History of Science Museum: Collection Database Search


Special Exhibition Label: 'Eccentricity: Unexpected Objects and Irregular Behaviour' (10/5/2011 - 16/10/2011)

The astrolabe of Nostradamus?

This is a fabulously rare form of astrolabe: almost all such instruments are concerned only with the motions of the stars and the sun but on the back of this example is an 'equatorium' - a device for predicting the positions of the other planets (the sun is a planet in the Ptolemaic system). Perhaps the Museum has always considered that sufficient distinction for any instrument, for it has remained silent in public about the strong possibility of another likely mark of celebrity. Or might the Museum have been embarrassed by a connection to the notorious prognosticator, Nostradamus?

It is known that the instrument belonged to the d'Hauteville family of Salon-de-Provence in southern France. Michel de Notredame (Nostradamus) lived there from 1547 till his death in 1566 and had close family connections to the d'Hautevilles. One of the plates of the astrolabe is specifically adapted for medical astrology, being used to predict the course of fevers, and would have been valuable for the medical practice carried on by Nostradamus.

In 1957 the Curator of the Museum C.H. Josten wrote to the instrument historian and collector Henri Michel, who had previously owned the equatorium: 'I thought you would be interested to hear that, according to a tradition current in the Salon family to which it belonged for three hundred years, this instrument belonged to Nostradamus who, as you probably know, spent the last years of his life at Salon. There is no confirmation of this legend except that the instrument was obviously used by a physician.'

No mention of this will be found on the Museum's website or on the astrolabe's current or former display labels. Nostradamus has been a controversial figure since his own time. Has identifying this instrument as his astrolabe itself become an index of eccentricity?

Inventory no.

Astrolabe and equatorium, probably French, late 15th century.

One face is an astrolabe, the other an equatorium, one of the more rare among early astronomical instruments. It is used to calculate the past or future positions of the planets according to the planetary theory of Ptolemy. It seems that this instrument was used for the astrological aspects of medicine, as the unusual provision of two retes and especially the medical lines on one of the astrolabe plates, give it this specialist function.

Inventory no.

The plate from the astrolabe that would have been of particular use to someone with a medical practice, such as Nostradamus. The lines can be used to predict the development of fevers; note the inscriptions 'INICIVM MORBI' and 'CRISIS'.

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