Nicolas Flamel

Listen to our podcast episode on him here:

A book seller that got a larger than life reputation centuries after his death. If the stories are to be believed he’s still around.

Nicolas Flamel

I’ll bet some waiting for this one for a while. If people can name one Alchemist, it’s probably him. So let’s get one thing out of the way at the very beginning: Like some of the other’s on this podcast, Flamel was not an alchemist.

He got the reputation centuries after his death.. but we’ll clarify that. We wanted to get that out of the way in the beginning, because, though he maybe the most famous alchemist of all time (possibly) he’s probably one of the least Alchemy-like people we’ve covered. He wasn’t even a fake alchemist, like a charlatan. He basically did nothing to get his reputation. But a reputation he does have, so we’ll delve into one of his supposed works on alchemy (though probably written 3 hundred years after his death)

First, who was the real Flamel?

Nicolas Flamel probably born in Pontoise, ca 1330 –  died Paris, March 22, 1418, was a successful French scrivener and manuscript-seller.

According to texts ascribed to Flamel almost two hundred years after his death, he had learned alchemical secrets from a Jewish converso on the road to Santiago de Compostela.

The real historical Flamel lived in Paris in the fourteenth and fifteenth century and his life is one of the best documented in the history of medieval alchemy. He ran two shops as a scribe and married Perenelle in 1368. She brought the wealth of two previous husbands to the marriage. The French Catholic couple owned several properties, and contributed financially to churches, sometimes by commissioning sculptures. Later in life they were noted for their wealth and philanthropy.
Flamel lived into his 80s, and in 1410 designed his own tombstone, which was carved with the images of Christ, St. Peter, and St. Paul. The tombstone is preserved at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Records show that Flamel died in 1418. He was buried in Paris at the Musée de Cluny at the end of the nave of the former Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie.His will, dated 22 November, 1416, indicates that he was generous but that he did not have the extraordinary wealth of later alchemical legend. There is no indication that the real Flamel of history was involved in alchemy, pharmacy or medicine.

It would not be until centuries after his death that he gained the reputation he has today.

Nicolas Flamel in Paris

One of Flamel’s houses still stands in Paris, at 51 rue de Montmorency. It is the oldest stone house in the city. There is an old inscription on the wall:

“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.”

The ground floor currently contains a restaurant.
A Paris street near the Louvre Museum, the rue Nicolas Flamel, has been named after him; it intersects with the rue Perenelle, named after his wife.

Posthumous reputation as an alchemist

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”.

Interest in Flamel revived in the 19th century; Victor Hugo mentioned him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Erik Satie was intrigued by Flamel, and Albert Pike makes reference to Nicholas Flamel in his book Morals and Dogma of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.

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

The Book of hieroglyphic figures:

Legendary accounts of Flamel’s life are based on seventeenth century works, primarily Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques.

The essence of his reputation are claims that he succeeded at the two goals of alchemy: that he made the Philosopher’s Stone, which turns base metals into gold, and that he and his wife Perenelle achieved immortality through the “Elixir of Life”.

The book 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 the publisher’s introduction Flamel’s search for the Philosopher’s Stone was described. According to that 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 said to have studied some texts in Hebrew.
The book basically describes that the Tympanum is fully of alchemical hints he learned from studying his old book. It makes a case (written in the first person as Flamel) that he’s an alchemist. He describes the arch in terms of chistian theology and the final judgement, but also in Hermetical terms.

For instance.. Flamel notes the christian symbolism is slightly off. Peter and Paul’s positions are switched, the colors are wrong, they’re standing wrong, etc. This is taken in the book to refer to philosopher’s in the alchemical tradition. Hidden secrets. He mentions qabalah, and the philosopher’s stone (called the philosophicall egge), Geber, Rasis.. all the greats are there, hidden or alluded to. The whole arch can be read as a furnace, giving instruction on how to prepare the stone.
He writes a whole chapter on why peter is wearing red and holding a key. Basically: Peter is the stone that has the key to multiplying gold.

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 seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and expanded in fictitious works ever since.

In popular culture

The idea of Flamel, the great alchemist has evolved throughout the centuries and has continued through modern times. For example, he was alleged to be the eighth Grand Master of the Priory of Sion leading to his mention in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code(2003). Other literary works that feature Flamel include:

  • Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831).
  • Michael Roberts’s poem “Nicholas Flamel” (1930).
  • Max McCoy’s novel Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone (1995).
  • J. K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997).
  • Michael Scott’s series, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel (2007).
  • Flamel has also made his way into manga, television and music as seen in Fullmetal Alchemist (2001), and Morgana Lefay’s concept album Grand Materia (2005).

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15 thoughts on “Nicolas Flamel

  1. john voulgaris

    For someone that has set out to prove that Nicholas Flamel ,was not an alchemist ,you have done a grand job in doing the opposite.
    Where there is smoke ,there is fire.
    This man has left smoke everywhere.We are all looking for the fire !

    Reply
  2. Travis Dow Post author

    Who am I to tell you you’re wrong? I hope you liked the episode!

    It is important to note that we don’t “set out to prove” anything. We’re just investigating history here. We just report back on the evidence (or lack thereof).

    There are so many real alchemist! Flamel wasn’t one. And that’s okay. Whishful thinking never got anyone closer to the truth! But that’s exactly why we’re here: to shed light on actual alchemy, and also explain why and when legends came about centuries after certain people’s death.

    Reply
  3. abomb1177

    I just watched the movie “as above, so below” This movie deals with everything that has to do with this subject. Although somewhat entertaining, this film is very unstable and had no direct meaning other than who goes into the ancient catacombs, will have to face their demons or else.
    I was intrigued by the mention of flamel, because I hadn’t heard of him until Harry potter. And when they changed the name to sorcerers stone, I wondered why. Now I know.
    If people can believe that Christ rose from the grave,then why can’t people believe in something like this? Maybe Christ was an alchemist and had already discovered the elixer, but used it all on his resurrection.
    The bottom line is know one will ever really know . So why do we have so much faith in christ, who was just a man, but no faith in flamel, who was also just a man?
    It’s a gigantic, multi-century telephone game.
    Things and story’s told over the years being skewed and changed to fit that time period, becoming gospel.
    I am by no means comparing christ to flamel, but comparing the belief in a story told throughout time.
    One is said to have risen from the dead.
    One is said to have ever lasting life.
    There is no physical or scientific proof to support either, but yet our society is based on one.
    It all comes down to “faith”.
    what is “faith”?
    It is a very strong belief in a passed on story that Noone ACTUALLY witnessed happen. It is just an enterpretation of what people, back then, think they saw. Maybe a lightning storm. Meteor shower.
    Something not understood by people of that time.
    And what is the end result?
    Multiple cultures believing in different religions.
    If there was a god, why would our species be given a choice of worship?
    As above, so below, is the exact (allegedly) location between heaven and hell, as its known on earth. Also seems to be the place where Nicolas flamel hid the philosophers stone.
    Turns out there are some obstacles.
    Although you might not like the film, the attribution to the above mentioned conversation is constantly present. Which I find intriguing.
    Watch this movie. Take frome it what you will. But just remember. . .
    The things we take for granted, are the things we miss most in death.

    Reply
  4. Darren bridgen

    Thanks for the pod cast great guys
    I watched as above below
    And was shocked when I herd his name as
    I’d never herd of him till Harry potter

    Reply
  5. Anonymous

    I looked him up, searching for the Harry Potter character. I totally forgot that he was an actual, real living person. My only question is: Does he actually know a man named Albus Dumbledore?

    Reply
  6. Chris Webster

    Interesting. I was pretty sure that he was a fake character in Harry Potter but I was wrong. I love your podcast, for it is very clever. I was busy reading along with the facts on the podcast.

    Reply
  7. Indi$$$

    OMG!!!!! That was amazing and sooo factual. I loved it! Even though I thought he wasn’t even real! Thankyou so much, Travis and other guy!

    Reply
  8. Chris

    I very much enjoyed this story as I have always been curious the nature and source of alchemy.. Nicolas flamel has always been mentioned as basically the godfather of modern alchemy… and though ive done some research of my own its very hard to prove or disprove of the “facts” provided here or the “facts” previously believed to be true though the name Nicolas flamel does go back to the 1300’s there is also a mention of another Nicolas flamel in the mid 17th century….. I would be very much interested in seeing the notes and evidence you accumulated to the knowledge you claim to be the truth? as finding true records from the 13th and 14th centuries about such a small person in terms of status would be almost impossible…. unless the church kept detailed records of his life just because he donated a significant amount of money to it………. that being said the records that are believed to be of flamel in the 17th century are also spotty as they lack any true and real substance of a person such as the stories we tell now

    Reply
    1. Ao

      Hey! If you like Nicholas Flamel and other alchemists, you should check out the book series, “The Secrets Of The Immortal Nicholas Flamel”, The first book is called “The Alchemist” and the series is by Michael Scott. With Nicholas and his wife as protagonists and Dr. John Dee as the Antagonist, I thought that the series was great and it is what actually taught me about Alchemy. They meet so many mythological creatures on their adventures. It is a fictional story but it does have many factual ideas and information on alchemy and similar subjects. It is truly fascinating.

      Reply
  9. Judess69er

    is this explanation missing a few parts ??? it kinda just skips over Flamel entirely saying he was a Script writer and that’s it the end good night… this whole article is a bunch of nonsensical bullshit.. his name wouldn’t be such a well known name if he was just a fucking Merchant that Peddled Story’s

    Reply
    1. travis@dowhaus.com Post author

      Do you mean the article or the podcast episode? The article just summarized the episode. And you understood it correctly, Flamel was in no way an alchemist, or anyone much other than a book merchant who married into money. The legends only start at least a century after his death. More in the podcast.

      Reply

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