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Flamel, Nicolas

Category: Ordinary person


Nicolas Flamel ( ca 1330 –1418) was a successful French scribe and manuscript-seller. He married a lady called Perenella 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.

After his death Flamel developed a reputation as a spiritual alchemist. The reputation was based on a pamphlet/book entitled Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques, published in Paris in 1612 and translated into English as Exposition of the Hieroglyphicall Figures which he caused to bee [sic] painted upon an Arch in St. Innocents Church-yard, in Paris and printed in London, in 1624.  The pamphlet is alchemical – its symbolism is consistent with alchemical and universal symbolism, but there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the claims that Nicholas Flamel wrote it.

One of the problems is that the claims that he succeeded at the two goals of alchemy: - that he made the Philosopher's Stone, and that he and his wife Perenella achieved immortality through the "Elixir of Life"-  are taken literally – that is he was able to literally change base metals into gold.  Thus academics immediately assume the book is a work of later fiction, simply using his name. 

The validity of this story was first questioned in 1761 by Etienne Villain. But by this time Flamel had achieved legendary status within the circles of alchemy.  There are references in Isaac Newton's journals to "the Caduceus, the Dragons of Flammel".  Furthermore, interest in Flamel has continued to the present day; Victor Hugo mentioned him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Erik Satie was intrigued by Flamel, and Flamel's reputation as an alchemist was further bolstered in the late 20th Century by his depiction in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

From the point of view of this site, the debate, though rather exciting and intriguing, is a little irrelevant, as it is the book itself which is of interest with its pictures.  The following is an edited version – cut down for brevity – which provides the essence of the story.  It is important to notice the key role Petranella played in the actual work itself and to read the section on alchemy and the techniques that were employed.  Whoever wrote this had a sense of humour.  


The Explication of the Hieroglyphic Figures.

Placed by me, Nicholas Flammel, Scrivener, in the Church-yard of the Innocents, in the fourth Arch, entering by the great gate of St. Dennis Street, and taking the way on the right hand.

Although that I, Nicholas Flammel, Notary, and abiding in Paris, in this year one thousand three hundred fourscore and nineteen, and dwelling in my house in the street of Notaries, near unto the Chapel of St. James of the Bouchery; although, I say, that I learned but a little Latin, because of the small means of my Parents, which nevertheless were, by them that envy me the most, accounted honest people; yet by the grace of God, and the intercession of the blessed Saints in Paradise of both sexes, and principally of St. James of Gallicia,  I have not wanted the understanding of the Books of the Philosophers, and in them learned their so hidden secrets. ……

Whilst, therefore, I Nicholas Flammel, Notary, after the decease of my Parents, got my living in our Art of Writing, by making Inventories, dressing accounts, and summing up the expenses of Tutors and Pupils, there fell into my hands for the sum of two florins, 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.


Upon the first of the leaves was written in great Capital Letters of Gold: Abraham the Jew, Prince, Priest, Levite, Astrologer, and Philosopher, to the Nation of the Jews, by the Wrath of God dispersed among the Gauls, sendeth Health. After this it was filled with great execrations and curses (with this word Maranatha, which was often repeated there) against every person that should cast his eyes upon it if he were not Sacrificer or Scribe.

He that sold me this Book knew not what it was worth, no more than I when I bought it; I believe it had been stolen or taken from the miserable Jews; or found hid in some part of the ancient place of their abode. Within the Book, in the second leaf, he comforted his Nation, councelling [sic] them to fly vices, and above all, Idolatry, attending with sweet patience the coming of the Messias, who should vanquish all the Kings of the Earth, and should reign with his people in glory eternally. Without doubt this had been some very wise and understanding man. In the third leaf, and in all the other writings that followed, to help his Captive nation 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. The fourth and fifth leaves therefore, were without any writing, all full of fair figures enlightened, or as it were enlightened, for the work was very exquisite.….


In this Book I learned the greatest part of the Art, this was one of the causes why I placed in their Church-yard these Hieroglyphic Symbols of this secret science. And thus you see that which was in the first five leaves. I will not represent unto you that which was written in good and intelligible Latin in all the other written leaves, for God would punish me; because I should commit a greater wickedness than he who (as it is said) wished that all the men of the World had but one head, that he might cut it off with one blow [beheading]. Having with me, therefore, this fair book, I did nothing else day nor night but study upon it, understanding very well all the operations that it showed, but not knowing with what Matter I should begin, which made me very heavy and solitary, and caused me to fetch many a sigh.

My wife Perrenella, whom I loved as myself, and had lately married, was much astonished at this, comforting me, and earnestly demanding if she could by any means deliver me from this trouble. I could not possibly hold my tongue, but told her all, and showed this fair book, whereof at the same instant that she saw it, she became as much enamoured as myself, taking extreme pleasure to behold the fan cover, gravings, images, and portraits, whereof, notwithstanding she understood as little as I; yet it was a great comfort to me to talk with her, and to entertain myself, what we should do to have the interpretation of them. In the end I caused to be painted within my Lodging, as naturally as I could, all the figures and portraits of the fourth and fifth leaf, which I showed to the greatest Clerks in Paris, who understood thereof no more than myself: I told them they were found in a Book that taught the Philosophers' Stone, but the greatest part of them made a mock both of me and that blessed Stone, excepting one called Master Anselme, who was a Licentiate in Physic, and studied hard in this Science.

He had a great desire to have seen my Book, and there was nothing in the world he would not have done for a sight of it: but I always told him I had it not; only I made him a large description of the Method. ………..

Not seeing, therefore, in my works the signs at the time written in my Book, I was always to begin again. In the end, having lost all hope of ever understanding those figures, for my last refuge I made a vow to demand the interpretation of them at some Jewish Priest in some Synagogue of Spain. whereupon, with the consent of Perrenella, carrying with me the Extract of the Pictures, having taken the Pilgrims' habit and staff……I put myself upon my way; and so much I did that I arrived at Montjoy, and afterwards at St. James, where with great devotion I accomplished my vow.

This done, in Leon, at my return, I met with a ... a Physician, a Jew by Nation, and as then a Christian, dwelling in Leon aforesaid, who was very skilful in sublime Sciences, called Master Canches. As soon as I had shown him the figures of my Extract, he being ravished with great astonishment and joy, demanded of me incontinently if I could tell him any news of the Book from whence they were drawn! I answered him in Latin, (wherein he asked me the question) that I hoped to have some good news of the Book, if anybody could decipher unto me the Enigmas. All at that instant transported with great Ardor and joy, he began to decipher unto me the beginning. … he had heard much discourse of the Book, but, (as he said) as of a thing which was believed to be utterly lost, we resolved of our voyage, and … put ourselves to Sea to come into France.

 Our voyage had been fortunate enough, and all-ready since we were entered into this Kingdom he had most truly interpreted unto me the greatest part of my figures, where even unto the very points and pricks he found great mysteries, which seemed unto me wonderful; when arriving at Orleans, this learned man fell extremely sick, being afflicted with excessive vomitings, which remained still with him of those he had suffered at Sea, and he was in such a continual fear of my forsaking him that he could imagine nothing like unto it. And although I was always by his side, yet would he incessantly call for me; but, in sum, he died at the end of the seventh day of his sickness, by reason whereof I was much grieved; yet, as well as I could, I caused him to be buried in the Church of the Holy Cross at Orleans.

He that would see the manner of my arrival and the joy of Perrenella, let him look upon us two, in this City of Paris, upon the door of the Chapel of St. James of the Bouchery, close by the one side of my house, where we are both painted…. So it was that I knew all that I desired, that is to say, The first Principles, yet not their first preparation, which is a thing most difficult above all the things in the world. But in the end I had that also, after long errors of three years, or thereabouts; during which time I did nothing but study and labour, ….. finally, I found that which I desired, which I also soon knew by the strong scent and odour [perfume] thereof.

Having this, I easily accomplished the Mastery, for, knowing the preparation of the first Agents, and after following my Book according to the letter, I could not have missed it.

The first time that I made projection was upon Mercury, whereof I turned half-a-pound, or thereabouts, into pure Silver….. This was upon a Monday, the 17th of January, about noon, in my house, Perrenella only being present, in the year of the restoring of mankind, 1382. And afterwards, following always my Book, from word to word, I made projection of the Red Stone upon the like quantity of Mercury, in the presence likewise of Perrenella only, in the same house, the five and twentieth day of April following, the same year, about five o'clock in the evening; which I transmuted truly into almost as much pure Gold, better assuredly than common Gold, more soft and more plyable. I may speak it with truth, I have made it three times, with the help of Perrenella, who understood it as well as I, because she helped in my operations.


I had indeed enough when I had once done it, but I found exceeding great pleasure and delight in seeing and contemplating the Admirable works of Nature within the Vessels. …. I was afraid a long time, that Perrenella could not hide the extreme joy of her felicity, which I measured by mine own, and lest she should let fall some word amongst her kindred of the great treasures which we possessed: for extreme joy takes away the understanding, as well as great heaviness; but the goodness of the most great God had not only filled me with this blessing, to give me a wife chaste and sage, for she was moreover, not only capable of reason, but also to do all that was reasonable, and more discrete and secret than ordinarily other women are.

 At that time when I wrote this Commentary, in the year one thousand four hundred and thirteen, in the end of the year, after the decease of my faithful companion, which I shall lament all the days of my life; she and I had already founded, and endued with revenues, 14 Hospitals in this City of Paris, we had now built from the ground three Chapels, we had enriched with great gifts and good rents, seven Churches, with many reparations in their Churchyards, besides that which we have done at Bologne, which is not much less than that which we have done here. I will not speak of the good which both of us have done to particular poor folks, principally to widows and poor orphans, whose names if I should tell, and how I did it, besides that my reward should be given me in this World

 The words in bold are symbolic - see the symbol section on the site.


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