Nicolas Flamel – Learned Scribe or Mysterious Alchemist?
Nicolas Flamel was a Frenchman who lived between the 14th and 15th centuries. According to contemporary sources, he was a scribe and manuscript seller. Later sources, i.e. those from the 17th century, however, turned him into a successful alchemist, and his reputation as such remained unquestioned for over a century.
Although the life of the real, historical Flamel was revealed during the 18th century, he is still best-known as an alchemist. Even today, Flamel the alchemist appears in popular culture, most notably in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Nicolas Flamel only gained his reputation as an alchemist during the 17th century and was able to maintain it for over a century. Flamel’s true, historical identity was first questioned in 1761 by Abbé Étienne-François Villain. In that year, Villain published his Histoire Critique de Nicolas Flamel et de Pernelle sa Femme ( Critical History of Nicolas Flamel and His Wife Pernelle), in which he claimed that Flamel’s life as an alchemist could not be supported by historical evidence.
He also claimed that the Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques ( Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures), attributed to Flamel, and published in 1612, was in fact written by its publisher, Pierre Arnauld de la Chevalerie under the pseudonym Eiranaeus Orandus, and that de la Chevalerie was responsible for starting the Flamel legend.
Villain’s claims were certainly controversial at that time and many jumped to defend Flamel’s reputation as an alchemist, the most notable being Antoine-Joseph Pernety. The material used by Pernety to defend Flamel was drawn largely from the author’s introduction to the Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures which was popular during the 19th century among those who supported the idea that Flamel was an alchemist.
Nicolas Flamel. (Racconish / Public Domain)
Needless to say, as time went by, the legends surrounding Nicolas Flamel grew and were embellished by his supporters, and some of these will be mentioned later on. Fortunately for us, Villain not only critiqued the widespread belief in Flamel being an accomplished alchemist, but also, through his hard work, uncovered the real history of this larger-than-life figure.
The Life of Nicolas Flamel
It may be said, first of all, that a person by the name of Nicolas Flamel did indeed exist. Although not entirely certain, the year 1330 is commonly cited as the year of his birth. He was born either in Pontoise or in Paris.
During the late 14th and early 15th centuries Flamel lived in Paris and worked as a public scribe. In addition, he ran two shops that were built against the wall of the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie. Flamel is also recorded to have served as a church warden in his parish and that he married a woman by the name of Pernelle (or Perenelle) in 1368.
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An illuminated page from a book on alchemical processes and receipts. Nicolas Flamel was known to have been a scribe. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0)
His wife had been widowed (not once, but twice) and brought with her to the marriage the fortunes of both her previous husbands. Apart from owning several properties, the couple also contributed financially to many churches and hostels. For instance, one of the ways the couple spent their wealth was to commission sculpted works for churches, an example of which is the tympanum of the charnel house (long since destroyed) of the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery.
Another example of the Flamels’ philanthropy was the building of houses to accommodate the homeless of Paris. One of these survives till this day and is the oldest stone house in the city. The house, known today as the Nicolas Flamel House, was completed in 1407 and is situated at 51 Rue de Montmorency, in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris.
The city’s homeless were allowed to stay in these houses, on the condition that they prayed for the souls of the dead. The inscription (in Middle French) just below the ground floor cornice of the Nicolas Flamel House attests to this. This translated inscription reads, “ We, ploughmen and women living at the porch of this house, built in 1407, are requested to say every day an ‘Our Father’ and an ‘Ave Maria’ praying God that His grace forgive poor and dead sinners. Amen.”
Ground floor facade and a detailed view of its inscription and door jambs of the Nicolas Flamel House. (Tangopaso / Public Domain)
One possible explanation for the Flamels’ philanthropy is that they were childless and therefore could afford to spend on charitable works and monumental art pieces. Such good works would also ensure that Flamel and his wife would continue to be remembered and commemorated after their deaths.
Another piece of evidence for Flamel’s existence is the tombstone which he designed for himself. This artifact is today displayed in the Musée de Cluny, a museum of the Middle Ages in Paris. The church where Flamel was buried in, the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, was destroyed towards the end of the 18 th century and Flamel’s tombstone subsequently became a cutting board in a Parisian grocery.
Tombstone of Nicolas Flamel. (CSvBibra / Public Domain)
Fortunately, it was rescued from this ignominious fate and eventually arrived at the Musée de Cluny. Apart from Flamel’s tombstone, another artifact relating to his afterlife is his will, which is dated the 22nd of November 1416. His death is believed to have taken place on the 22nd of March the following year.
It is from this will that we have an idea of Flamel’s wealth. Apart from the fortunes brought by Pernelle from her previous marriages, Flamel obtained his wealth through his work as a scribe, which was a well-paying occupation during the Middle Ages, prior to the invention of printing. Interestingly, some have speculated that Flamel and his wife grew rich through illegal business dealings with Jews, which may also be used to explain how he got involved in alchemy in the first place.
Was Nicolas Flamel Truly Involved in Alchemy?
The available information on Flamel’s life makes him one of the best-documented medieval figures in the history of alchemy. Yet, in these reliable sources, there is no mention whatsoever about Flamel’s alleged dealings in alchemy. Neither is there anything about him dabbling in the related fields of pharmacy and medicine, nor any evidence that Flamel had acquired any further education beyond that which was necessary for his job as a scribe.
On top of that, no known alchemical treatise dating to the late 16 th century cites Flamel as a medieval source. Even if Flamel had tried his hand at alchemy (which is not impossible), it is unlikely that he progressed very far in this field or made significant contributions to it. The available evidence suggests that Flamel’s reputation as a master alchemist was an invention of the 17 th century.
While the claims made about Flamel the alchemist are quite far-fetched, they do provide some interesting material for reading. The most common of these is that Flamel had attained immortality through the Elixir of Life.
For example, as early as the 17th century, there were claims by travelers that Flamel and his wife were still alive and working in India. By then, the couple were almost 400 years old.
Again, during the 18th century, when the debate surrounding Flamel’s reputation as an alchemist was raging in Paris, some deluded spectators allegedly saw Flamel, his wife, and his son, attending a performance at the Paris opera.
Furthermore, it is claimed that they were accompanied by an artist who was sketching their portraits. In addition, Flamel the alchemist is also famous for having successfully created the Philosopher’s Stone, which has the power to transform lead into gold.
Nicolas Flamel’s Master Feats
It is due to these two feats that Flamel’s reputation was secured as a master alchemist. Indeed, the goal of any serious-minded alchemist was to attain eternal life and to be able to transform lead into gold. In some cases, the former is achieved through the Elixir of Life, while the latter through the Philosopher’s Stone.
In European alchemical tradition, the Elixir of Life is closely related to the creation of the Philosopher's Stone. According to legend, certain alchemists have gained a reputation as creators of the elixir. These include Nicolas Flamel and St. Germain. (Mary Mark Ockerbloom / Public Domain)
In others, the Philosopher’s Stone alone granted both abilities to its possessor. With our current scientific understanding, the goals of alchemy seem impossible. To alchemists, however, such ideas were perfectly logical. For instance, the theory that lead could be transformed into gold is based on Aristotelian assumption that the world and everything in it is made of four basic elements – air, earth, fire, and water, as well as three ‘essential’ substances – salt, mercury, and sulphur.
In addition, alchemists believe that the various metals have different levels of ‘perfection’. Gold was thought to represent the highest development in metals, as it contained the perfect balance of the four elements, whereas lead was the basest metal. If both lead and gold contain the four elements, though in different proportions, then it would be possible, according to alchemy, to transform one to the other by changing this proportion.
Alchemist turning lead into gold. (Dmitriy / Adobe Stock)
During its heyday, alchemy appealed even to those considered today as major figures in the history of science. One of the best-known of these figures, for instance, is Isaac Newton. While Newton is best-known for his immense contributions to classical mechanics, optics, and calculus, he is much less known for his alchemical works.
In fact, Newton spent an enormous amount of his time on alchemy and historians have estimated that he wrote more than a million words of alchemical notes during his lifetime. Today, alchemy is generally considered to be a pseudo-science. Nevertheless, some historians of science today do not dismiss alchemy entirely but consider the principles in them as having had an influence on the great discoveries in the history of science.
For example, the first element to have been discovered that was not already known in ancient times was phosphorus. This discovery was made in 1649 by Hennig Brand, a German alchemist, who was in search of the Philosopher’s Stone. One of Brand’s experiments involved distilling human urine and it was thanks to this that he discovered phosphorus.
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The alchemist in search of the Philosopher’s Stone discovers phosphorus. (Tholme / Public Domain)
As another example, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, the French chemist popularly known as the ‘father of modern chemistry’, replaced the four elements of alchemy in 1789 with a new list of elements, which were grouped according to their properties into gases, non-metals, metals, and earth. This is considered to be the earliest attempt to classify the elements and the beginning of the periodic table.
Returning to Flamel the alchemist, he seems to have been more fortunate than the real-life alchemists in his quest for the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures, Flamel claims to have bought for two florins a book entitled the Book of Abraham the Jew, and notes that “I believe it had been stolen or taken from the miserable Jews; or found hid in some part of the ancient place of their abode”.
The book contained strange characters that Flamel did not understand. Flamel then showed his book to the greatest scholars in Paris, but they too did not understand its contents, and most of them even mocked Flamel when he told them that the recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone was to be found within its pages. Finally, Flamel decided to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in the hope of showing the book to some learned Jew in a synagogue in Spain, thereby learning its secrets.
On his way back from Santiago de Compostela, Flamel met a merchant from Bologna at Leon, who told him of a physician in the city by the name of ‘Master Canches’. This physician was a Jew, but had converted to Christianity, and could possibly help Flamel decipher his book. The physician was elated to see the book, as he had heard of it, but believed that this piece of work had been long lost.
The physician was able to decipher the book, after which he and Flamel left for France. At Orleans, however, the physician fell sick and died after seven days. Flamel recorded that the physician was buried in the Church of the Holy Cross in Orleans, and that he continued the journey back to Paris on his own. The remainder of the Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures deals with the decipherment of the Book of Abraham the Jew.
Lastly, while it is extremely unlikely that Flamel was a master alchemist, as claimed by the legends, his reputation as one has survived till this day. For instance, in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the main antagonist, Claude Frollo, dabbles in alchemy and spends a great amount of his time studying the carving in the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery, where Flamel is alleged to have hid his alchemical secrets and codes. In more recent times, Flamel makes an appearance in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Top image: Representation of Nicolas Flamel. Source: Maya Kruchancova / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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