Feb 4, 2008

Gothic characters #1 - Michel de Nostradamus

Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II, king of France, did not accept the recommendation of her advisors to put to death Michel de Nostradamus (named after the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris) for having caused, by forecasting it, the deadly wound of her husband. King Henry II had declared a joust to celebrate the wedding of his daughter, with himself playing a leading part in it – a very typical case of a boring old fart going through male menopause but insisting on joining the teenagers in shooting baskets instead of decently taking a more retired senior position, every one knows dozens of examples, I’m sure.

Unfortunately, very late in the jousts, with Henry II still in the fray, the wooden shaft of the jousting lance of his opponent, in shattering on Henry, shot a bunch of wood splinters through the visor of his helmet, penetrating into the left eye. (Michel’s accurate prediction of this bizarre event is what brought the young monk, who had a reputation as sort of brujo, or one with mystical powers (like Gus Dur in Indonesia), as one whose visions accurately predicted the future, to the attention of the authorities.

Instead of putting Michel to death as recommended by her advisors, Catherine recruited the young monk as her assistant. (The Medicis did not rise to their position of pre-eminence in medieval Italy by listening to their dumb advisors.)

The medical experts of the day confessed themselves flummoxed by the problem of removing the bunch of wood splinters penetrating the left eye and an unknown distance into the brain behind it. They researched it thoroughly by subjecting already condemned criminals to the same condition with the help of a bunch of wood splinters and a mallet, and found they could not remove the splinters without killing the patient. Stalemate. Henry died in great pain.
Catherine’s problem was to protect her young son, now declared king, and to help in this she recruited Michel, whom she had, after all, just rescued from the gallows. Michel explained that desirous though he was of giving all possible aid to the gracious lady, he was unable to do as she asked. It was more like catching a glimpse of another room through a crack in the toilet wall: you could watch stuff happening, but there was no one to ask for an explanation. Or to put it another way, Michel only watched events happening in a very narrow focus, exactly from the eyeball to the slice of room in view; there was no “Expand to overview or site map” control.

Nevertheless Catherine was adamant. She had to know what would happen in the future so that she could take the appropriate steps to plan for her son. Michel had better get started in double quick time.

Michel de Nostradamus did his best and produced his most famous predictions, including the reference to “Hister” which everyone has received as meaning Hitler, (you remember him, surely, little feller with a scrubby moustache, very fond of Jewish people and long walks?) in addition to other events after this Hister fellow, including the death of most plants and animals on earth[1]. (“Hister” for “Hitler” was generally viewed as a natural typo, given Michel’s description of how things worked, and the other details fitted too neatly to be ignored.)

[1] Predicting the future, or indicating high probability paths, is more possible than usually allowed. H.G.Wells, the British writer, successfully predicted, in 1901, 1903 and until his death in 1946, not only the invention of the tank, aerial warfare and the resulting removal of the distinction between combatants and the civilian population, but also the atomic bomb, indeed he coined the phrase to describe it. Wells’ friend Snoddy educated him on the radiation that leaked from uranium and the Hungarian born scientist Szilard got his inspiration to try for a chain reaction (achieved by using a neutron to bust open the atom) from his reading of Wells’ Things to Come and The World set Free. Szilard took out a patent on his chain reaction process, and also persuaded Albert Einstein to join him in writing a letter to Truman urging the production of an atom bomb “before the Germans do.” This resulted in the Manhattan Project and the use of the first atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Wells became bitter towards the end of his life that all his warnings had been ignored, and wanted his epitaph to read “God damn you all, I told you so.”

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