The mysterious life of Nicolas Flamel
A search of the name Nicolas Flamel on Google will yield over 400,000 results, most of which will link you to books or information about the character Nicolas Flamel. If it is information about the real life alchemist you are looking for, however, that information is much harder to find. Made especially famous by J.K. Rowling’s use of him in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Flamel is known as the creator of the legendary philosopher’s stone, which could produce the elixir of life and turn ordinary metal to gold. Nicolas Flamel lives on today in the pages of books such as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Michael Scott’s The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. While the real-life Flamel may not have lived forever, his story remains mysterious.
Flamel was born in 1330 near Paris, France. While it seems nothing is known about his early life, as an adult he worked as a bookseller, and he married a widow a few years older than him named Perenelle. There are accounts of gifts made by Flamel to the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery and of a manuscript recorded by Flamel being gifted to the royal court, which would seem to suggest that Flamel enjoyed success as a bookseller. Flamel was also widely known as an alchemist. Alchemy as a science had become increasingly popular throughout Europe, particularly the study of transmutation (changing one substance to another, typically base metals into gold).
Flamel would become famous for his creation of the philosopher’s stone, which was said to be able to turn mercury into gold.
On 25th April, 1382, at five o’clock in the afternoon, Perrenelle his wife only being present, Flamel made projection of his red stone upon mercury, which, he says, ‘I truly transmuted into almost as much gold, much better, indeed, than common gold, more soft also, and more pliable’ (Read 270).
Whether Flamel’s stone could truly turn mercury to gold is suspect, especially since Flamel’s wife was the sole witness to the transmutation. However, in the 14th century people believed Flamel’s story, and Europe’s royalty and nobility began seeking out alchemists who could help them acquire wealth and good health.
The truly mysterious aspect to Nicolas Flamel’s story is how he claimed to have gained the knowledge for creating the philosopher’s stone. According to the alchemist, an angel visited him in a dream and showed him a book that no one could understand. The angel went on to say that in time the text would be revealed to him. Soon after, Flamel encountered a man carrying the same book as that in his dream. He purchased the book, which was written by Abraham the Jew. After 21 years of studying the text, Flamel deciphered the symbols in which the book was written, and from it he learned the secrets of transmutation. Of course, no copies of the Book of Abramelin the Mage exist today; all traces of the book were lost in the 17th century, making it impossible to prove Flamel’s story.
Nicolas Flamel spent the rest of his life in France where he wrote manuscripts on alchemy (some of which can be seen today in Paris’s Bibliotheque Nationale) and visited local cemeteries. By all accounts he lived a rather ordinary life in his later years. He died at the age of 80 and was buried at the church of Saint-Jacques la Boucherie. However, Flamel’s legend lived on. While there are no accounts from his lifetime claiming Flamel had also discovered the elixir of life, by the 17th century this story had grown, and it was thought that Flamel was still alive. This belief was supported by the claims of would-be robbers who broke into Flamel’s tomb hoping to find the philosopher’s stone buried alongside its creator. Instead of finding the stone, the robbers claimed that when they opened Flamel’s coffin there was no body to be found inside.
And so the legend grew. For many people today Nicolas Flamel exists solely as a fictional character, but there is no question that Nicolas Flamel did exist. A visit to French archives would turn up his wedding certificate to Perenelle, accounts of the gifts he made, and copies of his manuscripts. All of this is evidence of the life of an ordinary man, albeit a man lucky enough to be able to read and write in 14th century France. However, evidence of the more fantastical aspects of Flamel’s life is lacking. Did Flamel have access to the mysterious book by Abraham the Jew? Did he successfully turn mercury into gold? Did he even find a way to achieve immortality? These are questions you will have to answer for yourself.
“Alchemy.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Credo Reference. Web. 20 January 2014.
Buettner, Brigitte. “Past Presents: New Year’s Gifts at the Valois Courts, ca. 1400.” The Art Bulletin. 83.4 (2001): 27. Web. 20 Jan. 2014
“Flamel’s Life and Contributions – Nicolas Flamel.” Nicolas Flamel. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2014. <https://sites.google.com/site/nicolasflamelscontributions/flamel-s-life-and-contributions>.
Hamilton, E. Blanche. “Paris under the Last Valois Kings.” English Historical Review. 1.2 (1886): 16. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.
Read, John. “Alchemy and Alchemists.” Folklore. 44.3 (1933): 27. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.
“Transmutation.” Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained. London: Chambers Harrap, 2007. Credo Reference. Web. 20 January 2014.