Alchemy – Nicholas Flamel

The tomb of Nicholas Flamel

For people who are not fans of Harry Potter (strange I know but there are some) Nicholas Flamel is a character in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. And he was a real person who lived in fourteenth century Paris.

Alchemists believed that the world was made up of four elements and that eventually all substances would return to a pure state – so in the case of base metal they were speeding things up in their bid to transmute lead into gold and in the case of the Elixir of Life they were slowing things down. Or put another way they were attempting to work out the secrets of the cosmos.

Now, the problem with this was that until the lead transmuted into gold there wasn’t a great deal of money to be had – although if you found a rich patron then things probably became more straight forward. Though obviously states tended to be a bit twitchy about people manufacturing gold without their say so and the Church had it’s doubts about men usurping God’s role (though apparently Martin Luther found it all very interesting.) Nicholas Flamel paid his bills by working as a copyist, a public writer who wrote letters for people who couldn’t, a landlord and a bookseller – he had a licence from the University of Paris. He also speculated in property.

Apparently Nicholas laid hands on a very old book allegedly written by Abraham the Jew. Flamel translated it being familiar with kabbalah, and lo and behold Abraham knew the secret to the Elixir of Life. The problem was that he wasn’t that well versed in the language or the symbolism so he decided that he needed some help.

He concluded that the best place to go was Spain where he met a Converso – a Jew who had converted to Christianity. Conchez, the Converse, obligingly undertook to help Nicholas. Unfortunately Nicholas had travelled all that way without the book. Conchez died in Orleans and Nicholas spent the next two decades deciphering the text.

Until in 1382 he apparently found the formula and became very very rich.

There are a couple of problems with the story. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of evidence of alchemy in Mr Flamel’s life. The money? His wife Perenelle, who he married in 1368, came from a wealthy family. That and the fact she’d already been twice widowed. His will does not suggest fantastic wealth.

Perenelle was apparently, according to the story, Nicholas’s able assistant.

Nicholas Flamel by Balthazar Montcornet – 17th century

The story – no smoke without fire and all that? Became popular about 200 years after he died… though some writers claim that they saw him in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

And where does all this come from? Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques was published in 1612 – which possibly goes to show that just because a book is old doesn’t make it totally trustworthy! Unless you happen to think Flamel was an alchemist in which case you might take an entirely different view! And you might also argue that given what I wrote earlier about Church and State views that you might want to look like a mild mannered entrepreneur rather than a proto-scientist.

Did I mention that other alchemist…Sir Isaac Newton?