Portrait de Nostradamus
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The ´Janus hypothesis´ :
its possible role both
in ´correcting´ the texts of Nostradamus’s Prophecies
and in amplifying his personal biography

par Peter Lemesurier

   As regular visitors to this forum and readers of my books will probably have realised by now, I have of recent years, in the light of steadily accumulating evidence, come to adopt an approach to Nostradamus’s Prophecies that could probably best be summed up as follows:

(a) Point of departure

   My considered impression, after studying most of his available output and publishing extensively on it, is that Nostradamus was a fairly typical Renaissance scholar, no clearer-headed than most of them were, who at a worrying time in history was simply trying to gain some insight into the future by applying what I term the Janus hypothesis - i.e. by looking back into the past for possible clues to it (history, prophecies etc.), just as many of them were also doing (from Joachim to Lichtenberger to Roussat to Columbus) - and who wrote on at least four occasions that he didn’t himself claim to be a prophet. On that basis, I then propose the following basic principles.

(b) Basic principles

   1. That Nostradamus’s verses were normally dictated aloud to the compositor by an assistant, as Brind’Amour proposes (apparently on good authority1), and as a whole variety of printing oddities tend to confirm. [See illustration below.]

   2. That the sound of the words, considered in close conjunction with the typical structure of vers commun at the time (e.g. syllable-count, rhyme, caesura), is consequently at least as important as the actual letters and punctuation2, not least because printers had their own spelling conventions at the time, and because the evidence of the Orus Apollo manuscript suggests that, in conformity with perfectly usual contemporary handwriting practice, Nostradamus himself didn’t actually bother to punctuate or accent his verses at all (compare various manuscript letters in other hands dating from the period).

   1. That, equally consequently, there is no future (literally!) in playing games with the actual letters, since there is no guarantee that they are the exact ones that Nostradamus originally wrote.

   2. That most of Nostradamus’s Prophecies are, in accordance with my proposed ´Point of Departure´ above, based on earlier originals - whether they be biblical prophecies, historical events or actual historical documents - and thus reflect known events some of whose expected future recurrences, under the terms of what in his Preface he would call ´perpetual (i.e. cyclic) prophecies´3, Nostradamus then attempted to ´time´ with the aid of the cycles of astrology. (The basic suggestion of historical antecedents has a long pedigree traceable back all the way from the somewhat wayward Prévost, through Brind’Amour and Dumézil, to remote antecedents dating from as early as the 1700s: indeed, even Nostradamus’s secretary Chavigny seems to have associated the name ´Janus´ with him, though in a different sense.)

   3. That identifying those original sources, far from being a kind of ´debunking´ of Nostradamus as a prophet, can actually help determine the intended context of each verse, and thus its intended meaning, given that the meaning of any linguistic utterance is always, by its very nature, heavily dependent on the context in which it is made and to which it is intended to apply.

   4. That Nostradamus may not have objected to his verses’ application to entirely different future contexts, as his famous letter to Jean de Vauzelles of 18th April 1561 concerning quatrain III.55 confirms4 (hence their deliberately vague wording), but

   5. that, while Nostradamus himself was quite prepared to ´tweak´ his verses retrospectively to make them ´fit´ those contexts5 (unless, of course, the celebrated case of quatrain III.55 was merely a lapse of memory on his part), we owe it to ourselves to be rather more honest and accurate about it.

   6. That it should consequently be assumed that, generally speaking (e.g. except where there are clearly-signalled anagrams, terms borrowed from classical times etc.) Nostradamus means exactly what he says in the language of the day, and in the sense indicated by the original event or text on which he is basing himself. It therefore follows

   7. that the true ´meaning´ of any particular verse cannot be determined by its random application to subsequent events, as is the usual practice (since most of his verses are so vague and lacking in conventional syntax that one can often twist them to mean almost anything one likes!), but only by identifying the original source-event or document and reading it in that sense.

   8. Whether, on this basis, Nostradamus was ever ´right´ or not is a question that I think I would rather leave to others, though I have to say that his prophetic record in his annual Almanachs doesn’t look too promising to me, any more than it does in his celebrated analysis of Crown Prince Rudolph Maximilian’s birth-chart.6

Imprimerie au XVIe siècle

Engraving of a contemporary print shop. Basically a strip cartoon, this should be read clockwise from the bottom right-hand corner, where the owner indicates with his right hand the beginning of the printing process. An apprentice (centre foreground, with mouth open) dictates the author’s text aloud to the compositor (with his back to him). As each frame is completed, a copy is drawn off by hand (see ink-pads bottom left) and a proof reader (next to compositor) checks it (though not necessarily with the author’s copy) before passing it on to a second compositor (left) who makes up the pages into full-size folios of 8 or 16 with the assistance of a second proof reader. Once complete, these are inked and printed manually, one sheet at a time, to the number of the required print-run, before being hung up to dry. The loose pages are then handed back to the owner for binding, which is done elsewhere, or possibly even by the customer himself. With a mere couple of presses being the norm, and only enough type required for a couple of folios at a time in a variety of styles, printing was virtually a cottage industry - whence the huge number of Lyon printing-houses at the time.

   Recent work on a variety of quatrains from the Prophecies in collaboration with my colleague Gary Somai has thrown up some interesting - and sometimes unexpected - results of applying these principles. In the original 1555 text (Albi copy), for example, quatrain I.30 reads:

La nef estrange par le tourment marin
Abourdera pres de port incongneu,
Nonobstant signes de rameau palmerin
Apres mort, pille: bon avis tard venu.

   Gary Somai’s remarkable documentary research eventually revealed that this was probably based in general terms on Grynaeus and Huttich’s Novus Orbis Regionum ac Insularum Veteribus Incognitarum, detailing the voyages of Columbus and other contemporary explorers, and published in Paris in 1532. In particular, on arriving in Hispaniola in 1493, Columbus had discovered that the entire garrison that he had left at Navidad on Hispaniola at the end of his first expedition had been massacred during his absence. In revenge for their deaths, two of his subordinates, Alonso de Ojeda and Pedro Margarit, then attacked them and took many slaves, apparently with Columbus’s connivance. Nevertheless, he remained convinced that he had discovered China, and made his companions sign a declaration to that effect. It was only later that the realisation dawned on others that the orient lay much further on, beyond yet another ocean. The main points of this seem to be reflected in the verse, albeit telegrammatically (as was Nostradamus’s wont!).

   On top of that, the explorer’s log entry for 26th May 1494, on entering Cuba’s Bay of Pigs during the same expedition, reads: ´No people appeared, but there were signs of their presence in cut-down palms´ - a statement that appears to be reflected directly in Nostradamus’s otherwise puzzling third line. But this in turn would suggest that Nostradamus himself had seen a version of those logs - which is not something that has hitherto been known to us.

   In a proposed update for my Nostradamus : The Illustrated Prophecies (O Books, 2003), I have therefore felt able to suggest the translation:

The foreign ship from o’er the raging sea
At port unknown shall land from out the main
´Spite palm-fronds´ signs of man’s propinquity.
After death, pillage: later, they’ll think again !

   with the explanatory phrase ´of man’s propinquity´ (an admitted piece of ´poetic padding´ on my part!) made possible only by the identification of the source in terms of the ´Janus hypothesis´.

   And meanwhile, with this verse, we seem to have unearthed evidence that Nostradamus did, after all, refer to the Americas at least once in his prophecies - albeit probably not in quatrain X.66, whose word Americh at the end of line 1 seems to be a misprint, given that it fails to rhyme with antechrist at the end of line 3.

   Indeed, there is at least one other quatrain that seems to refer to the Americas. Quatrain V.14 states, in the original September 1557 text:

Saturne & Mars en leo Espaigne captifve,
Par chef lybique au conflict attrapé:
Proche de Malthe, Heredde prinse vive,
Et Romain sceptre sera par coq frappé.

   This verse has not unreasonably been associated by Robert Benazra and others with the capture by the Turks of Don Juan de Heredia, Master of the Knights of St John in Malta, in 1378. It has to be said, however, that the events do not make a good fit. Further documentary research now suggests, in fact, that it actually refers back to the temporary imprisonment in Spain in 1535 of Don Pedro de Heredia, Founder and Governor of the port of Santa Marta in Colombia, for alleged embezzlement of Indian property. Both Saturn and Mars were, significantly, in Leo from early November until mid-December of that year. After the French took nearby Cartagena by surprise in 1543, he was again deposed and sent to Spain in a fleet which was lost at sea in 1555 off the African coast - though until this was established (the verse itself was presumably written between 1555 and 1557) it may well have been assumed that he had been captured by North African pirates.

   If this is the case, then the first phrase of line 3 should actually read Proche de Marthe, which then explains the unusual spelling of what has hitherto been supposed to be Malte - a spelling of the island’s name that is otherwise unknown in the Prophecies. Application of the ´Janus hypothesis´, in other words, has permitted us to correct the work of the printer, who is known to have been often completely at sea (as was Heredia, of course!) when it came to foreign place-names in particular.7

   This permitted the translation:

Saturn and Mars in Leo, held in Spain,
Caught by an Afric leader in a fight,
Near Marta shall Heredia live be ta’en
When Cock shall strike the Roman ruler's might.

   A further verse that has provided endless fascination for us has been the 1555 edition’s IV.7:

Le mineur filz du grand & hay prince,
De lepre aura à vingt ans grande tache:
De dueil sa mere mourra bien triste & mince.
Et il mourra la ou toumbe chet lache.

   At an early stage Somai proposed a possible backlink with King Henry IV of England - which immediately suggested a documentary source in one of the many versions of Froissart’s Chroniques and other documents describing at length the life and times of John of Gaunt (1340-99) and his family. Froissart relates in a long and famous passage the sad, lingering death of his mother Queen Philippa, and Gaunt himself was indeed disliked in England and hated in France, as the verse implies. Meanwhile his fourth son, the future Henry IV, is known to have suffered from a leprosy-like illness for most of his life. Indeed, he eventually died from it. It was at this point that the puzzling last three words - none of them in any known form of French as printed - seemed to ring a faint bell. If lache had something to do with la hache (certainly it isn’t, as is commonly assumed, the contemporary word lasche - as it stands, at least), then might not the whereabouts of the tomb (?) of the ´chief´ (?) who was hacked to death (?) be… the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury ?

   It was at this point that I suddenly noticed, with some astonishment, that Becket’s original French name (his ancestry was Norman) was actually there, staring out at me from the verse itself:

Et il mourra la ou toumBE CHET lache.

   This immediately suggested that what the printer was supposed to have printed was something like:

Et il mourra là où [mourut] Thom. Béchet [à] l[a h]ache

   The abbreviation Thom. may seem unlikely - yet it is precisely the abbreviation used in the original financial accounts of Becket’s shrine at Canterbury.

   And so where did Henry IV die? In fact he died at Westminster: but he was buried (as was his illustrious elder brother the Black Prince) near - you’ve guessed it! -Becket’s tomb in Canterbury cathedral! Perhaps, then, we can forgive some slight confusion on Nostradamus’s part as between where the man died and where he was buried?

   I was thus able to suggest the translation :

Of great and hated prince the lesser son
At twenty shall show signs of leprosy
(His grieving mother shall die sad and wan).
Where they to death hacked Becket, die shall he.

   And, once again, application of the ´Janus hypothesis´, allied to a realisation of the consequences of contemporary printing practices, had enabled a Nostradamian ´puzzle´ of long standing to be solved.

   What has recently fascinated Somai and myself in particular, however, has been a complex of verses that evidently refer to events in the 11th and 12th centuries of our era. Quatrain VI.41, for example -

Le second chef du regne Dannemarc,
Par ceulx de Frise & l’isle Britannique,
Fera despendre plus de cent mille marc,
Vain exploicter voyage en Italique.

   - clearly refers back to the celebrated pilgrimage of King Canute (Knut II of Denmark) to Rome in 1027, timed to coincide with the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. Moreover, given that IV.89 likewise associates him with Frisia (North Friesland in fact adjoins Denmark), it is pretty clear that this verse refers back to the same monarch’s coronation in London in 1016, following the rejection of Edmund by the majority of his nobles assembled at Southampton and his subsequent death:

Ttente [sic !] de Londres secret conjureront,
Contre leur roy sur le pont l’entreprise:
Luy, satalites la mort degousteront,
Un Roy esleu blonde, natif de Frize.

   - which, with degousteront equivalent to modern French dégusteront, I have therefore been able to translate as:

Thirty from London secretly lay schemes
By sea to act against their king anointed.
He and his henchmen death shall taste, it seems:
A Frieslander, a blond king is appointed.

   But there was more. When it came to I.87, VI.97 and II.16, it soon became clear that these referred back (a) to the first known lava eruption in 1036 of Mount Vesuvius, which overlooks Naples (Greek Neapolis = ´New City´), at a time when the Lombards of Capua and the Byzantine dukes of Naples were constantly at war over the city prior to the decisive intervention of the Normans; (b) to the Norman capture of Naples in 1139, the very year when the Annals also record an explosive eruption (just as line three describes) of nearby Vesuvius for 1-8 June; and (c) to the conquest of formerly Muslim Sicily from the Normans by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI in 1194.

   But how could Nostradamus possibly have known all this? There seemed to be little or no published literature on these events that was available to him at the time. The events of Canute’s reign were admittedly recorded in the 11th-century Gesta Cnutonis Regis, part of the Annales Bertiani, or Annals of St Bertin, which seem to have been fairly widely known. But those concerning the history of Sicily and the area around Naples were contained mainly in the Annales Cassini (the annals for the years 1000 to 1212 of the major Benedictine abbey and library of Monte Cassino, which had already served as a source for Dante’s Divina Commedia). Could this be evidence, then, that the future seer, like Dante, actually visited Monte Cassino during his known trip to Italy of 1547-9, in his case sniffing out the archives for any mention of major events that had apparently been signalled by ´omens´, and by volcanic eruptions in particular?

   If so, then the ´Janus hypothesis´ would actually cast unexpected light on some unknown aspects of Nostradamus’s life-story!

   True, there are some who will dispute all this. Not that there are any real problems with I.87. Its appositeness to the events of 1036 (including the idiomatic French expression faire la guerre aux rochers for ´to struggle fruitlessly´8, and the mention of Arethusa, Greek nymph of springs) is perfectly clear from my suggested translation:

Earth-shaking fires from the world’s centre roar:
Around ‘New City’ is the earth a-quiver.
Two nobles long shall wage a fruitless war,
The nymph of springs pour forth a new, red river.

   But the critics may insist that VI.97, which I have translated as

Latitude forty-five, the sky shall burn:
To great ´New City´ shall the fire draw nigh.
With vehemence the flames shall spread and churn
When with the Normans they conclusions try.

   cannot possibly refer to Naples - notwithstanding the clear mention of the Normans (a source of endless, embarrassed twistings by Americans who so dearly want the verse to refer to 9/11!) and the fact that Naples (Greek Neapolis, which actually means ‘New City’) sits in the very shadow of Vesuvius, which is self-evidently one of the world’s major sources of ´fire in the sky´. Naples, they will point out, is simply not on latitude forty-five (any more than is New York City, incidentally!). All the other details are so compelling, however, that it seems reasonable to conclude either that Nostradamus had a slight lapse of geographical memory when writing the verse (possibly confusing the data for Naples with the memorised latitude of Villanova d’Asti or, more likely, of Villeneuve-sur-Lot, both of whose names could likewise be read as meaning ´New City´) or that the initial phrase is in fact a not untypically Nostradamian version of Cinq- & quarante degrés (i.e. ´fif[ty minutes] and forty degrees´) - which would, as it happens, be correct for Naples.

   With II.16, similarly, critics may object that the verse cannot possibly refer back to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI’s conquest of formerly Muslim Sicily, because of the mention of Londres as contributing troops in line three - a city whose citizens were certainly never part of the Holy Roman Empire! Certainly its inclusion seems puzzling. Yet such puzzles should always prompt us to ask just what it was that the compositor might have heard before he inserted the apparently inappropriate piece of text. And once again the ´Janus hypothesis´ comes into play. As the Annals of Monte Cassino put it for 1194: ´After raising an army, the Emperor entered Italy in June. He prepared a fleet at Pisa and Genoa and, embarking, descended upon the kingdom. Everywhere surrendered to him apart from Atina and Roccaguglielmo…The Neapolitans had already surrendered by arrangement with the Pisans. The Emperor marched on and stormed Salerno... When they realised this, the people of Palermo acclaimed the emperor… He then made haste to Palermo, entered it with great magnificence and was welcomed at the palace´.

   What the compositor evidently misheard, in other words, was not de Londres, but de l’onde (a familiar Nostradamian term for the sea, or for water, from Latin unda). How else were the Emperor’s forces going to get to Sicily, after all, if not by sea?

   My proposed translation therefore reads:

Naples, Palermo, Sicilian Siracusa -
New rulers rule, fires flash aloft the sky:
A seaborne force from Gent, Brussels and Susa
Great games, a triumph, feasts for all supply.

   This prediction is presumably meant to be assimilated prophetically to the Mirabilis Liber’s well-known prediction of the eventual liberation of Europe from expected future Muslim occupiers (another documentary back-reference!), with the Holy Roman Empire once again seen as the eventual saviour, and with ´Susa´ included among the Empire’s important cities in line three more for its rhyming properties than anything else. The flashes of fire in the sky appear to be no more than celebratory fireworks, which indeed date from the time of the contemporary Crusades: compare the ´games, rites, feasts´ also mentioned in line 3 of VII.22. ´Tyrant´ was simply the original title of the rulers of Syracuse, as of many other ancient Greek city states, and we may assume that Nostradamus was well aware of this in respect of Sicily, despite his use of the term in its more modern sense in other contexts.

   Identification of the sources of the Prophecies, then, can reveal much to us that may not be apparent at first sight merely from a crude, uninformed reading of their words. True, there are dangers in this approach. They are the self-same dangers as beset those who would try to fit them to future events. There is the ever-present temptation to ‘tweak’ either the words or the events to fit. There is the indisputable fact that, if you change the context of your proposed application, this automatically changes the possible meanings of the words, too - and always, it seems, to your own advantage!

   Thus, it should never be a case of ´I am holding the prophecies hostage and torturing them until they say what I want them to say´. Nor should it be a case of ´Nostradamus means exactly what he says, except when he means what I want him to mean´. We are all more than familiar with such idiocies. But, in order to avoid committing exactly the same idiocies in respect of our proposed ´source-events´, we need to ensure (a) that the words and events, as analysed on the basis of the principles enunciated above, really do fit, without any arbitrary or unreasonable ´tweaking´, (b) that the events are ones that Nostradamus could reasonably have known about (which is by no means a foregone conclusion, of course, where future events are concerned!), (c) that books or documents detailing them were available to him at the time (a consideration that is certainly not applicable to future events!) and (d) that their texts are reflected, even if not necessarily verbatim, in his words.

   Given such precautions, we can reasonably use the ´Janus hypothesis´, combined with our knowledge of contemporary writing and printing practices, to shed new light on the historical and linguistic context of individual prophecies, and thus on their intended meaning. With luck, we can even learn new facts about Nostradamus himself.

   The process is not new: it was already undertaken by Brind’Amour, for example, when he used quatrain I.2’s evident source-text in Iamblichus to propose (after Buget) the reading vapeur for the otherwise rather puzzling un peur in line three.9 Certainly it is an effective tool - though, like most effective tools, it can also be dangerous if misused. Its use also risks severe criticism from those who much prefer their own tried and trusted methods, however unproductive, especially if it is seen to threaten their favourite preconceptions. That is always the risk when proposing something unfamiliar, especially in the sphere of Nostradamus studies, which often arouse the most extraordinary personal passions. No doubt subsequent contributors to the subject in this forum will demonstrate the point beyond all peradventure.

   But then that, too, is merely another prophecy based on past precedent!

Peter Lemesurier,
author of The Unknown Nostradamus and Nostradamus : The Illustrated Prophecies, O Books, 2003
Website :


1 Possibly Nina Catach, to whom he refers elsewhere. Retour

2 Compare LeVert: The Prophecies and Enigmas of Nostradamus (Firebell, 1979) for a good analysis. Retour

3 See Brind’Amour (1993) p.25. Retour

4 Chomarat & Laroche (1989) p.36. Retour

5 Chomarat & Laroche (1989) p.36. Retour

6 See Dr Elmar Gruber: Nostradamus, sein Leben, sein Werk und die wahre Bedeutung seiner Prophezeiungen (Scherz, 2003) , where the work is analysed at length. Retour

7 See Brind’Amour on this point. Retour

8 Brind’Amour (1996), p. 170. Retour

9 Pierre Brind’Amour: Nostradamus: Les premières Centuries ou Prophéties, Droz, 1996. Retour


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