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Response to Review of Nostradamus: a Healer of Souls in the Renaissance

A Translator’s Entreaty

A translated work stands or falls on its own merits. The translator is a silent witness, a discreet mediator. He is the work’s interpreter, not its defender. That is, unless the merits of the translation are called into question, and Jan Machielsen has not done so. This is therefore an entreaty rather than a rejoinder to his review. The reviewer tells us a great deal about himself, about his difficulties with the review, and about why he has problems with the book. He says much less about what the text itself is trying to say, and why the author chose to write it in the way that he did. This is an opportunity to restore the balance and correct what I regard as some misapprehensions and misleading impressions from the review.

Denis Crouzet certainly does not believe, as Machielsen puts it, that ‘he has unlocked the mysteries of Nostradamus (in the way that Nostradamus unlocked God’s)’. Crouzet explicitly distances himself from the long interpretative strand of Nostradamian mytho-historiography, which imagines that there is a secret ‘key’ which will somehow reveal a hidden Nostradamus and make plain his ambiguous and barely intelligible prophecies. As Crouzet puts it early on (p. 3): ‘… to understand his [Nostradamus’] enigmatic world, and grasp his intentions, we must not allow ourselves to become obsessed by the need to interpret him’. He is dismissive of the ‘dyed in the wool fundamentalists and augury merchants from temples of divination of every hue’ (p. 2) whose claims rest on having found such a key. He repeatedly insists that his ‘reading’ of the Nostradamian corpus is a contingent one, ‘one version of the various possible readings of the interiority of someone from the past, a rationalized interpretation of it’ (p. 59). That reading will be historically convincing to the extent that it is coherent with all that Nostradamus chooses to tell us, and to the degree that we can interpret that utterance within our understanding of the mental world from which it arose, and which it illuminates. Jan Machielsen would find it hard to justify from Nostradamus’s writing that the astrophile claimed to have unlocked God’s mysteries. That would have given his contemporary critics precisely the ammunition they sought to justify the charge of blasphemy against him.

It is never a good sign when a critic wants an author to write a different book from the one that they actually have. Jan Machielsen wants this to be a very different book, a plain and straightforward biography about the astrologer that he came to this book thinking Nostradamus was. That is, perhaps, the book that ‘a British-trained historian’ would have written. But Crouzet patiently explains – indeed it is the starting-point for his book – that the historical evidence is not sufficient to write such a work. What we know about Nostradamus’ life can be summarized in a few pages (which is what Crouzet does in an appendix), and it raises more questions than it answers. So, Crouzet offers us (though Jan Machielsen’s review hardly conveys the point) a ‘non-biography’, an attempt to understand the intellectual and spiritual world that he inhabited, and (through that) to grasp why we should not try to unravel Nostradamus’ enigmatic pronouncements, but to understand why enigma played such a central role in his thinking.

Jan Machielsen likes his history to be straightforward: Occam’s razor should prevail, and (when faced with two explanations) one should always favour the simplest. In that case, Nostradamus is emphatically not the subject for him. When Crouzet writes that the Nostradamian Centuries offers ‘a key to a language of outcomes that relies on unsequentiality, on a deconstruction of the inductive and deductive rationality of knowledge that seems, nevertheless to function on the basis of an interchangeable register of factual postulates’ (p. 15), the key in question is ontological. It has nothing to do with ‘fideism’, which is a term that Crouzet employed sparingly in his text as a way of delineating the kind of non-confessional Christianity that was increasingly challenged by the currents of the Protestant Reformation. Crouzet does, however, seek to align Nostradamus’ writings with the characteristic registers of French evangelist expression of the period. This is one of the major contributions of the book – worth highlighting because we badly need an authoritative study of early French evangelism in English. It was a movement caught in the ambiguities of its own attempts at religious reform from within, in a potentially hostile environment, forced to express itself in ambiguous utterances that could mean different things to different people. Calling that ‘Erasmian’ is not to Jan Machielsen’s taste, and the term is one that we can take or leave, as we please. But it is worth emphasising that Crouzet finds very specific echoes of Erasmus’ writings in the Nostradamus corpus, ones that have been overlooked by previous interpreters, and which help us to appreciate that much better his ‘mental world’.

The reviewer is impatient with Crouzet’s approach to Nostradamus’ ‘medical’ writings. From the review there is no hint that Crouzet places Nostradamus within the traditions of Hippocratic medicine that were propounded at Montpellier, where he trained (albeit leaving a controversial trail behind him). What Jan Machielsen describes as the Nostradamian ‘medical writings’ are, in reality, two short published treatises offering practical ‘recipes’ that could readily be adopted within a household environment. Jan Machielsen thinks that they have been over-interpreted by Crouzet, and that this is a symptom of a text for which the reconstruction of a ‘mental world’ is a passport to making everything fit into an artificial framework. For Crouzet, both texts are about how Nostradamus sought to persuade his readers to pay attention to what is within, as well as what is on the surface, lessons in how nature gives us hermetic clues to what God has planted in it by way of signs to our own health and rejuvenation. The reviewer prefers a more simple explanation which is (presumably) that these are texts about a recipe (for making candied fruit) and a remedy (cream to rejuvenate the face), from whose publication Nostradamus sought to profit. That, however, is pure speculation. We simply do not know why he chose to publish these texts, just as we do not know why he chose to translate that obscure work about ancient hieroglyphs, the Horus Apollon (though Crouzet has some important suggestions to make on that subject). Crouzet prefers to work in and through the texts. Far from making us ‘the poorer’, he illuminates them for us, giving us pointers as to why Nostradamus’ reputation developed in the way that it did.

Jan Machielsen is unimpressed with the book’s reading of the surviving Nostradamus annual prognostications ‘which must fit his (Crouzet’s) prophetic reading less well given that these predictions are, by definition, tied to specific dates and places’. That, however, is to imagine that the predictions are as concrete as he (the reviewer) makes out. But, as Crouzet is careful to point out, they were not. Nostradamus’ foretelling of the death of Henri II was only understood in retrospect, read by contemporaries into one of the quatrains of the Centuries (1:35) only after the tragedy had occurred – as they were in the highly ambiguous utterances on the subject in the almanacs of 1557 and 1559. Nostradamus’ Prefaces are elaborate exercises in fashioning a distinction between being an ‘astrophile’ (a star-gazer, who believes that nature and the stars contain a semiotics of knowlede about God) and an ‘astrologer’. Far from this being the only chapter where Crouzet addresses ‘the issue of Nostradamus’ audience’ the text is centrally located around identifying a closet audience, one that could hear and receive the ‘physick for the soul’ that his works offered.

Jan Machielsen is correct, however, to see this as a work that bears the imprint of the French historiographical traditions to which it relates, and which the last chapter of the book illuminates. In the 1930s, Lucien Febvre (co-founder of the Annales and post-war architect of the influential Sixth Section of the École des Hautes Études) began to explore how to deploy the insights of psychology to understand l’imaginaire, a kind of collective unconscious, in its historical dimensions. He pioneered a way of doing so through literary works – through the novelistic imagination of Rabelais, and then through the novelistic and poetic imagination of Marguerite de Navarre. Crouzet’s work takes up and refashions that agenda in a pioneering way, in respect of Nostradamus. It took a very long time for the significance of Lucien Febvre’s work to be recognised in the anglophone world. Jan Machielsen’s review suggests that such recognition still has some way to go. Fortunately the reader has the opportunity of sampling for themselves the insights to be gained from the exploration of the mental world of someone as complex as Nostradamus through this translation.