Nicolas Flamel is one of the most famous alchemists that have ever lived, but it is not even proven that he was one. All we know of his alchemic doings, we know from a book that appeared in the 17th century. It is unclear whether he wrote his quest to the Philosopher's Stone himself, since there were never found further indications suggesting he has ever dealt with alchemy. His person has found interest ever since. Victor Hugo mentioned him in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and he is referred to in best sellers like J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Who was this man, actually?
Born in 1330 in Pontoise near Paris, Nicolas Flamel was a successful notary and bookseller. In his life, he has founded fourteen hospitals, built three chapels and generously donated to seven churches. His contemparies already must have wondered how a simple bookseller without any heritage could have earned so much money with his work, and this question kept people busy long after. There was no other logical explanation but that Flamel must have found other ways to gain his fortune. In the 17th century, a work called The Book of Hieroglyphic Figures was ascribed to Flamel. In the introduction of this work, Flamel sets out how he got hold of a very old, guilded book for the price of two guilders. The cover showed engravings of curious diagrams and characters. The pages were not of paper or parchment, but of the bark of young trees instead. The first leaf revealed the author of the book: Abraham the Jew; prince, priest, levite, astrologer and philosopher. That same page was filled with curses against every reader that is not a scrivener or a priest. As a notary, Flamel argued, he should be allowed to read the book without fear. Moreover, he had dreamed that an angel had handed him the book, and so he figured that he was destined to receive it. In the introduction of his Book of Hieroglyphic Figures, Flamel describes the mysterious book into its finest details:
"...a guilded Book, very old and large. It was not of Paper, nor of Parchment, as other Books be, but was only made of delicate rinds (as it seemed unto me) of tender young trees. The cover of it was of brass, well bound, all engraven with letters, or strange figures; and for my part I think they might well be Greek Characters, or some-such-like ancient language. Sure I am, I could not read them, and I know well they were not notes nor letters of the Latin nor of the Gaul for of them we understand a little. As for that which was within it, the leaves of bark or rind, were engraven, and with admirable diligence written, with a point of Iron, in fair and neat Latin letters, coloured. It contained thrice-seven leaves, for so were they counted in the top of the leaves, and always every seventh leaf was without any writing; but, instead thereof, upon the first seventh leaf, there was painted a Rod and Serpents swallowing it up."
In the 19th century, books were still very expensive and a privilege only the mid- and upper classes could afford. But there were alternatives for the working class. Penny dreadfuls (originally called penny bloods ) were immensely popular in the United Kingdom that were first published in the 1830s. They were printed on cheap wood pulp paper and typically were eight pages. The text was divided in two columns and often accompanied by illustrations. The penny dreadfuls were serial literature, as it was common in that time (Charles Dickens, for example, published his books on serial basis as well, but the magazines he wrote for were much more expensive), Pages were filled, which meant it often happened that the last page ended with a half-sentence - and the reader had to wait a week to be able to continue reading.
The name of these prints is self-explaining: they cost a penny, and typically had sensational topics such as crime, ghosts of the supernatural. Popular stories that first appeared as a penny dreadful were Sweeney Todd or Varney the Vampire. The most popular series was written by George W. M. Reynolds, who drew his inspiration from the London slums. His Mysteries of London took a time span of 12 subsequent years; 624 numbers were published, selling up to 250,000 copies a week.
See more at British Library.