A glance on the Internet reveals that Peter Lemesurier has written many books in the paranormal field, with titles such as The Healing of the Gods, Gods of the Dawn, Message of the Pyramids and The Great Pyramid Decoded. So when I received this book for review I assumed, reflecting my own prejudices, that it would be another fairly uncritical rehash of the 'prophecies', explaining how they predicted spectacular events, which somehow always seem to have just happened.
How wrong I was, and I now wonder if my assumptions about the titles of Mr Lemesurier's other books may be similarly flawed. This is the best sceptical book about Nostradamus I have read. Because it is written by someone who seems to fully understand both the historical Nostradamus and the modern myth, it reveals the man and critiques the myth far more effectively than more obviously 'skeptical' titles such as James Randi's seriously flawed and very superficial Mask of Nostradamus. This was reviewed in Magonia 47 by Roger Sandell, who concludes his notice: "It is a pity therefore that [Randi's] book has done the sceptical cause little service". [Link here]
Lemesurier's book is not intended to promote any cause. It starts by exploding many of the myths that have grown up around Nostradamus's life: his family were not physicians; he was not a doctor; he was not educated at Montpellier University; he was not an astrologer (at least not a competent one); nor did he cure the plague at Aix-en-Provence. Lemesurier takes us step-by-step through Nostradamus's recorded history, uncovering a life just as strange as the accepted myth, but revealing the historical figure to be far more of a chancer and opportunist than an idealistic prophet.
Nostradamus himself denied that he was a prophet, so what was behind his books of enigmatic verses? Well it appears that in many cases the answer is printing errors. I was not aware that at the time of the original publication of the The Centuries it was the custom for the author of a book, or his amanuensis, to actually read out the manuscript to the printer, who would hand-set the type to this dictation, thus allowing all sorts of errors to creep in. In one case the meaning of a quatrain seems to have been changed totally by the compositor hearing the word dehors as d'or, and other examples are quoted.
Lemesurier looks in some detail at specific quatrians which have been claimed as prophecies of events such as 9/11, the Second World War, the Great Fire of London, the death of Princess Diana, and the French Revolution, explaining, by reference to the original texts, how these actually relate to events in Nostradamus's own lifetime or earlier.
Another issue which Lemesurier explores is whether the verses are actually intended as prophecies from Nostradamus's own hand. The claim that they are prophecies is dependent on the assumption that the title of the work, Les Propheties de M. Michel Nostradamus means 'The Prophecies of Michael Nostradamus'. There is at least an element of ambiguity here, as it could equally mean 'The Prophecies by Michael Nostradamus'. In other words a collection of prophecies from different sources, compiled by him.
To a considerable extent this seems to be the case, because many of the quatrains are in fact reworkings of prophecies by figures such as Plutarch, Virgil, Livy and other Classical writers. Lemesurier suggests that Nostradamus's 'bibliomantic' technique was largely based on the principle of 'what goes around comes around'; that past events would be repeated in the future, and that any previous prophecy would eventually come true again. In a way, Lemesurier suggests, Nostradamus did not actually believe in the future.
The major part of this book (pages 90 to 274) are given over to a verse-by-verse analysis of The Centuries pointing out difficulties with translations, the possible misprints and mishearings, the use of words and changes in meaning, and importantly idenfiying the original source of the prophecy which Nostradamus has recycled. This is a detailed and scholarly analysis, and the reader is helped immeasurably by the CD accompanying this volume, which presents facsimiles of the original printed sources including the 1555 edition, a 1568 edition, a 1668 Dutch edition, and other original texts.
This is a fascinating and refreshing new look at what has become a well-worn topic. -- John Rimmer