Mask of Nostradamus

James Randi. The Mask of Nostradamus, Prometheus, 1993.

James Randi's enlightening exposés of Uri Geller and other paranormalists were based not solely on his own stage experiences; however he is not a historian, and his sceptical study of Nostradamus is poorly organised, and not very informative.

Much of it consists of a biography of Nostradamus with historical background. Unfortunately this includes some not very relevant digressions on matters such as 16th century medicine, while omitting some important areas. Reasonably, he looks at 16th century astrology to find some of the background for Nostradamus's prophetic writings, but does not consider other important influences.

Although there are many astrological references in the writings of Nostradamus, these are certainly not the full story. His prophecies are frequently very obscure, unlike the astrological almanacs of the period which are for the most part fairly clear, whether or not their contents turned out to be accurate. The style of many of the Nostradamus four line prophetic verses is more like that of the spurious prophetic verses attributed to figures of the past that circulated widely in the 16th and 17th centuries. These frequently employing cryptic images and names. They were also influenced by contemporary ideas on the apocalyptic passages on the Bible, which were rather different from their modern equivalents.

While modern fundamentalists anticipate the dictatorship of the Anti-Christ, and anticipate nuclear war followed by the return of Christ, their 16th century counterparts viewed matters more optimistically. The persecutions and religious wars of the Reformation had already fulfilled the Biblical prophecies of tribulation, with Martin Luther or the Papacy (depending on the preferences of the interpreter) as the Anti-Christ. The way was clear for the appearance of the messianic king (not then identified with Christ) who would reunite Christendom, convert the Jews, conquer the Holy Land and institute a reign of righteousness, culminating in the return of Christ at a very indefinite future date. While Randi notes that Nostradamus incorrectly predicted a long a glorious reign for his sovereign Henri II, he does not note that this was because of his expectation that Henri would play the Messianic role.

Generally, Randi seems poorly informed about the history of Nostradamus interpretation. He has a chapter on the use of Nostradamus for World War II propaganda, which seems largely based on earlier writers such as Ellic Howe, and omits such interesting details as the piece on Nostradamus in the fake edition of the Evening Standard dropped by the Luftwaffe on London in early 1940. He claims that some World War II Nostradamus quatrains forged by the intelligence services of both sides are still quoted by believers. This claim is simply untrue. German propagandists did not forge any quatrains, merely applied dubious interpretations. The one spurious quatrain was perpetrated by British intelligence and is hardly likely to be quoted by believers since it foretells Hitler being assassinated in his sleep.

(Incidentally, Randi also repeats the claim of the Nazi's interest in the cosmic catastrophe theories of Hans Horbinger, an oft-quoted story for which I have yet to see any primary documentation.)

Beyond this he almost totally ignores the rest of the history of Nostradamus interpretation, although it is a very important area of the subject. Modern belief in Nostradamus is largely based on 19th century French commentaries that were for the most part works of clerical-monarchist propaganda that used Nostradamus to denounce the iniquities of Napoleons I and III, and foretold a glorious future for the then claimant to the French throne, the Comte de Chambord, who many Royalists saw as a near messianic figure. Many later books have simply copied these interpretations, while omitting any discussion of the original context. Similarly, many interpretations relating to English history are copied from an earlier 18th century commentary by 'D.D.' (Doctor of Divinity, or even possibly Daniel Defoe?) which is a propaganda work in favour of the Hanoverian dynasty, produced at the time of the 1715 Rebellion.

It is not until page 162 of 223 pages that Randi gets down to considering the quatrains themselves in any detail. Of nearly a thousand he simply gives us a detailed look at ten, making very heavy weather of the detail, without adding much to the sceptical analysis contained in Edgar Leoni's Nostradamus: Life and Literature which, although thirty years old, remains the definitive serious study (Erika Cheetham one of the more recent Nostradamus believers, does not scruple to copy entire paragraphs from Leoni practically verbatim).

Randi seems impressed by the work of a recent commentator, Everett Bleiler, who has attempted to relate the prophecies to the politics of the period and argues that many of them can be related to then contemporary concerns, and in some cases to events which had already happened when they first appeared. While this argument has a lot of merit, Randi and Bleiler weaken their case by resorting to some interpretations that seem just as forced as those of the believers.

By concentrating on a small number of the prophecies Randi misses the opportunities to make a sceptical case by ignoring many quite explicit and totally incorrect Nostradamus prophecies, such as the election of a villainous monk from Campania as Pope in 1609 (Paul IV reigned from 1605 to 1625). He also misses the chance to identify the recurring themes of the prophecies, such as a new crusade against the Moslems, an English bid to reconquer France, and a period of violence in England leading to the death of a king (he was right in the last case, of course, but since the twenty years immediately before Nostradamus wrote had seen a number of revolts in England, this was perhaps not sticking his head out. to far)

Randi's reliability is also undermined by some historical errors. At one point he speaks of the 16th century rivalry between France and Italy, although Italy did not exist as a political unit until the 19th century. Discussing another prophecy, alleged to relate to the invention of the balloon, he states that Napoleon was the first person to realise their military potential. In fact he had a low opinion of their value and discontinued experiments that had been made with balloons by the earlier French Revolutionary armies.

Discussing another quatrain which believers have related to the French Revolutionary era Randi states that the Comte de Narbonne was so obscure that "his name appears nowhere in the many history books I have consulted". I don't know which books he looked in, but I found the Comte in the first book I consulted - he was Minster of War, hardly an obscure position.

With a well-know quatrain predicting some kind of obscure disaster for July 1999, we may well be in for a new wave of interest in Nostradamus. It is a pity therefore that this book has done the sceptical cause little service. -- Reviewed by Roger Sandell

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