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."
A detailed account on the content of the strange work follows. Flamel writes that the book consists of three times seven leaves, and every seventh leaf contains no writing, but displays various drawings with serpents in them. Although the cover holds unknown characters, the content of the book is written in Latin letters which are readable, though highly incomprehensible for outsiders:
"In the third leaf, and in all the other writings that followed, to help his Captive nation [the Jews, AN] to pay their tributes unto the Roman Emperors, and to do other things, which I will not speak of, he taught them in common words the transmutation of Metals; he painted the Vessels by the sides, and he advertised them of the colours, and of all the rest, saving of the first agent, of the which he spake not a word; but only (as he said) in the fourth and fifth leaves entire he painted it, and figured it with very great cunning and workmanship: for although it was well and intelligibly figured and painted, yet no man could ever have been able to understand it without being well skilled in their Cabala, which goeth by tradition, and without having well studied their books."
Yet Flamel was determined to understand it. From that day on, he devotedly studied the book. He had knowledge of alchemy, so he could understand most of the operations described, but he lacked the knowledge to be able to complete the transmutation of metals. He told his wife of the book and his problems, but although she tried, she could not help him. He showed the figures to many wise people in Paris, but without result. After twenty one years (note: the mysterious book consisted of three times seven, i.e. twenty one pages!), he decided to travel to Spain, where hoped to find a Jewish sage who could help him solving the book's enigmas. Jews had been driven out of France, and many had moved to Spain, where they were tolerated by the Moorish kings. In order to conceal his real intention, he vowed to St. James to take a pilgrimage. But besides the pilgrim's attire, he also took a few copied pages of the precious book.
Initially, his quest remained unsuccessful. The Jews he met were suspicious and not willing to help a traveller who was French on top of being Christian. Discouraged, he started travelling homeward. But eventually, the tide would turn: in Léon, he met a French merchant who knew a certain Master Canches; a Jew that had converted to Christianity, but was familiar with the Book of Abraham. An encounter between Flamel and Master Canches was organized. The latter was very excited to see the transcripts of the famous Book of Abraham, and he willingly helped Flamel translating and making understand the copies he brought with him on his journey. They decided to travel to Paris together in order to reveal all the secrets of the book. Master Canches, however, never reached the capital: he was overtaken by serious sickness on the way. Flamel's care could not save the old man, and he died after seven days.
Although Canches's explanations were of great help for Flamel, he was not yet able to understand the whole book. It took him another three years of studying and experimenting to eventually accomplish the great transmutation. But finally, on January 17, 1382, he managed to turn mercury into silver, and in April of that same year, he transmutated base metal into the finest gold. After almost a quarter of a century, Flamel had finally found the Philosopher's Stone.
But what is this Philosopher's Stone actually? It lies at hand it would be some mineral with magical powers, but it rather is a substance, an elixir, with help of which alchemists can transmutate base metals into silver or gold. The same substance is known as the Elixir of Life, which would make its drinker immortal. To explain why this elixir is known as 'stone' we have to travel back to Persia in the 8th century. A Muslim alchemist called Jabir ibn Hayyan (latinized as Geber) reasoned that the transmutation of metals could be achieved by a rearrangement of their basic qualities. This change would be brought about by a certain substance, which came to be called al-iksir. Al-iksir literally means stone, and from this word, the Latin word elixir is derived.
Now that Flamel had solved the biggest alchemist secret, infinite riches lay before him. But surprisingly, he would only perform the transmutation thrice, and he would not use the gold for personal purposes. Rather, he helped the poor, widows and orphans. Flamel had great respect for his Creator and found he was not allowed to misuse his own gained power of creation. Hence, to show God his loyalty and awe, he and his wife built three chapels and financially aided churches to, among other things, repair their churchyards.
It is unsure in what year Flamel passed away, but we know he wrote his testament in 1413. He was buried on the Cemetery of Innocents, which was near his home and where he had spent quite some hours strolling when he was still alive. Despite his precautions - he did very well realize that people would come search for the elixir after his death - his house was searched from top to bottom, and so were the sculptures on his tomb. In the middle of the 16th century, the tomb of the Flamels was opened for exhumination - and found empty. Were the bodies stolen by an colleague-alchemist hoping to find the elixir? Or by robbers, hoping to find some of the gold the Flamels did possess? Or did the Flamels drink the Elixir, and had thus gained immortality? Indeed, there are accounts stating Nicolas and Perenelle lived in India in the 17th century...