about his middle were girt three belts studded with little jewels. But the joke of it was the king couldn't see his splendid dress unless Great Beard turned his back, and that is never done to a king. His beard was so thick and so long that it covered up the front of him. None of us had ever seen the like before. Amazing vain he was of it too."
Nostradamus sometimes uses the word étranger in the Centuries, but more often the foreigner is le barbe, les barbares, and if a foreign tyrant, Ahenobarbus. Perhaps his memory kept a picture of the Florentine merchant seen through grandfather's eyes, and gave him a preference for the older, Latin-derived word.
Doctor de Nostradame did not live to see the young prodigy whom he had so lovingly trained grow up. He died when Michel was still in his ’teens. His passing was one of two deaths that marked the closing of Michel's young boyhood. The loss of his grandfather was a personal grief. The other passing was impersonal, remote, yet it ended a period to which he was to look back in later years with nostalgic longing. This was the death of Louis XII, which closed an epoch in the life of France, one which Michel would recall in sadder days as a never-returning patriarchal age of gold.
Michel's life-span saw the rulership of five kings of France. Under the reign of Louis XII, which ended in 1515, France had been ideally united. Never had the country a more popular king than Louis the Well Beloved, twenty-second king of the grand line of Capet.
[paragraph continues] Louis had guided the government with fewer mistakes than most monarchs and no infringement of the people's liberties. But he was the last king of France whose reign expressed the national unity of a free people. The security of France had seemed at last firmly established. The powerful, one-pointed nationalism for which people and king had worked so long appeared near to realizing the French dream of continental leadership, a dream never to be fully realized, but persisting to Sedan. France never again in after periods reattained this early combination of apparently limitless possibilities combined with balance and simplicity of life, as just before the brook of Mediaevalism became the torrent of the Renaissance.
The kingdom of Provence had come under the sovereignty of France about twenty years before Michel's birth, and memories of its independent realm were still fresh in the minds of Provençals. René, their last king, had long known that with the passing of feudalism, Provence must come under a larger center. Himself a Capet, he wanted France rather than Spain to be his inheritor. But because of the love between him and the people of his little realm he put off the evil day. Louis XI was then King of France. He and René were both very old men, and Louis with an eye always on Spain grew nervous. He invited Cousin René, who always liked to go places, to visit him in Paris. In the interest of larger gain, the stingiest monarch in Christendom unloosed for once his purse-strings. His chamberlain was ordered to go all out with gay and
splendid parties, and to be sure to have the prettiest girls in Paris there. The sly old fox successfully lured the gay old dog. René had the time of his ancient life, being then in his eighties, and when the party was over Louis had Provence in his pocket.
In Michel's time, Provence was administered on behalf of the French Crown by a provincial governor, the distinguished soldier Claude de Savoie, Count de Tende. He was a friend of the de Nostradame family, and his name appears with flattering mention in one of the quatrains.
With the death of Louis XII France came under the domination of a new king, and a different branch of the Capetian line--the House of Valois. Francis I, the glamour-boy from Angoulême, was the first of five Valois kings who succeeded to the throne of Saint Louis. Michel was then not quite thirteen years old. Boylike, he thrilled to the accounts of the brave and charming young prince on whom France set high hopes, and who was now his king. That was a year when the annual ceremonial pageant at Aix, which King René had begun in 1448, took on a dramatic meaning from the royal event. The most prized title of the French monarchs was that of très chrétien, and René's old festival procession pictured the triumph of Christianity over evil. Michel's parents took the boys to Aix for the occasion. The picturesque, wholly mediaeval solemnity of the procession was as naïve as an illuminated manuscript.
The long procession, which the boys watched absorbedly,
winding slowly through the streets of Aix, was intended to show how the heathen gods and their worshipers were driven back into hell by Christ, but the presentation of the allegory would appear to have been as mixed and hard to unravel as one of the Centuries. The god Mercury led the procession, followed by the goddess of Night with Pluto attended by a galaxy of flame-dressed demons. Then came walking the huntress Diana and after her, singly, came Love, Venus and Mars. Followed then a gruesome group of lepers, behind whom were the commanders of the city and knights in armor riding proudly, then the dancers and a coterie of musicians with tambourines, lutes, fifes and drums. Now came the Queen of Sheba in silks and jewels on her way to visit Solomon. Next was Moses carrying the tables of the law, and trying to bring back to God a group of mocking Jews who danced around a pasteboard golden calf. Judas followed displaying his purse and counting his thirty pieces of silver while the other apostles belabored his head with sticks in punishment. Now in the distance, Michel and Jean, their heads uncovered, could see approaching the prelates bearing the Blessed Sacrament. Preceding them, strangely enough walked the Abbé of Youth, the Prince of Love, and the King of the Basoche. This last was the head of a guild of law clerks who staged many morality plays.
It should be plain to interpreters of the Centuries--though it has not been--that much in its writing which has baffled and perturbed scholars is traceable to
the natural impression which such scenes as this procession made upon the imaginative, religious temperament of the boy Michel. The peculiar mixture of allegory, symbolism and historic allusion which abounds in his writings is less cryptic in intention than commentators will allow. Much of this was a normal reflection of Provençal expression in the romantic mediaevalism of the prophet's youth. It is difficult to interpret, mainly because modern scholarship has lost contact with so much in those older modes. When one reflects that with such a background Nostradamus was able to span and summarize prophetically the development of four centuries, it is not the obscurity but the clarity of most of his writing that is amazing.
After Michel's education had been interrupted by the death of his grandfather, his parents were faced with the problem of how best to continue it. They decided to send him to the famous university at Avignon. Jacques and Renée had probably to do some careful figuring of the family budget when they made their plans, for they were by no means wealthy, and a college education, then as now, was expensive for people of moderate means. But scholarship was a too distinguished family tradition for their sons to have anything but the best. Besides, they must have realized by then that Michel had whatever was the sixteenth-century equivalent of a striking I. Q. So to Avignon he went to take his Philosophia, as the course was called which approximated the modern degree of Bachelor of Arts.
Avignon was a proud, powerful old town. Its active student and religious life was carried on within the protection of incredibly massive walls above which reared like guardian swords the stately height of its thirty-nine towers. Here the tradition of learning stretches far back into the past, beyond the true and the false popes, to shadowy Saracenic origins. Here the mistral blows, the cold raw wind which Petrarch bemoaned, against which even the flame of his love for Laura could not keep him warm.
Teachers, with an eye out for promising pupils, quite naturally hoped that young Michel, coming from a family of scholars, would make a good showing. But they must have been a little breathless when, according to old sources, he began at once to display his dazzling memory and amazing information. It is told that he needed to read a chapter but once in order to repeat it with exact accuracy. If, gentle reader, you are visualizing from this something like modern chapters, let it be stated that in those days twenty-five lines of print made a short sentence, punctuation was scanty, and paragraphs were met every few miles. Such ability as Michel's, in an age when all educational emphasis was upon memory, made an impression out of all proportion to its mental value, and was alone enough to give him top rating as a scholar. But he had even more fascinating rabbits-out-of-hat than his memory.
It is said that from the time Michel was able to reason "he was accustomed to decide for himself the
meaning of all manner of small, curious facts which interested him." One suspects that it was his grandfather who did the deciding, and that the old gentleman wore himself to his grave answering his brilliant grandson's questions. However that may be, Michel had a vast store of assorted extra-curricular information that soon had his teachers dazed and his enthralled fellow students hanging on his words. Much of what he knew would today be in any child's book of knowledge, but only learned adults had such information then.
When Michel told the other boys how clouds were formed out of vapor, and how they dissolved into rain, he was a sensation to lads who had learned at home that clouds were pumped up out of the sea, as was commonly believed. Shooting stars, he claimed astonishingly, were not stars that had become loosened from the sky. He talked about particles and gases and what made stars shine. And he insisted that the earth really was a round ball, for in spite of Columbus there were still plenty of people who did not believe this. And--incredible idea--he told them that the sun shone on the other side of the world too.
Michel was never a show-off, he had none of that quality. All who have written of him have, without exception, admitted his unassuming manner and quiet modesty. But he lost himself so completely in the interest of study and talked about it so constantly that such absorption had a spectacular effect. His pet interest at this time was astronomy, a subject on which he
[paragraph continues] "gave out" as energetically as a living saxophone, and the college dubbed him "the young astronomer." He was nonetheless, in spite of his superior knowledge, popular with the students, because he was fun-loving and good company. After he had completed his university studies, which included advanced philosophy, astronomy, rhetoric, higher mathematics and Latin, he was put in charge of the astronomy class as student-teacher. This was a traditional honor for such a brilliant scholar.
During his sojourn in Avignon, Michel's devout young mind absorbed more impressions than merely those of academic training. The city was under the dominion of the papacy, as it had been from early days. Religion was emphasized here, as at Rome, by the Church as joint administrator of both the secular and spiritual government. The huge, ancient palace of the popes, though falling into disrepair, was still a potent symbol of this power, and dominated the activities of the town with its brooding, sightless stare. To Michel, it seemed to be forever waiting, somberly watching from dusty windows for the return of its holy tenant. Sometimes the boy watched the moon rise over the enormous pile, making it mysterious with shadows and silver. He thought of it, too, when he walked at sunset near the beautiful church of Notre Dame des Doms, and looked up to the Virgin of the Western Tower, whose famous statue was gold-sheathed like the gods in grandfather's story. At such
times a strange feeling would come over him. A feeling of return. As if the popes some day really might come back to Avignon.
He knew by heart the history of the Avignon popes. How the German Emperor had bedeviled Clement V until he had removed himself to Avignon to be free of interference. How this had led eventually to the Great Schism in which three factions had claimed the papal election. How another German Emperor, Sigismund, had then called a great conference that deposed the false popes and then ratified the Emperor's choice, Martin Colonna, the Pope who healed the schism. Could such a terrible situation ever come about again, the boy wondered. Could there be rulers again in Germany who would do wicked things to religion? Would the Holy Father then return to Avignon? And if he did, might it not be that a French monarch would on this new occasion restore peace to God's Vicar? If a new schism ever arose, not Germany but France, he hoped, would name the new Martin Colonna. Half dreams and questions, these, that were to haunt him until the maturity of his mystical vision should give him the answers after many years.
The Centuries contain an impressive and detailed block of quatrains dealing with the prophesied return, under persecution, of the schismatic pattern within the Church, and he foresees rhapsodically that a great French monarch will restore a pope to his power in Rome, after Germany had been defeated by France.
[paragraph continues] He foretells that Avignon will be for a time the headquarters of this king in his struggle to re-establish the monarchy and the exiled papacy.
Many verses elaborate this situation and the election of "The Great Shepherd," whom he calls "the new Colonna." These visions, though long distant from his time, held for him particular appeal and intimacy because of his Avignon boyhood.
When Michel returned to San Rémy after completing his humanities at Avignon, the next consideration in his life was the choice of a profession. He wanted to be an astronomer. To him astronomy was always the beloved science. But his father is said to have stepped on this idea. He desired naturally enough that Michel should be a doctor. In this field his distinguished family background would give him a send-off that would be almost a ready-made reputation in itself. Besides, there were always human ills to cure, and medicine offered a much more secure livelihood than did the far, bright face of the heavens. His father's arguments won the day. The opening of the new term saw Michel entered at the Faculté de Médecin in Montpellier, most famous university for scientific study in France.
When Michel passed through whichever of Montpellier's eleven gates, he no doubt carried in his light student's luggage some of the things that had been part of the professional equipment of his grandfather and may have been handed down from even older hands. Perhaps there was a surgeon's antique copper case complete with gleaming instruments. He would
have no chance to use these in Montpellier's new dissection amphitheater, for dissection was done by the professors, but there was a warm feeling in just having these with him. There also would have been a copper or pewter shaving bowl, very important since it was used for bleeding and shaving the patient, and many a doctor at that time rose to fame through the simple technique of bleeding and purging. And perhaps Michel had a carved wooden box or a leather pouch that his grandfather had used to hold the gold and silver coins that were his fees, and which Michel hoped would one day receive his, too.
The clear air and bright color of Montpellier wore a welcome contrast to gray Avignon. The city, for southern France, was quite modern, too, since it dated only from the eighth century. Michel knew, of course, the legend of its founding. Two sisters, young and lovely, so the story runs, once owned all the land on which the city stands. But they cared nothing for this life, and longed instead for the eternal bliss of heaven. Believing that this could best be secured by giving up possession that bound them to earth, they had turned over to the Church their vast lands. It was a macabre coincidence that the first anatomical dissection ever made in France was performed in Montpellier upon the bodies of two women. Perpetuating the legend, the hills of Big and Little Sister, Mons Puellarum, rise about Montpellier. Over them in season, woad spreads a carpet of cloudy blue, and scarlet berries glow in the
sun. In Michel's day, sheep browsed in leisurely contentment along their slopes.
Of a certainty, Michel's welcome at the university was a gracious one. Some of the professors had met his grandfathers; all had heard of them. Each teacher hoped that this promising student would enroll in his class. Professors then received no salary at Montpellier. Every student chose and paid his own masters. Naturally competition for pupils was keen among the faculty. The best-known and most popular teachers drew the largest classes, and, in consequence, made the most money. Not that money entered so much into the work of these distinguished men, but professors then as now had to live.
The Church was in active, executive control of the university. Pope Urban V had with high enthusiasm founded this college and made it his favorite project. Since his time it had grown enormously. Many buildings had been added, and the scope of instruction had broadened by taking advantage of new scientific advances. The university's latest cause for pride was its operating amphitheater, recently built and the first one in France. This was not used for operations on living persons, but only for the anatomical dissection of corpses. Yet so daring an innovation was it considered that it was the medical sensation of the moment.
This advance had been accomplished by the tireless efforts of Guillaume Rondelet, foremost anatomist in France and a devoté of the new Greek ideas which the
[paragraph continues] Renaissance was rapidly introducing. He was idolized at Montpellier and the focus of its most progressive student life. In a journal which Nostradamus kept in later years he eulogized particularly the names of three physicians who were on the staff of Montpellier. These were Guillaume Rondelet, Antoine Saporta, and Honoré Castelin. Presumably these were his teachers. Of this trio, the name of Rondelet still shines with undimmed brilliance on the scientific roster of France as a great pioneer anatomist and naturalist. A man of dynamic enthusiasm and daring courage, he would have drawn Michel like steel to a magnet, and in return would have opened his heart to this unusual student.
A gentle, devout man was Doctor Rondelet, yet vivid too in his ability to dramatize his subjects. Everything he said and did was an exciting expression of the new scientific spirit, and his sacrificial devotion to science had but recently been put to proof. When the amphitheater was opened, Doctor Rondelet had found it all but impossible to procure corpses for dissection. The ban against this had been lifted, but prejudice and superstition were still a powerful handicap. Death took the doctor's son at this time, and in order that knowledge might increase for the saving of others’ lives, he had given the body of his son, and had himself performed the dissection before the students in the new hall at Montpellier.
"We have come a long way," he told Michel, "from the days when Charles of Anjou granted this university
permission to dissect one corpse a year--and that had to be the corpse of a criminal!"
"Who would have died of hanging, instead of some disease which needed study," Michel observed.
"Exactly. Now we have won freedom to experiment on broader lines. But much more important, science has gained a new approach. Mark you, we do not know any more yet than our ancestors, but thanks to Aristotle we are learning how to go after knowledge, how to observe and study facts--that is what will carry medicine forward."
"You have made a splendid beginning, sir." The young man praised him with formal respect.
"Ah, wait till I get my botanical garden! That is what I am after now. It is what we must have next. More study of the properties of plants, better distillation of essences, and experimentation with rare herbs. If only King Francis were less set on clouting Charles of Austria, and more interested in saving Frenchmen's lives it would be the better for France. I have beseeched him for funds for a plant-garden, but he, forsooth, needs the money for his troops and his new châteaux."
Rondelet did not live to see his dream of a botanical garden for Montpellier come true. But due directly to his efforts, it was eventually realized through the generous gift of that "son of Egypt" as Nostradamus unkindly called Henry IV.
"At least you will agree, sir, that the King has done a fine thing in opening the study of the Greek language
to the public in his new Collège de France.
"Yes. And we need direct translations terribly. These second-hand Latin manuscripts are a mass of errors. But it will take time. We have to wait now for Greek scholars to be trained, then wait some more for translations to be made. And there is so much to be done!"
"But think you not, Doctor Rondelet, that it is more than a mere change of schools, more than the difference between Greek and Arab medicine? May not the fresh stirring in men's minds develop knowledge that even the Greeks did not have?"
"Of course I think so. And I can foresee trends which may take a hundred, five hundred, years to work out. Sometimes when I think of it, I feel like Moses on Mount Nebo. I shall not enter the promised land of science, but I have seen it from afar and found it glorious. Which reminds me, I shall let you read my new monograph on poisons, Michel. I have just completed it, and it contains material not heretofore presented. It is a case in point. My colleagues will say it is too radical, but the next generation will use it, surpass it, and then it will be old-fashioned. And that is as it should be."
This manuscript, like many others, its use long past, sleeps today on a library shelf. But its preservation records one among the early, patient steps on the long road which Rondelet foresaw.
The coming of the Renaissance had thrown the practice of medicine into a turmoil of transition from Arabic to Greek methods. Galen, Hippocrates and
[paragraph continues] Aristotle were the new gods, but the dissemination of their ideas was at first badly handicapped by an almost total ignorance of the Greek language, and extreme prejudice in many quarters against its teaching. A fight over the latter was then raging in Paris. Francis I had just established the liberal Collège de France which offered the first public instruction in Greek and Hebrew given in France. The Sorbonne promptly let out fanatical howls of horror and threats of hell to those who studied there, claiming that he who studied Hebrew became a Jew and he who learned Greek was a heretic. In spite of such protests the new learning gained steadily under royal patronage. Montpellier was always in the forefront of liberal thought, but echoes of the bitter quarrel and the persecution of independent scholars reached its halls. Michel, the student, had his attention directed for the first time, hearing of all this, to the hazards with which liberal scholarship could be faced. Anything, he saw, might happen to it from division within the ranks of scholars or hostile authority without. Later he was to experience this in his own work, with jealousy and intolerance toward himself as a physician, and his strange kind of knowledge.
As prophet, he perceived the danger that either a too reactionary or a too revolutionary authority could and would bring to such men as himself, and to such institutions as Montpellier. He foresaw no end to these recurring perils when he later wrote:
Memories of the Inquisition, the French Revolution, of great men from Galileo to Einstein crowd to confirm this prophecy. Montpellier suffered in 1792 when its proud Chair of Royal Anatomist and Dissector, which Rondelet's work had established, was suppressed during the Revolution.
Student life in Montpellier was gay, delightful and cosmopolitan. Youths from all over France and from other countries were attracted to its famous universities. Besides its native southern hospitality, Montpellier was expert through long experience in the art of entertaining. Through its gates there was a constant passing to and fro of notables. Prelates, nobles, politicians and scientists who came there were greeted with civic celebrations of simplicity or elaborateness in
keeping with the importance of the guest. The festivities included much Latin oratory which was probably as dull as are public speeches today. After that, there had always to be a gala procession in this pageant-conscious land. The students took prominent part in these festivals, which were colorful, and sometimes exciting when some great personage honored the city. Montpellier celebrated with a grand procession the fame of one of her most celebrated students, Rabelais. But it was five hundred years after he had died, when for a day the old town revived the full bloom of its sixteenth-century pageantry. Pictures of this occasion describe all of the bright processions in which he once kept lithe step.
It needs little imagination to visualize Michel or Rabelais in the spirited ranks of marching students which led off the procession. Behind them walked the archers, town lads who made Montpellier famous as the sporting center of military archery. Then came arquebusiers and halberdiers, weaponed and wearing the tin hats of their day. Then pretty, dark-eyed girls swung their wide skirts down the tortuous street, lifting flower-entwined arches in the Provençal trellis dance. Nobles and town-fathers rode on horseback, the feathers, jewels and velvets of the lords set off by the sober richness of the councilors’ attire. Scattered through the procession moved the heralds, musicians piping gay airs, and dark-frocked chanting monks. Last, and looking very like a calliope, was the grand car of honor drawn by six horses. Seated aloft in pomp
was the guest, with the high dignitaries of Church, State and the university.
Michel had all too short a time to enjoy his student days. He was only twenty-one when a plague broke out in horrible virulence, devastating most of southern France. The Faculté de Médecin for the second time in its long history was forced to close its doors, as were all of the other schools in Montpellier.
What kind of plague it was is uncertain. Those early scourges were of many types, and medicine has little identification for many of them. It may have been, as Forman thinks, the black plague. Or it may have been the mysterious "sweating sickness" which attacked England a few years later when Henry VIII was courting Anne Boleyn. Whatever the nature of these epidemics, the dread word "plague" covered them all. This one appeared in the wake of the brief invasion by the Constable de Bourbon, and is supposed to have been carried by his troops. It swept the countryside like a devil's hurricane of agony and death. So furiously did the Horseman of the plague ride the countryside that burial could not keep pace with him. Unburied corpses lay in the houses and in the streets. So great was the frenzy of terror that gripped the people and so swift the mortality, that many, at the least touch of sickness, robed themselves in shrouds and disposed themselves for death, so that when it came they should not be bereft of this last decency.
The doctors were helpless; some of them as terrified as the victims; others, men of great-hearted courage,
died like those they tended, heroic martyrs to the ignorance of the times. Literally nothing was known about these plagues, and the same treatment was given for all of them. Some of the medical men were beginning to get a glimmering of ideas that were the ancestors of modern technique, but they lacked the knowledge to develop them effectively.
They had figured out that contagion was spread by touch or carried through the air. To protect themselves, they wore extra clothing, plugged the nose with cotton and wore goggles, which were in a way the forerunner of the modern mask. They understood the need for prophylaxis, but all they had were "protective" oils with which they soaked their shirts. Garlic, long known for its purifying properties, was used extensively, but without the least intelligence or information as to its powers. There were no arrangements for isolating victims, and incense was burned to keep down the all-pervading stench of putrefaction. Conditions were exactly the same as when Thucydides wrote his description of the plague at Athens which, he said, killed as many through fear as through infection, because people knew that there was no medical help for the stricken.
Such was the awful scourge against which Michel de Nostradame, just attained to manhood, elected to wage single-handed combat. It was the first of three such battles he would fight, winning victories that are unique in the annals of medicine. But how he accomplished
it is a mystery more profound than any contained in his writings.
It is strange that he, a junior medical student, ever thought in the first place that he could cure where the most famous doctors failed. But he did think so, and he had the courage to back his theories. He dared not try these out under the notice of the city doctors who would have stepped on such presumption quickly. He went out into the stricken countryside, where doctors were few or none. He took his rosy cheeks and vital, stimulating personality into the hovels and villages, dispensing remedies that were his own idea. Where he treated, Death withdrew. Devotedly, fearlessly, with the untiring strength of youth he travelled the roads of southern France; to Carcassonne, Nîmes, Toulouse, Narbonne, and west to Bordeaux he went his patient, unswerving way. News spread slowly then, and such news as this was unbelievable. Yet gradually and sensationally the word went out. A young man was curing--yes, curing the plague!
Wherever people who heard of him and could reach his services they did. He was overwhelmed with work. The plague was an exceedingly stubborn one. Its duration was four years, and its cost a multitude of lives. Through all that tragic period Michel fought it, using his skill and energies without stint or thought of self. When, in the course of time, the scourge wore itself out against the immunity of those who had survived, Michel had achieved a reputation that was already
legendary. Wherever he went, flowers were strewn in his path, gifts and invitations were pressed on him in cottage and château. Everyone wanted to know this wonder-working student, and thousands had cause to bless his name in gratitude.
How did he do it? No one knows. Definitely not with use of his supernormal gift which had not developed at this time. Besides, medicine and the psychic world were to him always two separate fields, and in medicine he was all scientist. It may be that, due to the influence and opinions of his grandfathers, Michel had not then abandoned (nor ever did wholly) Arabic ideas of medicine. He may have had access to rare Arabic prescriptions, which had come down from his ancestors or via travelers at King René's court. The East was old in plagues and civilization when the West was dressing in skins. Little of what they knew medically ever reached the West, but the crusaders saw their marvels.
But if his remedies came from this source, or from whatever kind of knowledge, they must have been of exceedingly simple nature, easily procurable in quantity, and at little or no cost. There is only one place he could have sought supplies like this, the woods and meadows of Earth. The answer could only be that he found some herb or combination of herbs which suited his need and wrought his miracle.
A legend has come down that he effected his cures with a compound of lapis lazuli and gold. Where would a young student without means have procured
these costly minerals, especially in quantity for four years’ work, most of which was charity? Such a story is the product of an alchemistic imagination.
Michel, the student, had as yet no right to practice medicine, except under the stress of such an emergency as the plague. He had no diploma, and must now, after this four-year interval in which he had become a celebrity, return to Montpellier to stand his final examinations. The required course there was six years. It is probable that he had been there for about two when the epidemic broke out. His four years of field work with his brilliant handling of the plague would be credited to him, provided he passed the final tests, which were very rigid.
He returned a spectacular popular hero, the focus of so much attention and interest that it is said his examinations were held in public, and a crowd came to see and hear. Examinations at Montpellier were always exciting, because they were oral. The faculty and representatives of the Church gathered in one of the large churches which the university owned. All present fired questions, as searching and inclusive as possible, and woe to the student who knew not the answers. It is said that Michel defended his thesis with vigor and brilliance in this long drawn-out, important ordeal. When all the questions were answered and he was pronounced worthy, he was formally invested with "the four-cornered hat, the ermine-trimmed robe, the golden girdle and ring of the brotherhood of
[paragraph continues] Hippocrates." From henceforth he is Doctor de Nostradame.
In Michel's graduating class was Jacques Dubois, or Sylvius, as he chose to be known in the fashion of the day. He soon was to become the foremost anatomist in Paris and to advance the knowledge of the human body with distinguished contributions. He was fifty-one years old when he received his degree, side by side with the prodigy of twenty-six. His fellow students no doubt pitied the plodding old boy, starting so late. Yet both he and Nostradamus were in their different ways conquerors of time. One was to look through time, the other ignored age. Both rose to greatness.
Doctor de Nostradame had planned to leave Montpellier after his graduation. But the students, wild over this new idol, demanded him for their teacher. The institution was pleased to have such a drawing-card on the faculty, though he was very young to be given such a coveted post.
Perhaps he did not realize when he assumed this responsibility how much of a strain the past four years had been, and how restless it had made him. He had made dangerous, strenuous efforts in the period when most young men are enjoying life to the full. It came over him that he too wanted freedom to enjoy himself. He did not want to teach. He wanted to travel. He informed the faculty that he was giving up his post. He had no plans, only to be footloose, to go where inclination led him. Regretfully his colleagues and students saw him go, wondering how he could bring himself
to toss away so casually a position which not a scientist in all France but would have been proud to occupy. Unlike Rabelais, he never returned to Montpellier to do further work. The strangeness of his development tended to separate him more and more from its strictly hedged fields of thought. Yet Montpellier was proud of him, as she was of her errant Rabelais. She treasured the memory of both the sinner and the wizard. The worn cap and old gown of Rabelais, shabby with much trudging and trotting, hung on the wall at his alma mater, and were pointed out to visitors. And on their register they showed, up to the time of the Revolution, the prized signature of Nostradamus, with the date October 23, 1529.