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Nicolas Flamel: The Revolutionary, Visionary Alchemist

Find out more about the famed alchemist who could turn lead into gold

Nicolas Flamel: The Revolutionary, Visionary Alchemist | iSTOCK

There are many legends around the life of Nicolas Flamel, the bookseller who revolutionised alchemy. However, before we delve into his biography, it's important to point out that it was quite common to attribute magical powers to the rich men of the Middle Ages.

However, Nicolas Flamel is said to never have used his knowledge for personal profit. Instead, he was believed to be quite a pitiful man, with the desire not to turn cheap metals into gold, but to have knowledge instead.

Nicolas Flamel: the early years

Nicolas Flamel was born around 1335 in a small town near Paris called Pontoise, and there's very little certain data about his childhood and youth, although it is usually mentioned that his parents were well-off and lived a comfortable lifestyle. At a certain point, the Flamel family moved to Paris, and that's where little Nicolas learned the art of writing in beautiful Gothic font and to read manuscripts thanks to the help of a bookseller. This had a high demand because the printing press didn't exist yet. He was so good at it, he would end up opening his own bookstore.

Around 1355 he married Pernelle, a two-time widow who was much older than him and quite rich, which gave Flamel a sense of financial safety and allowed him to open a school at his home to teach the French bourgeois kids of the time how to read, write and count.

Back then, Nicolas Flamel had no connections to alchemy, but a vision would change his world forever.

The alchemist and the Book of Abraham

During a sleepless night, an angel came to Flamel with a peculiar manuscript with strange characters, to deliver a message that Flamel won't understand yet, although this vision will keep him restless for days on end.

Some time later, someone came to his store to sell their only valuable item: an old manuscript which Flamel recognised as the book in his vision. It was an age-old piece with pages engraved into bush barks. On the first page one could read "Abraham The Jew, The Prince, The Astrologer and The Philosopher". Later on, this piece would be identified as Abraham's Aesch Mezareph, a precious codex.

The book was 21 pages long and divided into 7 chapters illustrated by 7 figures. After several days of intensive, obsessive studying, Nicolas Flamel reached the conclusion that he had found the alchemy recipe for making gold, even if he couldn't fully grasp it yet.

Thus, he remembered about the angel's warning in his dream: "You will understand nothing... yet one day, you will see what no other man can...". This led him to continue studying, with the support of his wife.

After a few weeks analysing the book, the alchemist reached a dead end.

Back then, alchemy was a scientific specialty that started coming up at monasteries, and which gradually spread out through all of Europe, thanks to the works of illustrious figures such as Roger Bacon, Albert the Great or Raymond Lulle. But the manuscripts to study alchemy are rare and very expensive.

Alchemy and its secrets

In his pursuit for the secrets of alchemy, Nicolas Flamel met up with masters, wizards and alchemists, but he reached the conclusion that he should find the secret on his own. One of the main reasons of working alone was his refusal to shed children's blood, which was quite a usual ingredient in this sort of books.

After having studied the text for 21 years, Flamel left Paris to go on a long, lonely trip to Santiago de Compostela, and took with him quality copies of the Book of Abraham to avoid carrying around the original copy. In Spain, he also visited Master Canches in León, and he confirmed that Flamel was the owner of an exceptional document: Abraham Rabbi's Aesch Mezareph, which everyone believed to have been lost forever.

They both head to Paris to analyse the original manuscript together, but Canches dies on the way, not without revealing to Flamel some of his alchemy secrets.

When coming home to Pernelle, Nicolas tells her all about his adventures, and how he now knows about the raw material which can react to alchemy processes. It is said that on January 17, 1382, for the first time in his life, he turned half a pound of lead into pure silver, and on April 25 of the same year, he did the same but turned lead into gold. Now he could understand every symbol, every number, every drawing in the 21 pages of the Book of Abraham.

Others would have created massive amounts of gold, but Nicolas Flamel despised it; all he wanted was science and knowledge, and his wife took on the same attitude. In fact, they were afraid to see the secrets of alchemy used for evil. They even donated to the Church the precious metals they created through the transmutation of lead into gold and silver. It is also mentioned that King Charles VI asked him to use his knowledge to fill the royal coffers with gold.

The Philosopher's Stone, an elixir to immortality

Another legend revolving around Nicolas Flamel is that he found the formula to immortality. Thus, it is said that he created a philosopher's stone that gave his wife Pernelle and himself eternal life.

Reality or myth? Probably the latter, because they both died not too far apart from one another, considering she was older than him. Thus, Pernelle died in 1410, and Nicolas Flamel in 1418. However, when his tomb was exhumed, it was empty. Was this pillage... or actually immortality? 

Nicolas Flamel's books

Only one book survived from Nicolas Flamel's works: Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures, which is written in Latin, and gives writings and recipes almost impossible to grasp for those who are ignorant to alchemy.

About the Book of Abraham, it should be pointed out that it was never found. It's hard to imagine how it looked exactly, and that's why some people think it never existed... or that Nicolas Flamel indeed achieved eternal life, and still has the book in his hands.

In the last few decades, Nicolas Flamel has gained fame thanks to books, but not those with his alchemy secrets, but because of the Harry Potter saga. J.K. Rowling included as a character of her magical universe the spirit of this bookseller who became a revolutionary alchemist after turning lead into gold.