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The Lost Book of Nostradamus

(History Channel; US DVD: 12 Feb 2008)

History Channel, I’m so ashamed of you.  This sort of thing I would expect from maybe Spike TV, but not you. 


Normally, one would expect a quality documentary from the History Channel, packed chock full of facts presented in a concise and interesting manner.  That’s not the case with the cable channel’s latest home video release of The Lost Book of Nostradamus.  Focusing on the recently unearthed and illustrated book of prophecy believed to have been written by Nostradamus, the documentary is scarce on actual facts and rife with speculation.  The result is a piece that is flawed from all angles. 


Whether you fall into the category of a skeptic or a believer in Nostradamus’ prophecies or the validity of the divinatory arts, the History Channel’s presentation does little to support either side’s argument convincingly.  It would be easier to find more fact in one of Mr. Peabody’s excursions in the Wayback Machine with Sherman, than in this release.


According to the documentary, during the 16th century, a detailed book of prophecies was entrusted to Cardinal Barbarini, a nephew of the Pope and head of the Vatican Library.  This highly volatile book of prophecies mysteriously turned up, centuries later, at the Italian National Library in 1888. Thanks to what may have been a deliberate error, the book was catalogued incorrectly and wrongly attributed to yet another contemporary Italian prophet of Nostradamus’ time, although an inscription in the book claimed that it was written by Nostradamus himself. 


Tests on the book’s ink show a high content of zinc, which wasn’t used in abundance until the 18th century—two centuries after Nostradamus had lived and died. The last page of the book was written in the 18th century to inform the reader that the pages were not written by the original hand of whomever made the prophecies, and that the drawings were not all originals, either.  Much of the book was written in the 16th century, however, some of it had been copied over time to preserve the pages and integrity of the text from deterioration


What made this finding unique was that although the book was written in Nostradamus’ familiar format using cryptic quatrains to forecast the future, this “lost book” featured watercolor illustrations to accompany the text for several pivotal prophecies.  This was highly unusual, considering most of Nostradamus’ writings, including his most famous works in circulation for centuries, were text-only. 


That’s where the bulk of the facts end and the speculation begins in this documentary, as international scholars attempt to uncover the meanings of the prophecies in the book and those of the cryptic paintings.  Although it hasn’t been proven directly, it is believed that the artwork in this “Lost Book of Nostradamus” can be attributed to his son, Cesar, a skilled artist and painter who was still a young child at the time the book was written. Given that these illustrations are well-drawn yet rudimentarily childlike, the theory that Cesar Nostradamus was responsible for the paintings in his father’s book could fit.


Although it’s only speculation, the hypothesis that Cesar was involved in the production of this “lost book” contains at least a granule of logic.  Beyond that, The Lost Book of Nostradamus gets pretty sketchy in terms of other theories that get bandied about as concrete “information”.


Many of the so-called experts profiled in this documentary conveniently ignore symbols in the detailed illustrations that they cannot offer an explanation for, while trying to decipher their interpretation.  For a skeptic, this is just one more reason to dismiss divination and/or prophecy. Even for a believer in the occult or unexplained, this facet of the presentation is still worthy of an eye roll or two. 


One of the most groan-worthy examples of extreme speculation on the part of these “experts” profiled is the idea that Nostradamus “saw” what a visual society the Western World would evolve towards – complete with the advent of the Internet and television. With this in mind, he fully intended for this “lost book” to be found to appeal with visual aids to those who need to hear his prophecies most, namely, the people living in the “last days”. 


With dreck like this, as you can imagine, mention of the ever-impending Apocalypse isn’t too far behind. When speaking of the Apocalypse, however, the History Channel documentary zeroes in on the Mayan calendar date of destruction, rather than using Nostradamus’ predictions.  Nice one, guys.


The illustration that is the subject of the most speculation (and milked for maximum shock value) in this documentary is that of a burning tower.  In Nostradamus’ era and even today in nearly every variation of tarot decks on the market, the tower is usually a symbol of destruction. The sensationalistic nature of this documentary automatically brands this image of the burning tower as an accurate prediction of one of the most significant events in recent years” 9-11.  The dramatic tones and pauses in the explanatory script add an element of intended fear in this portion of the documentary.


Cynically speaking, it’s disturbing to hear the experts speak as if Nostradamus really did predict these events, quick to state that Nostradamus himself said that it would be 500 years until his prophecies would be understood.  Give anyone a span of five centuries and they’re bound to get a few accurate predictions in, particularly when they are cryptically worded in a way that could apply to nearly any major event throughout that period of time.  It’s all well and good to say how accurate Nostradamus’ prophecies are, nevertheless, no matter how precise, they weren’t used to ward off JFK’s assassination, Hitler’s carnage, or even the 9-11 tragedy. 


Much of what is said in The Lost Book of Nostradamus is open to interpretation.  One of the predictions made in the book had to do with the rise of extremist religions and the merging of religion and politics.  Although several “experts” claim that Nostradamus was using this prophecy to refer to today’s climate, these issues were also a part of the period and place that Nostradamus lived in, as well. 


Part of the reason for Nostradamus’ use of quatrains taken out of chronological order was due to the Spanish Inquisition hovering in the background of the European landscape at the time.  Prophecy could be grounds for heresy, which usually meant death at the hands of the Inquisition.  Nostradamus seemed to skate around this without much fear for his life, thanks to forging some very beneficial partnerships, as mentioned in the documentary.  He dedicated almanacs to popes and royalty as a means of soliciting protection. Catherine Di Medici, wife of Henry II and a relative of not one, but two Popes, became Nostradamus’ chief protector. 


The documentary also mentions that Nostradamus helped ensure his survival by playing both sides of the fence, making friends with both Catholics and Protestants.  Sometimes, he would even adjust predictions to curry favor with his powerful sponsors and protectors. Indeed, there was an opportunistic side to Nostradamus in addition to his fame as a soothsayer.  Like any player in politics, he recognized the need to retain popularity with not just the common man, but also with kings and dignitaries of the day.


Many of the illustrations present in The Lost Book of Nostradamus borrow heavily from images commonly found on cards in the Tarot deck such as The Hanged Man, The Wheel of Fortune, and The Tower.  If you happen to be a believer in the art of divination as it pertains to the Tarot, in a traditional layout of ten or more cards, each card’s image and meaning changes slightly depending on where it sits in the layout, affecting either circumstances in the past, present, or perceived future.  By ignoring the placement of a card and where it sits in a given reading, it detracts from the overall picture laid out by the Tarot cards as it pertains to the querent. 


One of the few experts who mentions the similarity to the tarot and how open to interpretation many of these symbols are, is Ron Picco, a symbologist and professor of Art History.  Picco attempts to explain what the symbols shown in these recently unearthed drawings may have meant to a man of Nostradamus’ time, playing devil’s advocate and voice of reason to many of the other “experts” on hand and not taking the easy route of attributing the predictions and illustrations to recent events. 


Overall, The Lost Book of Nostradamus appeals to a world so desperate for answers and guidance that they’re willing to accept sensationalism as plausible while preying upon their worst fears to pique curiosity. With this documentary, rampant with speculation and wild theorizing, more truth can be gleaned from a line in the classic sci-fi flick, The Terminator: “No fate but what we make.”

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Lana Cooper has written various reviews and features for PopMatters since 2006. She's also written news stories for EDGE Media, a nationwide network devoted to LGBT news and issues. In 2013, she wrote her first novel, Bad Taste In Men, described as one part chick lit for tomboys and one part Freaks and Geeks for kids who came of age in the mid-'90s. She lives in Philadelphia and enjoys spending time with her family, reading comic books, and avoiding eye contact with strangers on public transportation. A graduate of Temple University, Cooper doesn't usually talk about herself in the first person, but makes an exception when writing an author bio.


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