Dear Straight Dope:
Is the story about Nostradamus predicting the day his tomb would be discovered true? The legend goes that had himself buried with a plaque engraved with a date and left a memento saying that whosoever held his skull would gain all the knowledge he had — then die. The legend goes on to say that during one of the wars his grave was discovered and dug up by three soldiers on the date written on the plaque. As one lifted up the skull, his companions said that his eyes opened wide, then he was shot through the head with a bullet. I don't remember the date on the plaque, I believe it was May sometime, though the year would probably be much more useful.
A. Frederic Harms
SDStaff DavidB replies:
Cecil already addressed Nostradamus in general in his column here. That column didn’t directly address this particular “prediction,” but it gave a good overview of Nostradamus and his supposed abilities.
That said, let’s take a look at the myth you discuss. And I say “myth” purposely, as this has all the earmarks of an urban myth. Your question is only one version of it. Another common version is that you had to drink from Nostradamus’s skull to gain his powers. Some soldiers during the French Revolution broke into his tomb and one had a drink. Then he was shot.
In one version I found, the legend is close to what you said — the soldier was shot immediately. Also, it was 1793, and there was a plaque hanging around Nostradamus’s neck with “1793” on it. Other variants say it was 1791. Or that the soldier was not shot immediately but was killed by a sniper in an ambush the next day.
Nostradamus’s grave had apparently been opened at least once before then. Some believe he was originally buried “upright in one of the walls of the Church of the Cordeliers at Salon” (Erika Cheetham, The Prophecies of Nostradamus). Supposedly this was so people would not walk on his grave. However, according to the Nostradamus Repository list of myths, “There is absolutely no evidence for this, nor is any provision to this effect contained in his will.” In any case, most histories say that in 1700 city officials moved his body to a sturdier or more prominent area. That, according to some versions of the legend, was when they looked inside the grave and saw a medallion saying “1700.”
The only thing these sources seem to agree upon is that some soldiers (or graverobbers) did open the tomb during the French Revolution, and, frankly, I can’t even verify that much because myth has become so intertwined with the history! But for whatever reason, his tomb was moved to St. Laurent’s Church of Salon-de-Provence (according to www.findagrave.com, though I admit to being a bit suspicious of this source because they list his occupation as “scientist”).
As with most Nostradamus “predictions,” people were able to find a quatrain that supposedly showed he was right. In this case, it’s Century 9, Quatrain 7. As usual, there’s quite a bit of difference between what one or another translator says, owing to the archaic, convoluted French in which the prophecies were written. Here are a couple English translations:
The man who opens the tomb when it is found
And who does not close it immediately,
Evil will come to him
That no one will be able to prove.
(Desecration of the Tomb of Nostradamus)
He who will open the tomb found,
And will come to close it promptly,
Evil will come to him, and one will be unable to prove,
If it would be better to be a Breton or Norman King.
As you can see, the two are substantially different — indeed, the first one leaves off the entire last line, acting as if the third line is both third and fourth and is the end of the sentence. This makes for a wonderfully ominous ending — evil will come to him that no one will be able to prove. Spooky. But apparently not what Nostradamus said. It’s only the first part of a strange sentence that seems to have little to do with anything.
The second lines of the translations seem to contradict one another. The first translation says, “And who does not close it immediately,” while the second says, “And will come to close it promptly.” It can’t be both. One suspects the first translator was twisting the words to achieve the desired result.
So what do we have in looking at all of this? Well, if you believe in Nostradamus’s “powers,” the quatrain above may be taken as predicting doom for those who disturb his grave. He may have worn a medallion saying his grave would be opened in 1700. Or 1791. Or is it 1793? Some soldiers or graverobbers may have opened his grave in one of those years and held or drank from his skull. One may have been shot right away, or maybe the next day.
But frankly I think it’s a lot more likely that, as discussed at the “Myths of Nostradamus” page in the Nostradamus Repository (as mentioned above), “This is a pure urban myth with no evidence whatever to back it up.”
SDStaff DavidB, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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