Rare and very unusual engraved circular astrological instrument for predicting the fertility of the different seasons and months of the year… obviously of particular importance to agriculture, although the underlying perpetual design may have permitted other applications. The design is credited to the greatest of the medieval astrologer/prognosticators, Michel Nostradamus.
Remarkably, this example of the instrument is complete as issued, with the original engraved “pointer”, an integral part of the mechanism, which, due to its fragility, is most often missing from objects of this type. I have located but one other example, held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which is however lacking the pointer.
The instrument, designed a form of perpetual calendar, comprises four principal concentric rings. The outer ring depicts the 28-year solar cycle of the Julian calendar, with the sun, moon and planets represented pictorially. The next innermost ring depicts the signs of the zodiac, with their French names.
The third innermost ring is simply a sequence of labels giving the possible results of the inquiry: “very fertile”, “fertile” “sterile” or “very sterile”. The fourth ring has only three boxes filled in–the years “1639”, “1640” and “1641”—with the others blank, providing the user a template to count back or forward to the particular year in question. By rotating the centrally mounted pointer to the desired year, the user would be able to identify the prevailing planets, star sign and degree of fertility of the chosen period of the year. This calculation is somewhat more fully explained to the user in the explanatory text, engraved within the central hub (A rough translation is provided below.)
Michel Nostradamus (1503-1566) and Antoine de Fer (d. 1673)
The title of the instrument asserts that it was based a manuscript of Michel Nostradamus, one of the most famous of all mediaeval writers, still widely consulted in modern times.
Nostradamus worked originally as an apothecary and a doctor. Caught up in an outbreak of the bubonic plague, his simple but far-sighted approach to treatment proved more successful than that of many of his contemporaries. However, he fell under suspicion from the Inquisition and for his health decided to make an extensive tour of the mystical places of the eastern Mediterranean world. This experience persuaded him to devote himself to the study of astrology and prophecy.
At first, Nostradamus published his prophecies as annual almanacs, predicting the events of the year ahead, which were of particular practical importance to farmers, mariners and such like, which gained him early fame. However, he experimented with the occult, entering into drug-induced trances to enhance his psychic powers, and his prophecies became more long-term, which he assembled into his book Les Prophesies, published in 1555, the first of a planned series of ten volumes to cover the next ten centuries. His writing was obscure, likely purposefully so, but he gained much credibility from his prediction of the manner of death of King Henri II three years before it happened.
The particular basis of Nostradamus’ prophecies was “judicial astrology”. He believed that an understanding of the planets and stellar bodies, and their motion in relation to the earth, was the key to his forecasting the future. This theory can seen most clearly–in a pared back form–in this simple predictive diagram devoted to the practice of agriculture.
Antoine de Fer, and his son and successor Nicholas, are fascinating figures in the mid-17th century French graphic trade in France in the mid-seventeenth century. They are best known today as mapmakers and cartographic publishers, though they also published playing cards and single-sheet educational games, many of the latter on the spiral “Game of the Goose” format. This extremely rare survival, with its functional application to agriculture, broadens our understanding of the productions and lesser-known stock-in-trade of this important, long-lived firm.
References and rarity
The Catalogue collectif de France (CCFr) lists but a single holding of the instrument, at the Bibliothèque nationale. As mentioned previously, that example lacks the rotating pointer. OCLC has three entries for the instrument, all apparently referring to the example at the BnF.
Translation of the explanatory text
“Introduction for the use of the perpetual wheel by which one knows the fertility or sterility of any proposed year. This Wheel is made up of three others, each divided into 28 like the solar cycle; in the outer are the planets that govern the years of the solar cycle, in the second wheel are the signs of the zodiac, in the third is the result if the year will be fertile or sterile &c. The cause of fertility is the fertility or sterility of the planets and secondly fecundity or sterility of the signs of the zodiac. As an example, we will take 1640 as a start point, so that if we want to have the result for a later year we will count as many qualifying years as there are in the sequence 1640, 1641, & c, and the square where you finish, this number will show fertility or sterility of the proposed year. If it is before the year 1640, we can tell by counting back from 1640, 1639 &c and the end of the count will give what we are looking for.”