Who was the real Nicholas Flamel?
Paris, in the year 1400.
An elderly man stoops over a wooden workbench. Bottles hiss and steam around him, a variety of reactions occurring in this dank, dark space in the dead of night. Liquids are poured, flames are lit, and steam rises up into the ceiling, forming wisps of clouds over the old man's white head. Sleeves pushed back and cap on the floor, he is muttering to himself, repeatedly checking the large manuscript before him. Its bark-like pages and copper hinges rattle when he moves it, rustling like leaves on the forest floor.
A few moments, he stops, eyes fixated on the page but mind elsewhere. He thinks Perenelle must have gone to bed hours ago, and perhaps he should, too. But then he remembers that Parnelle no longer walks these small chambers with him, and he sets back to work. His grief a constant motivator to dive ever further into the symbols and inscriptions before him, so much work left to do in what is becoming a rapidly decreasing fraction of time.
Nicholas Flamel was real, and you have just had the pleasure of meeting him. Of course, you may have heard of him before - particularly if you're a fan of Harry Potter. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (also known as the Philosopher's Stone in the UK version), Nicholas Flamel is referenced as the creator of the infamous relic the Philosopher's Stone. He is even purported to still be alive at the ripe age of 665 years.
In truth, he may still be. But who was this mystery man that J. K. Rowling has sent us in search of? Did he really create the philosopher's stone...and if so, how?
Our journey begins near Paris in 1330 AD. Somewhere outside the city - no one knows precisely where - a boy is born. He is of common upbringing. So common that we have no actual record of his birth or his parents. But somehow, this little boy growing up at the end of the Dark Ages will become a scholar, a scribe, and perhaps even an alchemist.
We know that Nicholas did exist, despite no record of his birth. The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris contains works copied in his own hand and original works by him. It also contains official documents that prove his existence: his marriage contract, his deeds of charitable gifts, and his last will.
By all accounts, Flamel was an ordinary man. Somehow, he learned to read and write. He made his living as a bookseller, setting up shop in a little stall near the Cathedral of Saint-Jacques la Boucherie. In that small stall, reported to be no larger than a few square feet, he copied and illuminated (illustrated) books. As his business grew, he became successful enough to buy a house on the old rue de Marivaux; here, he made his living on the ground floor shop and spent his nights in the rooms above.
It is those nights that intrigue us most about Flamel.
For in the dead of night, perhaps, we encounter Flamel: bent over his workbenches and books. It hadn't always been this way - or if it had, we know very little of it. We do know that at some point, Flamel married a widow named Perenelle. She brought the wealth of her two previous husbands to the marriage, and together they would own several properties and become known for making generous charitable contributions. She also, legend has it, was a great keeper of secrets and never revealed the true nature of her husband's late hours.
In addition to being a bookseller, Flamel was also an amateur alchemist. That is, he pursued alchemy: the study of spiritual discipline and the philosophical examination of nature. It was this passion that brought him the dream that would make him legend.
One night, Flamel claimed that an angel had appeared to him in a very strange and vivid dream. The angel presented him with a beautiful book made of fine bark and worked copper. Then the angel told Flamel, "Look well at this book, Nicholas. At first you will understand nothing in it -- neither you nor any other man. But one day you will see in it that which no other man will be able to see."
Flamel awoke, without the book.
Several days passed, and perhaps Flamel thought little more of the dream. He continued to copy other manuscripts and illuminate pages, buying and selling books from the stone walls that he called home. Then, one day, a stranger came to his shop and presented him with a beautiful book, hoping to sell it quickly for some much-needed cash. The book, with its bark pages and worked copper, was instantly recognizable to Flamel. Flamel bought the book for two florins (the equivalent of 67 British pounds in 2012).
Flamel must have examined the book very carefully. From the legends surrounding it, we know that the book was written by Abraham the Jew, who claimed to be "a prince, priest, Levite, astrologer and philosopher," though we know nothing else about him. Flamel would dedicate most of his life to understanding this mysterious text, written in Judaic. He - like others after him - believed the book's encoded alchemical symbols held the secrets of the Philosopher's Stone.
But Flamel couldn't read the text: it was a foreign language to him. The symbols meant nothing without a cipher. Flamel knew that a Jew could decipher the text easily enough, but there was one problem: by this time, France had expelled all Jews. Flamel was at a lost.
Fearing the loss of the book, Flamel copied a handful of its pages. He packed his bags and set off for Spain, where many of the Jews had fled, to seek out a translator. Unfortunately for Flamel, the Jewish were highly suspicious of the French. No one would help him. Flamel turned back towards home.
Yet fate would not have it end so quietly. On the way home, Flamel stopped near Leon. It was here that he met an old, learned Jew by the name of Maestro Canches. Canches agreed to assist Flamel and translated the copied pages that Flamel carried. Flamel was eager to return to Paris, retrieve the manuscript, and return to have Canches translate the rest. Unfortunately, Canches died before Flamel could return.
But Flamel, being a learned man himself, did not despair. Using the translation he had, Flamel reportedly was able to translate the rest of the manuscript and to decipher the alchemical symbols. He had unlocked the mysterious book.
Legend has it that Flamel then became a true alchemist, conducting various experiments within the book. But Flamel focused on one experiment in particular: creating the Philosopher's Stone. The stone was said to be made of a mythical material called carmot: a deep red liquid used to facilitate transformations. Carmot was also believed to give the drinker eternal life and spiritual enlightenment.
No one knows if Flamel really succeeded, but the clues we have are tantalizing. Local legend states that Flamel became capable of transmuting a half-pound of mercury into silver and then into pure gold. While the historical records don't show any proof that Flamel succeeded in this venture, what they do show is that quite suddenly - almost overnight - Flamel and his beloved wife became exceedingly rich. Though they didn't move from their quiet home or enlarge the shop or become prominent members of court, the locals soon noticed that the bookseller began making very large donations to the church, building housing for the poor, and establishing free hospitals in the city. How could a bookseller, despite his wife's inheritance, afford such expensive gifts and projects practically overnight?
No record exists to explain.
Following this sudden influx of wealth, Flamel seems to have gone back to a fairly normal everyday life. Though not published during his lifetime, he reportedly wrote several books on alchemy and ciphers, including:
- Le livre des figures hiéroglyphiques (The Book of Hieroglyphic Figures)
- Le sommaire philosophique (The Philosophical Summary)
- Le Livre des laveures (The Book of Washing), and
- Le Breviaire de Flamel (Flamel's Breviary.
Time wore on. Eventually, Perenelle died, leaving the aging Flamel to his stone house in the city. His bookshop continued to operate, employing a number of copyists and illuminators to continue his work. His hands were aging, his bones tiring. He was growing far older than anyone would have expected at the time. But he showed no sign of slowing down. Flamel spent his days writing books on alchemy. He even designed his own tombstone, engraved with arcane alchemical symbols (it is now preserved at the Musee de Cluny in Paris).
In 1418, Flamel died. Well, supposedly. Nearly immediately after, rumors began to circulate the Flamel had not, in fact, died. His house was repeatedly ransacked by those seeking to find the philosopher's stone -- or, at the very least, the book by Abraham. Neither was ever found, and Flamel's collections passed into the hands of his descendants.
Flamel's legend died out for a brief time. In the early 1600s, Flamel's name re-emerged and the legend of the philosopher's stone grew stronger. It was the reign of Louis XIII, though you may know the era better from another name: Cardinal de Richelieu (for those of you who don't know, de Richelieu held a lot of power and is one of the main characters in Alexandre Dumas's The Three Muskateers.)
At this time, one of Flamel's descendants - known only to us as Dubois - claimed to transform lead balls into gold. Dubois performed this feat for King Louis and the Cardinal, who subsequently demanded to know how Dubois had accomplished it. Unfortunately, Dubois claimed not to know how he had done it, as he could not read Flamel's manuscripts (a poor excuse - and one that leaves us wondering how he was able to do any transformations in the first place). The Cardinal was not impressed. Dubois was imprisoned and condemned to death, with the Cardinal taking possession of all of Dubois's property, including the manuscripts from Flamel. Little is known about what the Cardinal found, but legend claims that Cardinal de Richelieu found Abraham's book and set up a secret laboratory to exploit its secrets. Yet no evidence of either the book or the library was ever found.
Today, the legend of Nicholas Flamel and the philosopher's stone lives on. It was featured in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling as well as The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott. There have also been a few documentaries made about this mysterious man.
Whether Flamel ever achieved making the philosopher's stone is still up for debate, as are many of the questions surrounding his sudden wealth and his interest in alchemy. Some say that Flamel and his beloved wife are still alive. In fact, a late 17th century expedition purported to have found a man who claimed to know Flamel and had seen him and Perenelle living peacefully in India. He still possessed the philosopher's stone.