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Good Skeptics

by Guy Lyon Playfair

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Ian Wilson on Nostradamus

Historian Ian Wilson submits Nostradamus to some very thorough sceptical study and reaches some surprising conclusions.
There can be few whose writings have been quoted, misquoted, debunked and even faked so often and so long after their death as those of the French physician, astrologer and prophet Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566), better known by his Latinised surname of Nostradamus. Whenever there is a momentous event such as the death of President Kennedy or Princess Diana or the destruction of the World Trade Center, we can be sure that one of his numerous supposedly precognitive quatrains will be resurrected as evidence that he saw it all coming nearly 500 years ago.

There are all kinds of problems facing the critic who attempts to come up with a fair and balanced assessment of this enigmatic prognosticator. His ‘prophecies’ tended to avoid specific names, places and dates, and a sceptical critic can reasonably claim that he made so many of them (942, no less) that sooner or later one of them would be bound to correspond to something that happened somewhere or other even centuries later.

Then there is the question of primary sources, which is what professional historians like to work with. These are not always easy to find in this case. The most important sources are the annual almanacs Nostradamus published until shortly before his death, some of which only exist today in single copies scattered around several European libraries or in inaccessible private hands. These have to be distinguished from the many fake almanacs that appeared under his name even during his lifetime, and continued to appear well after it.

There are also the horoscopes he did for his wealthy patrons, some still unpublished, and who knows what might yet emerge from the attic of the former home of some member of the 16th century great and good? There were several of them who were sufficiently convinced by Nostradamus’ abilities to contribute to his considerable fortune.

To make sense of the Nostradamian muddle calls for the skills of a proper historian who approaches the subject with an open mind and knows how to separate wheat from chaff after trawling through the available primary sources. Ian Wilson, an Oxford graduate in Modern History, has done this very convincingly in his Nostradamus - The Evidence (2002). He makes his position clear in his Preface:

“Books about Nostradamus are mostly written by so-called ‘Nostradamians’ convinced that [he] had a genuine prophetic gift. Or by born-again sceptics like James Randi utterly determined to rubbish that idea. I belong to neither camp.”

His own book came to be written after his publisher wrote, a few days after the events of September 11th, 2001, complaining that he couldn’t find ‘a book on Nostradamus which looks objectively at the man, his times, his books, his prophecies and the psychology of why his prophecies are still rolled out (witness the last few days…)’ and asked if this was ‘something that might attract you?’

His initial reaction was a firm ‘No’, as he was reluctant to enter what he considered ‘crank territory’. But a commission is something only very rich authors can afford to ignore, so Wilson embarked on ‘a highly intensive period of getting to know Nostradamus’ with a wide-open mind. What he discovered was proof of Kepler’s claim, in his Tertius Interveniens (1610) that ‘the diligent hen will find the golden kernel in the rotting dunghill’ and should not ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’.

Wilson has little time for much of the Nostradamian dunghill which is a pile of misquotations, false associations, unwarranted assumptions and wild speculations, yet he also gives Randi’s venture into historical and literary criticism, The Mask of Nostradamus (1990) fairly short shrift. For example, Randi’s claim, on the basis of an anonymous article he supposedly found in the New York Public Library, that no copy of the 1555 Prophecies exists, is ‘blown to smithereens’ by the fact that at least two copies have survived, in libraries in Vienna and Albi. A photo of the title page of the Albi copy on page 81 of Wilson’s book settles that argument. Wilson gives other examples of how Randi’s ‘supposedly myth-busting’ book introduced ‘myths entirely of his own making’.

He also gives examples of well-sourced ‘golden kernel’ prophecies that unquestionably did come true, such as those of the death of King Henri II in a jousting contest, the Great Fire of London (1666) and perhaps most persuasively of all, those contained in the lengthy and detailed horoscope that Nostradamus did for mining magnate Hans Rosenberger. Wilson rates this as ‘uncannily accurate’ even down to such details as his prediction that his client’s miners would meet a ghost in the mine which would scare them stiff which, Rosenberger confirmed, indeed they did.

This is sceptical investigation as it should be, and it reminds us that while there are plenty of bad sceptics around, there are also good ones with no axes to grind who reach their conclusions only after careful examination of the evidence.

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