The Recipe

Take one ounce of the sawdust or shavings of cypress-wood, as green as you can find, six ounces of Florentine violet-root, three ounces of cloves, three drams of sweet calamus, and six drams of aloes-wood.

Reduce the whole to powder before it spoils.

Next, take three or four hundred in-folded red roses, fresh and perfectly clean, and gathered before dewfall.

Pound them vigorously in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle.

When you are half through pounding them, add to them the above mentioned powder and immediately pound it all vigorously, while sprinkling on it a little rose-juice.

When everything is well mixed together, form it into little flat lozenges, as you would pills, and let them dry in the shade, for they will smell good…

And in order to make the mixture even more excellent, add as much musk and ambergris as you either can or wish.

If these two are added I do not doubt that you will produce a superbly pleasant perfume.

Pulverise the said musk and ambergris, dissolving it with rose-juice, then mix it in and dry in the shade.

Quite apart from the goodness and scent that this mixture lends to the items and mixtures mentioned above, you only have to keep it in the mouth a little to make your breath smell wonderful all day…

And in time of Plague, keep it often in the mouth, for there is no smell better for keeping away the bad and pestiferous air.

A recipe from Nostradamus’ Traité des fardemens et confitures or Treatise of Cosmetics and Preserves. See here and here for more detail re his recipes.

Michel de Nostradame- or Nostradamus as he is usually known today-  is famous for the inscrutable prophecies recorded in his 10 volume mystical work The Prophecies.  He was born on December 14th of 1503 in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, in the south of France.

Nostradamus paraphrased a range of older prophecies, never before available in the French language; this was often done, authors at that time would frequently copy and paraphrase passages, not acknowledging their origin.  The 16 century was out of step with our modern views on plagairism.  The Mirabilis Liber was a major source, the Bible as well.  More here.

The Prediction

Of course he is also known now, a bit notoriously, for his part in ‘predicting’ the 911 disaster:

In a sign of the hunger to explain the inexplicable, ”Nostradamus” has joined ”sex” and ”mp3” on the list of terms most frequently entered on Internet search engines, as people scramble to learn more about the French astrologer who wrote that ”the third big war will begin when the big city is burning” after ”two brothers” are ”torn apart by Chaos.” Others are stampeding to sites like www.snopes2.com, which rates current rumors green, red and yellow depending on whether they are deemed to be true, false or undetermined.

Still, the incessant blending of fact and fantasy on the Web looks a lot like a venerable response to tragedy in a slightly new form, according to people who have studied the origin of rumors and urban legends. The need to arrive at a common understanding of a disaster — and to forge a united front to deal with it — often leads to an outpouring of theories that may or may not be true.

The above quote comes from the article in the New York Times, by Amy Harmon, The Search for Intelligent Life on the Internet. See the full article here.

Here is the quatrain referred to above:

In the City of God there will be a great thunder
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos
While the fortress endures
The great leader will succumb.

In actual fact it is not part of Nostradamus’ Centuries at all but made up by a modern day ‘disciple’.  The trail to this so-called prediction is curious. From an ‘urban legends‘ website:

More precisely, its attribution to Nostradamus is a hoax. The passage was lifted from a Web page (long since deleted from the server that originally hosted it) containing an essay written by college student Neil Marshall in 1996 entitled “Nostradamus: A Critical Analysis.” In the essay itself, Marshall admits inventing the quatrain for the purpose of demonstrating — quite ironically, in light of the way it was subsequently misused — how a Nostradamus-like verse can be so cryptically couched as to lend itself to whatever interpretation one wishes to make.

The Elixir

Not as widely known is that he was an apothecary, and treated the plague, it seems with some success, with a concoction of rose petals, as described in the recipe above.

On completion of his studies he took to the countryside with his medical and astrological books and assisted in the care of victims of the Bubonic Plague. His approach was to prescribe fresh, unpolluted air and water and clean bedding. He also would have all the corpses removed and the streets cleaned. Each morning before sunrise, Nostradamus would go into the fields to oversee the harvest of rose petals which he then would dry and crush into fine powder. From this he made “rose pills” which patients were advised to keep under their tongues at all times without swallowing them. He was reputed to have saved thousands from plague in Narbonne, Carcassone, Toulouse and Bordeaux. See here for more details.

The Little Ice Age

The widespread famines throughout Europe in the 14th century were at least in part due to a cooling trend, often referred to now as ‘the little ice age’, that caused one crop failure after another.  A subsistence crisis, a so-called classic Malthusian one, materialized in the wake of these crop failures.  The stage was being set for changes that would alter the face of society and prepare it for its slow metamorphosis into the beginnings of the modern era.  The Black Death was one of those changes ushered in by the subsistence crisis. Much more than simply keeping the population in check the Black Death was, in retrospect, an ecological catastrophe.

Was vitamin C, in the form of the rose lozenges Nostradamus had created, sufficient in some cases to guard against Yersinia pestis (the bacteria responsible for the plague)?

From Bioterrorism: Beyond Anthrax and Smallpox:

... vitamin C would be an excellent adjunct therapy for the plague. Both oral and intravenous administrations of vitamin C would result in a significant bolstering of the immune system. While a high enough dose of vitamin C could logically be completely effective as a monotherapy treatment for the plague, there is certainly no reason not to take both the appropriate antibiotics along with the vitamin C. Furthermore, since no specific reference could be found in the literature on vitamin C and plague, it would be inappropriate to try to treat the plague with only vitamin C, even though it’s effect on other bacterial diseases would predict a high likelihood of complete clinical success in the treatment of plague.

Avicenna & Pestilence

Of course there was no real treatment for the plague in his time.  Avicenna, in section 877 of The Canon of Medicine has this to say about times of pestilence:

When the atmosphere becomes pestilential in character, the body should be given a desiccant regimen, and the dwelling-house should be constructed so as to be able to be kept cool and dry.  When contagious diseases are abroad, the air should be warm, and charged with agents which prevent decomposition of the air.  Things which emit pleasing odours are good, especially if they are contrary in temperament to that of the atmosphere… Very often, too, the air itself is the seat of the beginning of the decomposition changes—either because itis contaminated by adjoining impure air, or by some “celestial” agent of a quality at present unknown to man.  In that case it is best to retire to underground dwellings, or to houses enclosed in walls on all sides, or to caves. Fumigations may be used to purify the air: sedge (or, galangale), frankincense, myrtle, rose, and sandalwood. During the time when pestilences are about one may use vinegar in both food and drinks, for this preserves one from the danger…

Though rose petals, in various forms, oils and scents, as well as pills and lozenges, were far from unknown as treatments for a variety of conditions, as a particular treatment for pestilence, beyond what is mentioned above, it seems original.

Medieval herbals generally do not mention this treatment so it seems as if Nostradamus was indeed ahead of his time.  The knowledge that roses are sources of vitamin C was not to come for several hundred years yet. Still the knowledge they were efficacious in several areas was not an uncommon thing.