Mercator & Nostradamus

Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566)
[painted by his son César (c.1614)

These two men, near contemporaries, survivors of the turbulent religious and intellectual climate of the sixteenth century, have left behind very different reputations to posterity.

One has been hailed as a representative Renaissance humanist, a pioneering mathematician and geographer.

The other has been pilloried as a mountebank, a conjurer, masking his lack of meaning in incomprehensible macaronics and meaningless quatrains.

Nostradamus: Centuries (1568)



1503 – (14 December): Michel de Nostredame is born in St. Remy-de-Provence, in Southern France.

1512 – (5 March) Gerard Kremer is born in Rupelmonde, in the county of Flanders.

1522-25 – Nostradamus studies medicine at the university in Montpellier.

1529 – Nostradamus begins doctoral studies in medicine at Montpellier Medical School.

1530-32 – Kremer studies Arts at the university of Louvain.

1531 – Nostradamus is invited to Agen by philosopher Julius-Cesar Scaliger, and works there as a healer.

1534 – Nostradamus marries and has two children.

1536 – Kremer (now ‘Mercator’ [Latin for merchant]) collaborates with Gemma Frisius and Gaspard Van der Heyden on a terrestrial globe.

1537 – Nostradamus's wife and children die of the plague. His wife's family sues him for the return of her dowry and his friendship with Scaliger sours.

1537 – Mercator collaborates with Gemma Frisius and Gaspard Van der Heyden on a celestial globe.

1537 – Mercator’s first sole publication: a wall-map of the Holy Land.

1538 – After being charged with heresy for an inadvertent remark he made about a church statue, Nostradamus leaves the region rather than stand trial before the Inquisition at Toulouse. He reportedly travels around Italy and other parts of France for a number of years.

1538 – Mercator publishes his first, heart-shaped, world map.

1541 – Mercator publishes his important and influential Manual of italic lettering

1541 – Mercator completes his own terrestrial globe.

1544 – Nostradamus studies plague treatments with physician Louis Serre in Marseilles. Around this time, major flooding in southern France leads to another serious plague outbreak in the following years.

1544 – Mercator is imprisoned for heresy in the Castle of Rupelmonde.

1546 – Nostradamus treats plague victims in Aix, then goes to Salon to battle another outbreak.

1547 – Nostradamus marries Anne Ponsarde and settles in Salon, where the couple have six children.

1547 – (June) Mercator meets a nineteen-year-old university student from England, soon to become a close friend – John Dee.

1550 – Nostradamus publishes his first almanac, which contains a general prediction for each month of the year. The almanac is a success and new versions appear annually until Nostradamus' death.

1551 – Mercator publishes a celestial globe.

1552 – Nostradamus finishes a book about cosmetics and fruit preservatives which proves very popular when published three years later.

1554 – Mercator’s publishes a wall-map of Europe.

1555 – The first installment (centuries 1 through 3 and part of 4) of Nostradamus' most ambitious project, Les Prophéties, is published.

1556 – Nostradamus is (allegedly) called to Paris for a consultation with the French queen Catherine de Medici on her husband King Henri II’s health.

1557 – The second installment (the remainder of Century 4 along with centuries 5, 6 and 7) of the Prophéties is published.

1558 – Centuries 8, 9 and 10 of the Prophéties are (allegedly) published in an limited edition. No copies of this book are extant today, however, which leads some to doubt it ever appeared.

1559 – King Henry II killed in a jousting accident. Nostradamus' supporters believe the monarch's death was predicted in Century 1, Quatrain 35.

1564 – Mercator’s publishes a wall-map of the British Isles.

1564 – Queen Catherine de Medici (allegedly) visits Nostradamus in Salon.

1564 – Mercator suffers a severe mental and physical breakdown during his surveying journey around the Duchy of Lorraine.

1566 – (July 2) Nostradamus dies at home in Salon at age 62.

1568 – Publication of the omnibus edition of the Prophéties (omitting only the last fifty-eight quatrains of the seventh "Century"): the basis of all subsequent editions of his prophecies.

1569 – Mercator completes his Chronicle of World History

1569 – Mercator’s wall-map of the world is the first to use his new projection.

1578-84 – Mercator publishes his corrected edition of Ptolemy’s Geography, both maps and text.

1585 – Mercator publishes the first set of 51 modern maps for his projected cosmography: the Atlas.

1589 – Mercator publishes the second set of 22 modern maps for his Atlas.

1592 – Mercator completes his Harmonization of the Gospels.

1594 – (2 December) Mercator dies at Duisburg, Duchy of Cleves, in Germany.

1595 – Mercator’s third set of 29 modern maps is accompanied by the publication, by his son and grandsons, of 107 maps, with Mercator’s own Treatise on Creation, as the complete Atlas.

Consider the similarities:
  • Both were inspired to start on their major works after a period of personal crisis: the death of Nostradamus’s entire family from plague in 1537-38, when he was in his early thirties; Mercator’s nervous breakdown in 1564, in his early fifties.
  • Both were accused of heresy : Nostradamus in 1538 (aged 34); Mercator in 1544 (aged 32).
  • Both made their principal discoveries – Nostradamus’ prophetic quatrains, Mercator’s geographical projection – around the age of 50.
  • Both their masterpieces were published in three instalments (Nostradamus’ Prophecies in 1555, 1557 and 1558; Mercator’s Atlas in 1585, 1589 and 1595), and were left incomplete at their authors’ deaths.

Though one, Mercator, lived in largely Protestant Northern Europe, the other, Nostradamus, in largely Catholic Southern France, they both tried to live peaceful harmonious lives in the midst of the political and religious chaos of sixteenth-century Europe.

Mercator may be regarded by us as a scientist, Nostradamus as an occultist, but in reality both of these terms belong to a later era. Nostradamus would have seen himself as a doctor and a healer, Mercator as a cartographer of the heavens as well as the earth, of past eras as well as the present.

The mere fact that Mercator retained his close friendship with the English scholar (and Magus) John Dee throughout his life is proof of a more elastic sense of the boundaries between the seen and the unseen worlds than we may be capable of comprehending today.

Mercator: Atlas (1623)

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