‘Words are slippery and thought is viscous,” Henry Adams said more than a century ago. He was wondering about science, its increasing precision in describing the sensory world and its failure to penetrate the realms of individual experience. Adams had bumped into one of the modern world’s thorniest dilemmas: For all of science’s power to shape the world, it failed to comprehend the chaos of everyday life.

In this fascinating and extensively researched book, Stephane Gerson, a historian of French culture, explores this dilemma by telling the story of Nostradamus and what he has meant to generations of readers. It is an inspired choice of subject. Nostradamus’s fame (and infamy) as an oracle persists even in the heart of this scientific age because he touches on aspects of human experience beyond science’s ken.

Gerson nicely sketches the social world that influenced the prophet’s work. Born in 1503, Michel de Nostredame, as his contemporaries knew him, lived the life of a Renaissance humanist. He was proficient in several languages, traveled widely and studied herbs and medicine. He worked on the front lines during an outbreak of plague. Around 1550, he settled, married a rich widow and started his second family. (His first wife and their two children had died in the 1530s.)

Astrology was part of the medical curriculum then, and he dedicated himself to its practice. His successes won him a place as adviser to Catherine de Medicis, France’s queen mother. In 1555, he published the first edition of his most famous work, “The Prophecies,” a series of four-line poems that foretold the distant future.

Nostradamus described a world of pain and suffering. There would be battles, death and defeat. Rivers would run red with blood. But when? Where? On this, he would not be pinned down. Influenced by the allegorical poetry of his contemporaries, he pushed ambiguity to its limit. The quatrains, Gerson writes, “hang together in some fashion, but, without the glue of punctuation, conjunctions, and conventional word order, they are unmoored.” Publishers and printers compounded the confusion by changing words and putting out pirated editions. The final edition of “The Prophecies” appeared two years after its author’s death. It is impossible to know which editions were unauthorized and which were his — but it hardly matters. By then, the man had given way to the phenomenon. Nostredame became Nostradamus.

‘Nostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom’ by Stéphane Gerson (St. Martin's)

And it was Nostradamus whose slippery words spoke to the chaos of everyday life, the events that seemed too awesome for science and reason to explain. After the biographical chapters, Gerson follows the fortunes of Nostradamus through French cultural history, showing how different people tried to make sense of the prophet, some reading him naively, others playfully, combining a commitment to science with a fascination about superstition.

The French Revolution promised an enlightened age of liberty, equality and fraternity, but the age also witnessed a renewed enthusiasm for Nostradamus. Interest in the prophet was not, as the elites of the day had it, proof that old superstitutions needed to be stamped out but, rather, an indication that Nostradamus spoke to the uncertainty of the times. World War II also inspired fascination with Nostradamus, for a similar reason. The products of science and reason could obliterate the world, but they could not explain, or predict, the course of everyday lives.

It is tragedy, Gerson concludes, that accounts for much of Nostradamus’s resilience. At times when chaos breaks through the quotidian order, the prophet offers succor, although each era reads him differently. In the early years of the 21st century, Gerson suggests, proliferating paranoia and conspiracy-mongering — filling the void left by the declining legitimacy of religion, the state and other forms of traditional authority — feed interest in Nostradamus. Gerson even reflects on his own interest. He’s committed to rationalism, he says, but could not deny the allure of Nostradamus and magical thinking after the death of his youngest son in a rafting accident.

Science no longer has the cachet it did when Henry Adams wrote. Nuclear weapons, pollution and antibiotic resistance have left it one more authority in decline. But science is not going away, nor is the tension between science and experience, although the balance may shift one way or the other. And so, even knowing the slipperiness of words and the dangers of prophecy, it can be foretold that the concerned and the curious, the confused and the critical, will keep turning to Nostradamus.

Joshua Blu Buhs is the author of “Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend.” He is at work on a history of the Forteans.


How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom

By Stephane Gerson

St. Martin’s. 347 pp. $29.99