In the initial book of the Harry Potter series Nicholas Flamel is introduced as the creator of the “Philosopher’s Stone.” This stone is capable of producing the elixir of immortality, so of course the evil Voldemort is after it and must be stopped. Those unfamiliar with the Potter saga may never have otherwise heard of Nicholas Flamel. Although Harry Potter is fictional, Frenchman Nicolas Flamel was not. He lived during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. A successful French scribe and manuscript-seller, the story foes that Flamel devoted his life to understanding the text of a mysterious book filled with encoded alchemical symbols that some believed held the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone
Many myths surround Flamel, including the belief that he successfully created the Stone. According to texts ascribed to Flamel almost 200 years after his death, he had learned alchemical secrets from a Jewish converso on the road to Santiago de Compostela. His death in 1417 didn’t hurt the myth, and his quest for the Philosopher’s Stone lives on in his writings. Although modern scholarship has cast doubt on the authenticity of alchemical texts ascribed to him, he remains an important figure in the alchemical world.
Flamel carried on the trade of a bookseller and had a stall backing on to the columns of Saint-Jacques la Boucherie in Paris. It was not a big stall, for it measured only two feet by two and a half. However, it grew. He bought a house in the old rue de Marivaux and used the ground floor for his business. Copyists and illuminators did their work there. He himself gave a few writing lessons and taught nobles who could only sign their names with a cross. The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris contains works copied in his own hand and original works written by him.
An alchemical book, published in Paris in 1612 as Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques and in London in 1624 as Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures was attributed to Flamel. It is a collection of designs purportedly commissioned by Flamel for a tympanum at the Cimetière des Innocents in Paris, long disappeared at the time the work was published. In architecture, a tympanum is the semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, door or window, which is bounded by a lintel and arch. It often contains sculpture or other imagery or ornaments.
In it Flamel’s search for the philosopher’s stone was described. According to the publisher’s introduction, Flamel had made it his life’s work to understand the text of a mysterious 21-page book he had purchased. The introduction claims that, around 1378, he travelled to Spain for assistance with translation. On the way back, he reported that he met a sage, who identified Flamel’s book as being a copy of the original Book of Abramelin the Mage. With this knowledge, over the next few years, Flamel and his wife allegedly decoded enough of the book to successfully replicate its recipe for the philosopher’s stone, producing first silver in 1382 and then gold. In addition, Flamel is also said to have studied some texts in Hebrew.
The validity of this story was first questioned in 1761 by Etienne Villain. He claimed that the source of the Flamel legend was P. Arnauld de la Chevalerie, publisher of Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures, who wrote the book under the pseudonym Eiranaeus Orandus. Other writers have defended the legendary account of Flamel’s life, which has been embellished by stories of sightings in the 17th and 18th centuries. Flamel had achieved legendary status within the circles of alchemy by the mid 17th Century, with references in Isaac Newton’s journals to “the Caduceus, the Dragons of Flammel”.[11 Interest in Flamel revived in the 19th century: Victor Hugo mentioned him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which the tragic main character Claude Frollo is a young priest and alchemist who spends much of his time studying the carvings in Les Innocents, trying to fathom Flamel’s secrets. The composer Erik Satie was intrigued by Flamel.
Works ascribed to Flamel
- Le Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques (The Book of hieroglyphic figures), first published in Trois traictez de la philosophie naturelle, Paris, Veuve Guillemot, 1612
- Le sommaire philosophique (The Philosophical summary), first published in De la transformation métallique, Paris, Guillaume Guillard, 1561
- Le Livre des laveures (The Book of washing), manuscript BnF MS. Français 19978
- Le Bréviaire de Flamel (Flamel’s breviary), manuscript BnF MS. Français 14765