Who was Nicolas Flamel? The Story of the Famous French Alchemist


 

Imaginary portrait of Nicolas Flamel. Sourced from Wikipedia

Do you remember the Philosopher’s stone in the first volume of Harry Potter?

In J.K Rowling’s story, this stone that could give you an eternal life was made by an old friend of Albus Dumbledore, Nicolas Flamel. The character reappeared in the last movie adapted from the Harry Potter’s universe, the Crimes of Grindelwald.

J.K Rowling did not make up this story and this character but she revived the most famous alchemist of European history!

It turns out that historians don’t know only about his legend but also have documentation about his life. Even more, he left many traces in today’s Paris.

I will tell you his legend as it is known by fans of esoterism. Then, for the most rational minds among you, I will reveal what historians know from him. You will be surprised! You will even be able to walk in Paris to search for what is left of his life in Paris.

But first, let’s briefly explain what is alchemy.

Alchemy: a quest for metal’s transmutation and the eternal life

We are talking about an old tradition that plunged its roots in the Greek Antiquity and have equivalences and influences from others regions of the world.

Based on their understanding of how nature works, some people believed it what possible to transform lead into gold through the “Philosopher’s Stone”. It was called this way because in the Middle Ages the study of nature was called “Natural Philosophy”.

Furthermore, some hoped to find an elixir that would grant them an immortal life: the Elixir of Life. Others sought for a universal medicament to cure all the diseases.

To sum up, it was a mystical desire to unveil the secrets of the universe mixed with very down-to-earth preoccupations.

The search for the Stone and the Elixir was a quest that could have spiritual aspects. An accomplishment that could be obtained through a purification of the soul, similar to the purification of the lead necessary to obtain gold.

These ideas may seem strange and ridiculous to us today, but this quest was considered serious by many considerable and knowledgeable men through history. It was especially important in Europe in the 16th century, during the Renaissance.

The words “Alchemy” and “Chemistry” were used indifferently until late in the 18th century.

For instance, let’s take the famous British chemist Isaac Newton. He is considered as a pioneer and a hero for modern science. Yet, he spent as much energy trying to find the Philosopher’s Stone than he spent on the law of gravity.

Isaac Newton portraited by Godfrey Kneller. Sourced from Wikipedia

The works of the 18th century scientists among them, the French chemist Lavoisier, on the nature of metals put an end to alchemy as a scientific discipline. It was relegated to the realms of magic and esoterism.

Yet, you will still find people to believe some alchemists have found hidden truths and techniques. A minority of them are still searching to find the Philosopher Stone. The symbolic interpretation of alchemy as a spiritual quest is now considered more important than its practical aspect.

And even among the majority who does not believe in it, many remain fascinated by alchemists and the goals they pursued.

Ironically, recent science have shown that it is indeed possible to transform the metals via a particle accelerator but at an incredible cost.

Now that you have a clearer idea about alchemy, let’s examine what we know about the most famous of them!

The legend of Nicolas Flamel

Nicolas Flamel lived in the fourteenth century, in the end of the Middle Ages, in the center of Paris. He was described as a tall and brown-haired man, a kind, smart and pious person.

Not the half-crazy disheveled scientist surrounded by toxic smokes you may have in mind when you think of an alchemist.

Engraving of Flamel based on the portal of a church he sponsored in 1402. Sourced from Wikipedia

In the maze of little streets, crowded, dirty, noisy and smelly, Flamel worked as a copyist. Before the invention of printing, the copyist would copy texts and books that were needed to be duplicated. He was also a public writer, writing for illiterate people, he binded books and was a book-seller as well.

The story says that one day he dreamed about an angel who brought him a book. This book, with a very recognizable cover, contained a hidden secret. The angel told him that one day, he will be the one able to decipher it.

Nicolas Flamel lived in the fourteenth century, in the end of the Middle Ages, in the center of Paris. He was described as a tall and brown-haired man, a kind, smart and pious person. Not the half-crazy disheveled scientist surrounded by toxic smokes you may have in mind when you think of an alchemist.

In the maze of little streets, crowded, dirty, noisy and smelly, Flamel worked as a copyist. Before the invention of printing, the copyist would copy texts and books that were needed to be duplicated. He was also a public writer, writing for illiterate people, he binded books and was a book-seller as well.

The story says that one day he dreamed about an angel who brought him a book. This book, with a very recognizable cover, contained a hidden secret. The angel told him that one day, he will be the one able to decipher it.

Nicolas Flamel was troubled by this dream but, as years passed by, started to forget about it. One day, an old traveler presented himself to Flamel, and propose to sell him a very old book. 21 pages divided in 7 chapters.

As he looked at the cover, Flamel realized that it was the book he had been dreaming of. It contained a recipe for the transmutation of lead into gold and to make the Exilir of Life. He eagerly bought it.

The problem was that this book was hardly understandable. Attributed to a Jew called Abraham, it was full of symbols related to the kabbalah, a mystical doctrine of Judaism, unknown to Catholics.

Nicolas Flamel tried hard to understand it, with the help of his wife Pernelle, but had to recognize his inability to decipher it. He turned to the alchemists of Paris but was disappointed. Flamel needed to understand the kabbalah.

In Paris in the Middle Ages, Jews were a small community, often persecuted. They were not really eager to share their knowledge and culture to the Catholics that suspected them.

Flamel knew he was not likely to find a Jewish scholar willing and able to help him in Paris and that he should go to Spain, where a much bigger community lived.

He decided to join the pilgrims starting their journey to the tomb of Saint-James in Santiago de Compostela, in northern Spain. It was a long, dangerous and exhausting trip: approximately 1500 km or 930 miles.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Sourced from Wikipedia

Nicolas Flamel made it to Spain and met Conchez, a very knowledgeable Converso, a Jew who had converted to Christianism. Conchez was fascinated by the story told by Flamel: unfortunately, Flamel had not bring the precious books but only some extracts.

Conchez decided to accompany him to Paris, to see the book by himself. On the way back, he started to initiate Flamel to the secrets of the Kabbalah. But the trip was too exhausting for the old Converso who died in Orleans, before he could see the book.

Nevertheless, Flamel knew enough to start deciphering most of the recipe. He turned into an alchemist, led many experiments, always helped by his wife Pernelle.

Until in 1382, 21 years after he found the book (containing also 21 pages), he eventually found the right formula to produce the Stone and the Elixir.

Flamel became extraordinary rich. As a generous man, he used part of his fortune to help the poor and patronized churches and hospitals in his city. The story says he organized fake funerals of himself and his wife then went to the Indies.

Tomb of Nicolas Flamel (1418), exhibited in the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages. Sourced from Wikipedia

If Nicolas Flamel could read the story I wrote he would probably be very surprised. In fact, this was a legend told after his death and quite different from what we know about the historical Nicolas Flamel.

Was Nicolas Flamel an alchemist ?

The starting situation of the story is perfectly accurate: Nicolas Flamel was indeed a bourgeois book-seller living in the center of Paris. We have his licence given to him by the University of Paris where he had made his bachelor of arts.

The problem for the rest of the story is that there are absolutely no trace of alchemy in his life: he never called himself this way, nothing could allow someone to say that he led any experiment in a laboratory. In fact, he was more of a literary person.

He became rich, not because of the Stone but because of his marriage with Pernelle from an affluent family. His fortune became bigger due to speculation on real estates.

What made him noticed in Paris was foremost the very long testament he left and the long trial that opposed him to the heir of his wife. Some people had doubts about his fortune and its legality, since he was just a copyist, and were ready to believe or to make up a legend.

The story made up later from oral tradition and texts attributed to Flamel himself used his character only as a pretext when the popularity of alchemy was at its top in the sixteen and the seventeen century.

Real alchemists would write about how famous scholars or rich men were alchemists and had found the Stone or got close to it. It was a way to gain some legitimacy and probably also to make a captivating story!

This story became popular again in the XIXth century, due to the attraction felt by Romantic writers and poet to alchemy and esoterism. It would be barely known today if the name had not been revived by J.K Rowling.

Where to find the traces of Nicolas Flamel in today’s Paris ?

There are two streets related to Flamel and his wife: the Rue Nicolas Flamel and the Rue Pernelle. They are situated in the neighborhood where they lived: on the right bank, not very far from Notre-Dame and Le Louvre.

The rue Nicolas Flamel with the Tour Saint-Jacques in the background. Sourced from Wikipedia

The streets have kept an old aspect due to their narrowness even if most buildings are from the XIXth century.

The street was called the Rue Marivaux, litteraly the street of the marsh at the time Nicolas Flamel was alive and it was named after him in 1851. He lived at the angle between this street and what is now the wide Rue de Rivoli, passing close from the tower.

At the end of this street, a big tower known as the Tour Saint-Jacques. It was from this tower, the belfry of a church destroyed during the Revolution, that started the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella that we talked about.

You can find stories telling that Flamel had left on the tower some hints that would help alchemists to find the Stone. The truth is that this tower was started to build when he was already dead.

However, he and his wife did patronize the building of a portal of the church that was in the same spot, Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie. The two of them were represented on this portal and he had the privilege to be buried inside.

The oldest house of Paris (1407) is also known as the house of Nicolas Flamel. This beautiful stone house, classified by the French state, is situated in the 51 Rue de Montmorency in the 3rd arrondissement.

Auberge de Nicolas Flamel. Picture taken by Guilhem Vellut, sourced from Wikipedia

He never lived inside however it was paid by him. This place was meant for poor people who were only required to pray two times a day (and dedicate their prayer to Nicolas and Pernelle). It is today a restaurant, l’Auberge de Nicolas Flamel.

You can see his tomb in the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages, located 28 rue Du Sommerard in the Latin Quarter.

 

***

 

I hope I did not disappoint you by destroying the myth of Nicolas Flamel.

But after all, it is possible that historians did not find the evidences because his experiment were meant to be secret, reserved to the ones worthy to find the Stone.

The story that I presented you as a legend might have been written by someone more informed. At the end, it is your choice to believe it or not!

If you want to see the places where Nicolas Flamel lived, I suggest to do it as night. The darkness combined to the narrowness of the streets in the center of Paris will create the perfect atmosphere to hear this kind of story. There are many others legends in this area that a guide could tell you, so why not taking a tour ?

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