Last week was the week of the “great sort out” since I was running out of storage space for files. I came across my old notes for the book Close to the Edge and among them were the notes I made for the story of the monk and alchemist George Ripley of Bridlington Priory. In the margin of these notes I had scrawled – ‘check out Nicolas Flamel’. I never did check him out. Since he makes an appearance in bestseller Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and is referenced in The Da Vinci Code I thought it was time to get in the know.
So who was Nicolas Flamel?
He was a Frenchman (c1330-1418), a scribe and seller of books and manuscripts who apparently discovered (according to 17th century accounts) the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone – that’s the turning base metal into gold trick if you haven’t come across it before.
His life is well documented…by himself. He had two shops in Paris, married a well-endowed widow and in their later years together they were both wealthy and philanthropic. Like many educated men in Medieval days he dabbled in alchemy and knew of the existence of a book which, once deciphered would reveal the secrets of the universe, how to make gold from base metal and how to live forever as a bonus.
One day, as all good stories go, a man came into his bookshop wanting to sell a book. Flamel recognised it immediately (because an angel told him about it in a dream the night before), handed over a couple of florins without a quibble and became the proud owner. The book was that of Abraham the Jew, written part in arcane symbols and part in ancient Hebrew.
For more than twenty years Flamel worked diligently trying to translate the text before deciding that he needed a bit of help from learned men within the Jewish community. At that time Jews were persecuted in France and many had fled to Spain and so, to Spain our hero must go. He dressed as a pilgrim and on his journey met a merchant who, just by chance you understand, was able to introduce him to a venerable Jewish scholar. He recognised the book for what it was and agreed to go to Paris with Flamel to work on its translation.
Three years passed, the old scholar died on his way to Paris but Flamel managed finally to decode the book. He writes of his success in changing mercury into silver and then into gold. Apparently he put his new found skill to good and charitable uses, living quietly with his wife, working in his bookshops and dying at the age of 80. He was buried in the Church of St Jacques la Boucherie in Paris.
He was not allowed to rest in peace though. Treasure hunters from near and far came looking for the red powder that acted as the catalyst o the transmutation. His house was torn apart and many of the sculptures he had commissioned were damaged with inscriptions and symbols torn off and carted away.
And what happened to the book of Abraham the Jew?
Flamel bequeathed his papers and his library to his nephew and for 200 years these were passed down from father to son and nothing more is heard of the book. Then, in the 17th century we hear of a hapless heir of Flamel who was daft enough to demonstrate to King Louis XIII the transmutation process. Cardinal Richelieu, the King’s advisor, took a keen interest and soon after said heir was carted off to prison, tried and ultimately executed. This gave Richelieu the right to confiscate all the man’s property. It is alleged that Richelieu had possession of the book until his death and after that it vanished.
Perhaps one day, some book lover fossicking in the second-hand bookshops of Paris will stumble upon it…or perhaps not