A happy life
Flamel was born around 1335 in the small town of Pontoise, near Paris. Little is known about his childhood and youth, his parents are known to be “good people” who enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. After a few years spent in Pontoise, the Flamel family moved to Paris. Little Nicolas goes to apprenticeship at a bookseller where he learns the art of writing beautiful Gothic letters and illuminating manuscripts.
There he is, at the end of his life, in one of the few portraits one possesses of him:
One must believe that the young man is rather gifted in his field since he ends up building his own bookstore. His business allows him to live comfortably, but without more.
In fact, it is an event in his personal life that will boost his income and his way of life: his marriage around 1355 with a much older lady named him Pernelle, already widowed by two husbands and at the head of a small personal fortune.
From then on, Nicolas Flamel is a man filled, both financially and emotionally. He can now approach the future serenely by dedicating himself to his job with passion, without worrying about the profitability of his business. He took the opportunity to open a small school in his home where he learned to read, write and count to the children of the petty bourgeoisie.
As for his wife, she is “full of good qualities” and loves him with sincere love.
Such happiness is rare at this time … France is humiliated by the English after the Battle of Crécy in 1346, Europe is barely recovering from the epidemic of the Black Death of 1348 which carried off nearly half of the population … In short, if you ever have a time machine, do not settle it in the middle of the fourteenth century.
Flamel, then, is an honest worker who savors the happiness of a privileged life. His wife and he lead a simple life, faithfully fulfilling their duties as Christians. Nothing destined him, a priori, to enter the legend … until that night of insomnia where everything will rock.
A vision … or was it just a dream?
During an insomnia night, an angel appears to him in a brilliant nimbus, holding in his hand a manuscript of strange characters. “Flamel,” said he, “look at this book!” In spite of all your efforts, you will not understand anything about it … but one day you will see what no one else can see … ”
The bookseller naturally tends to receive the gift (books know it) but the angel disappears with the precious work under his arm.
This vision disrupts it strongly for several days. As a good Christian, he is persuaded that the coming of an angel on Earth to speak to him personally is not to be taken lightly. He only thinks of that, trying to remember the form of the inscriptions he had seen fleetingly, praying for the angel to appear again … But nothing does.
Days, weeks pass and he ends up forgetting all this history.
Some time later a stranger knocks at the door of his shop. He has a great need for money and wants to sell the only valuable property he owns: a very old manuscript. Scarcely does he get out of his bag that Flamel has a vertigo. It’s him! The work that has obsessed him for months and months is there, before his eyes! As a good negotiator, he hides his trouble with the unknown and derives a good price.
Then, he closes shop and moves frantically into his studio to observe the work. It is a book that seems to go back to the depths of the ages and whose pages, which are rare, are neither paper nor parchment, but in bark of shrubs. On the first page, it reads “Abraham the Jew, prince, astrologer and philosopher”.
Maranatha! The Aramaic curse from the bottom of ages
But, beyond the title that is read very well, the angel had said truth: impossible for Flamel to understand a traiter word of the book. After a careful reading, he nevertheless remarks that the word Maranatha is often repeated in the introduction. As a good scholar, Nicolas Flamel knows the meaning. It is from a Aramaic word that one finds only twice in the New Testament and which can be translated as “universal curse” (*). Flamel does not take this threat lightly, but instead of closing the book definitively, tries nevertheless to break through the secrets …
It consists of 21 pages divided into 7 chapters illustrated by 7 figures. After several days of intensive and obsessive studies, Nicolas Flamel is sure to hold in his hands the alchemical recipe for creating gold. But for now, he does not yet understand the “recipe”. He remembers the angel’s warning in his dream: “You will not understand it … but one day you will see what no one else is capable of seeing …” And that drives him to continue his study methodical. It was filled with Hebrew characters and figures that could only be understood by being versed in Kabbalah, the “oral and secret law” given by YHWH (ie God) to Moses on Mount Sinai and that a small number of initiates are transmitted from generation to generation.
Difficult to put an illustration of the book of Abraham since it was never found … From there to think that it never existed, the reader will make his own opinion!
His wife is surprised to see her husband so anxious. He, who is usually in a joyous mood, has remained locked up in his studio for several days, his face closed, his face scowling. You have to understand that, Nicolas. He does not want to mingle with his discoveries to preserve his soul … if there is to be a divine curse, he wants to take the consequences alone.
But what woman wants, God wants … before the insistence of Pernelle, it ends by spitting the piece. He tells him everything: the dream, the unknown, the book, the warnings of the introduction and the strange drawings with obscure meaning. She insists on seeing the manuscript. Nicolas yields again, and his wife plunges in turn with delight and excitement in the book of Abraham …
Note that money is not at all the motivation of the couple. They lead a happy and prosperous life, regularly give works of charity and care little to be even richer. No, we must rather see Nicolas Flamel as the Indiana Jones of the Middle Ages, only urged by curiosity and the desire to unravel the secrets of a secular enigma …
After weeks of flooring on the book, the alchemist apprentice comes to a dead end. He who is completely new to the science of Hermes Trismegistus (a mythical figure of Greek antiquity who first developed the science of alchemy, whose doctrine is called hermeticism in his homage), he realizes that a life will not suffice him to decipher the book. He needs the help of a specialist in the occult sciences. And quick.
Unspecified help (?!) Of Master Anseaulme
The idea of showing his book so precious to an unknown does not rejoice our brave Nicholas. Then he reproduces as best he can on flying leaves the drawings and symbols that seem to him the most interesting. Then he knocked at the door of Master Anseaulme, licentiate in medicine and focused on hermeticism. In the middle of the fourteenth century, alchemy was a science that began to emerge from the monasteries where it was confined for a time and spread throughout Europe, carried by such great names as Roger Bacon, Albert the Great or Raymond Lulle .
But the manuscripts are expensive and are still very rare … one should not be astonished at the reaction of Master Anseaulme who urges Nicolas Flamel to show him the original work.
“I have not, dear master.” I had only these modest parchments which I found in a pile of worthless documents.
“It is a pity, my dear friend. You see, you have in your hands the secrets of making gold!
“That is what it seemed to me, dear master.” But … can you tell me more?
And Master Anseaulme to explain the recipe based on quicksilver, snake, blood of young children, all baked for six years …
“Atendois, expect?” “Blood of young children? You were sure of yourself?
“Absolutely sure of me, young man; I know my profession, even so!
– Hum … You mean “I know” I suppose.
And Master Anseaulme continued to recite to her methodically an absolutely absurd recipe. All this does not advance Flamel so much the different stages are little detailed. Above all, what strikes him is the lack of retreat of the achimist who takes all that is written literally, without ever considering the symbolic and philosophical value of the text.
When he leaves the house, Nicolas is disappointed, but he remembers once more the words of the angel. He tells himself that the alchemists are idiots and makes the decision not to seek the opinion of the others.
“The alchemists were idiots! I would discover the secret on my own!
And it is in this state of mind that he installs in a remote room of his big house a real cabinet where he can conduct his own experiments. Here is our bookseller who becomes an alchemist, under the benevolent eye of his beloved and tender wife.
21 years of galley
The days follow, the months follow the months, the years are added to the years …
Nicolas Flamel’s experiences spread out over 21 years, as many pages as there are in the book of Abraham! Throughout this period, his life was summed up in his study of the books of alchemy he had procured and tried to apply in his studio. The only moments of respite that he agrees are to pray and meditate in the Church of Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie which he frequents almost daily (destroyed in the nineteenth century, there remains today of this church only the tower of Sant-Jacques ).
His great piety allows him to keep his soul pure and always refuse to shed the blood of innocents, an ingredient very common in hermetic literature. Unnecessary, he thinks, because he understands that behind the word “blood” actually hides the mineral spirit that is in metals …
After all these years working his head in the handlebars, Nicolas finally understands that he needs help. Not an alchemist like Master Anseaulme, no, these people are charlatans. What he needs is a Kabbalist and a philosopher, the only people capable of understanding the hidden meaning of things.
He sets out for Santiago de Compostela where, as is now certain, God will help him find answers to all his questions.
The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela
This is how Flamel leaves Paris for a long solo trip of nearly 2,000 kilometers. Dressed in pilgrim’s clothes and the bumblebee in his hand (a long walking stick shoved at the base and topped with a gourd), he was forced to leave Abraham’s book at home and take only quality reproductions. We do not know precisely what way the alchemist went to Jacques de Compostelle, nor how long his journey lasted.
Arriving in front of the cathedral, he kneels down and begins to pray for a long time. Then, having kissed the mantle of the Apostle Saint James, he set out again in the opposite direction, the soul purified and his heart full of hope … Was it only at this price that he could hope that God intercedes in his favor, showing him the ways of knowledge, as the angel had promised him in his vision?
On the way back, Nicolas made a stopover in the town of Leon, where he was met by Master Canche, a Jew converted to Catholicism and a recognized specialist of the Kabbalah. The hand trembling, the apprentice alchemist hands him the copies of the manuscript and watches the reaction of his interlocutor.
A few seconds are enough for him to understand that he is faced with an exceptional document: the Asch Mezareph of rabi Abraham that everyone thought forever lost …
Master Canches and Nicolas Flamel radiate happiness … One finally got his hands on the most precious manuscript in the world, the other thinks that he is on the verge of getting answers. Confident, Nicolas confesses that he owns the original in his house and the two men set off on their way together towards Paris. During the weeks of the journey, the two men have time to build a solid and sincere friendship.
Alas! Towards Orleans, Canches began to show signs of fatigue. He could not go any further, dizzy, and vomited all the meals he consumed.
– Nicolas, do not leave me on the way, I beg of you.
“What are you going to invent?” I am with you, and I would remain in death.
– Oh, Nicolas, my friend … I’m going to die soon, I feel it. How sad it is that I die before I can touch the book of Abraham.
Installed in an inn, Nicolas watched over Canches for seven days. To console him, he described to him in detail the precious manuscript. After studying it for more than twenty years, he knows every detail of course. From the peculiar smell that emanates from the rough appearance of the blanket that tickles the fingertips, Nicolas does not forget any detail.
And, in return, Canches gives him all the secrets of which he is the holder.
When he gives up his last breath, Nicholas can not repress a sob on the body of the philosopher. He has just lost the only friend he has ever had.
With a heavy heart, he set out again for Paris.
When the lead changes to gold …
When she sees her husband return, Pernelle is mad with joy. Nicolas tells him everything. The meeting with Canches, his death on the way back and, above all, the secrets that the latter has revealed to him. Now he knows the raw material likely to react to alchemical processes.
Without losing time, his heart swelled with hope, Flamel went back to work. But the raw material is long to prepare and it lacks experience … it takes not less than three more years to see its perseverance finally rewarded: we are January 17, 1382 and, for the first time in his life, he succeeds in transform half a pound of lead into pure silver.
On the 25th of April of the same year, he succeeded in transforming such a quantity of lead into gold.
The angel was right. Nicolas Flamel is now the greatest alchemist the Earth has ever worn. He is now able to understand every symbol, number, and drawing of the 21 pages of Abraham’s book.
Anyone else who possessed such knowledge would have created phenomenal amounts of gold in order to live a sumptuous life on an equal footing with that of kings. But not Flamel. He is just starting a third and final batch to make sure that the result of the first two was not accidental.
And then he stops everything. He despises gold. What he wanted was science and knowledge.
His wife Pernelle adopted the same attitude as he did. What could they use as mountains of gold? The mere fact of having pierced the greatest mystery of humanity is enough for their happiness.
Maranatha! Let’s face it, Flamel also has in mind the threat of eternal damnation that weighs on men who would use the secrets of alchemy for bad ends.
Because one is never too careful with God, the gold and silver that he obtained through alchemical transmutation is given to the Church. Quiet awareness, the book-seller couple can now think of the after.
And now ?
I imagine that Nicolas had to go through a long period of depression. The mystery of alchemy pierced, he no longer has any purpose in life. Then he returns to his occupations, takes care of his bookstore and his wife.
He squandered his money in charitable works, participated in the renovation of church, built hospitals in the capital, and so on. You get the picture ?
When his wife dies (let us not forget that she was much older than him), he bury her under one of the arcades of the charnel house of the Innocents . He realizes a magnificent fresco representing them both, in a decor made of many esoteric symbols. Many believe that an enigma is hidden in the bas-reliefs that would indicate where the fortune of the alchemist is hidden.
A legend, no doubt, since whole generations of smart little ones broke their teeth without finding anything …
In 1407, he also built a house at 51 rue de Montmorency, in the current Marais … Still standing today, it is simply the oldest house in Paris!
Nicholas Flamel was able to put himself in all the good moves …
Do you really believe in all this bullshit?
Eh, oh, gently, we’re polite!
Obviously, there is a great part of legend in the supposed life of Nicolas Flamel. It is quite common to attribute magical powers to rich men from “civil society”. In the Middle Ages, one respects only the money that is gained sword in hand, on the battlefield.
What is astonishing in this story is that the legend about Nicolas Flamel does not explain his fortune: it is precisely mentioned that the supposed alchemist never used his knowledge to enrich himself personally. The origin of his immense fortune remains, therefore, still unknown today. His wife was rich, but was she really enough to finance the construction of hospitals, churches or schools all over Paris? Is it possible that Flamel’s bookstore has been so luxuriant to enable it to accumulate so much wealth?
Even to this day, in spite of the enormous work carried out by historians on the subject, no satisfactory answer has been given.
The legend would thus have been “logical” if it had been made clear that Flamel derived his fortune from the alchemical processes. But no, she contented herself with showing him as a very pious man, greedy not of gold but of knowledge.
Even today, the life of Nicolas Flamel is full of mysteries … enough to nourish the collective imagination for a long time!
(*) Note: about the word Maranatha. If you type this word in Google, the first result will definitely be the dedicated Wikipedia page which states that the meaning of the word is “the Lord is coming” or “the Lord has come”. This is indeed a possible interpretation. The second interpretation, to which Nicolas Flamel thinks, is that it is an imprecatory formula used to threaten an impious man with a terrible punishment that God reserves for him. This interpretation is based on the context in which the word is used in Corinthians 1:22: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be anathema! Maranatha. “