Nicolas Flamel

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For the Harry Potter character, see Nicolas Flamel.
This imaginative portrait of Nicolas Flamel dates from the nineteenth century.
This imaginative portrait of Nicolas Flamel dates from the nineteenth century.

Nicolas Flamel (c. 13301417?) was a successful scrivener and manuscript-seller who developed a reputation as an alchemist.

Flamel was the attributed author of an alchemical book, published in Paris in 1612 as Livre des figures hiéroglypiques and in London in 1624 as Exposition of the Hieroglyphicall Figures.[1] It is an exposition of figures purportedly commissioned by Flamel for a tympanum at the Cimetière des Innocents in Paris, long disappeared at the time the work was published. In its publisher's introduction Flamel's search for the Philosopher's Stone was described. According to it, Flamel made it his life's work to understand the text of the mysterious twenty-one-page book he had purchased, and that around 1378, he traveled 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 Abraham also known as the Codex. 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.

According to the introduction to his work and the additional details that have accrued since its publication, Flamel would thus have been the most accomplished of the European alchemists, who would have learned his art from a Jewish converso on the road to Santiago de Compostela. "Others thought Flamel was the creation of seventeenth-century editors and publishers desperate to produce modern printed editions of supposedly ancient alchemical treatises then circulating in manuscript for an avid reading public," Deborah Harkness put it succinctly.[2] The modern assertion that many references to him or his writings appear in alchemical texts of the 1500s, however, has not been linked to any particular source. The essence of his reputation is that he succeeded at the two magical goals of alchemy -- that he made the Philosopher's Stone which turns lead into gold, and that he and his wife Perenelle achieved immortality.

The house of Flamel in Paris, now a restaurant.
The house of Flamel in Paris, now a restaurant.


[edit] Life

An attempt to separate fact from fancy was made in 1993 by Nigel Wilkins,[3] who attributed his alchemical reputation to his genuine wealth in unstable times. The historical Flamel was born near Paris around 1330. He initially worked as a public scrivener, making copies of documents, and this developed into a career as a bookseller, as he bought and sold manuscripts. In addition, he was a master scribe and calligrapher, finding, producing and reproducing manuscripts under the purview of the University of Paris as a libraire-juré, a "bonded bookseller". He funded many building projects around Paris, hospices for the poor and repairs to churches, notably Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie, near which there are a rue Nicolas Flamel, renamed for him in 1851[4] and a rue Perenelle, named for his wife in 1853[5] in Paris IVe. A house of 1407 built by him still stands, the oldest stone house in Paris, at 51 rue de Montmorency (IIIe arrondissement); the ground floor, always a tavern, currently houses the Auberge Nicolas Flamel.[6]

Flamel had these mysterious alchemical symbols carved on his tomb in the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris.
Flamel had these mysterious alchemical symbols carved on his tomb in the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris.

Flamel lived into his 80s, and in 1410 designed his own tombstone, which was carved with arcane alchemical signs and symbols. Some believe that he died shortly after the tombstone was created. Later after that a local criminal, who wished to acquire Flamel's reputed gold, went to Flamel's residence. Finding nothing, but undeterred, he was said to have then gone to the gravesite with only a shovel and a lantern, and dug up the grave. Upon opening the coffin, he was disappointed to find an absence of gold, but shocked to find no trace of the corpse of Nicolas Flamel. Some claim that it was just the grave of the wrong person who was not dead at the time, while still others claim that he faked his own death, and they cite as proof the fact that long after 1410, several books were published in his name. The tombstone is preserved at the Musée de Cluny in Paris.

Expanded accounts of his life are taken as legendary. In addition to the mysterious book of twenty-one pages filled with encoded alchemical symbols and arcane writing, he may also have studied some texts in Hebrew. Interest in Flamel revived in the nineteenth century: Victor Hugo noted him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Eric Satie was intrigued by Flamel.[7] Flamel is often referred to in late twentieth-century fictional works such as the Harry Potter books and movies as well as The Da Vinci Code.

[edit] In popular culture

Nicolas Flamel's story is alluded to in J. K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Sorceror's Stone in the United States), in which he is an unseen character. He was friends with Albus Dumbledore and said to have lived for hundreds of years until the Philosopher's Stone was destroyed following the events of the book (see Nicolas Flamel in Harry Potter.)

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Laurinda Dixon, ed. Nicolas Flamel, His Exposition of the Hieroglyphicall Figures (1624) (New York:Garland) 1994.
  2. ^ Harkness, review of Dixon 1994 in Isis 89.1 (1998) p. 132.
  3. ^ According to Nigel Wilkins, Des livres et de l'or he was born on September 28, 1330 near (Paris).
  4. ^ "Nomenclature officielle des voies de Paris": rue Nicolas Flamel.
  5. ^ "Nomenclature officielle des voies de Paris": rue Perenelle".
  6. ^ "Paris Discovered" (pdf file)
  7. ^ Wilkins 1993.

[edit] References

[edit] External links

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