Nostradamus Jam

by Damion Searls

A new translation of Nostradamus has just been published — though if you’re a real fan you already knew that! Actually, this is the first time we’ve had access to the real thing: the prophecies that launched a thousand crackpots, in all their trippy medieval weirdness, taken seriously as poetry, translated by a great Guggenheim-winning translator, and decked out with essays and notes to give us half a chance of understanding what the hell is going on. But let’s just flip through randomly, shall we?

Life & death changing Hungary’s regime,
The law far harsher than mere loyalty :
Their capital shall ring with howls, pleas, screams :
Castor Pollux in the lists as enemies.

Above the solar city, the royal bird,
Nocturnal omen, seven months before :
Thunder & lightning, the Eastern wall sheared,
Seven days to the hour, foe at the door.

They’re all like that, almost a thousand four-line blips of disturbingly specific vague futures, plus a sweet six-page dedication to his baby son.

Every time there’s one that sounds like something from the world we live in:

One of the fairer sex, captured hostage,
Shall manage to elude her guards at night :
Camp commander, deceived by her language,
Succumbs to the wench, such a sorry sight.

it’s followed by:

Geneva, Langres, led captive to Montélimar
By those of Chartres & Grenoble & Dole,
Seyssel & Lausanne, shall defraud them all
With a ruse costing sixty marks in gold.

Here’s the Hitler one, since you asked:

Beasts wild with hunger shall swim the rivers :
Most of the host shall move against Hister :
He’ll have the great one dragged in iron cage,
When the child the German Rhine surveys.

“Ister,” spelled “Hister” in old French, is the Latin name for the Danube River. Whatevs.

The Nostradamus book you really want to know about is his other book, The True & Perfect Embellishment of the Face, & The Manner of Making Confitures: Nostradamus cold creams, love potions, recipes for jams and make-up. It kind of makes sense, if you picture a 16th-century apothecary and herbalist practicing medicine along with casting horoscopes.

The whole thing is scanned online, if your Old French is up to it. Here are some recipes in English, for perfect nutmeg oil; powder for cleaning and whitening the teeth (step one: “Take three drams each of crystal, flint, white marble, glass and calcined rock salt, two drams each of cuttlefish bone and calcined sea-snail shells, half a dram each of fragmented pearls, two drams of bright riverbed stones (which form little white pebbles), one scruple of amber and twenty-two grains of musk, and grind them down thoroughly on a painter’s marble slab”); another more excellent method for cleaning the teeth, this one using blue clay; how to make the hair golden blond (lye!); how to make a jam or preserve with heart-cherries; very fine sugar candy; marzipan; and laxative rose syrup.

For adventurous readers, here is how to make a quince jelly of superb beauty, goodness, flavour and excellence fit to set before a King, and which lasts a good long time:

Take whatever quinces you like, as long as they are fully ripe and yellow.

Cut them up into quarters without peeling them (for those who peel them do not know what they are doing, since the skin enhances the smell), and divide each quarter into five or six pieces.

Remove the seeds, because the fruit will turn into jelly perfectly well without them.

As you are cutting them up, place them in a basin full of water, for unless they are plunged into water the moment they are cut up they will turn black.

Once they are cut up, boil them in a good quantity of water until they are well done, almost to the point of shrivelling up.

When they have boiled thoroughly, strain this liquid through a thick piece of new linen and squeeze the whole preparation through it as hard as you can.

Then take this decoction, and if there are six pounds of it, take one and a half pounds of Madeira sugar and put it into the decoction, and bring it to the boil over a gentle charcoal fire until you see that towards the end, it is reducing in volume considerably.

Then damp the fire down, so that it does not burn at the sides — which would give a bad colour to the jelly.

Then, when it is nearly done, and so as to know when it is done perfectly, take some of it with a spatula or silver spoon and put it on a platter, and if you see that when it has cooled it comes off as a globule, without sticking either here or there, then it is done.

Take it off the fire and wait for the scum on the top to settle, then pour the still-hot liquid into small wooden or glass containers.

And if you want to write or gouge something on the bottom of the container, you can do so, for it will be seen easily [through the jelly].

For the colour will be as diaphanous as an oriental ruby.

So excellent will the colour be — and the taste even more so — that it may be given to sick and healthy alike.

(Recipe translation © Peter Lemesurier 2000)

Related: How To Make 17th-Century Delights: Whipp’d Syllabub

Damion Searls is currently writing a biography of Hermann Rorschach and cultural history of the Rorschach Test.