Flamel, Nicholas (ca. 1330-1418)
Flamel, Nicholas (ca. 1330-1418)
One of the most famous alchemists. Flamel was said to have been born at Pontoise to a poor but respectable family, about the beginning of the fourteenth century. Very little is certain about his life, but it is believed that he received a good education, of which his natural abilities enabled him to make the best use. Moving to Paris, he obtained employment as a public scrivener. The occupation provided a modest income, and Flamel also had some skill in poetry and painting. Eventually he prudently married a well-to-do widow named Pernelle.
One day he came across a remarkable book of alchemy written on leaves made from the bark of trees and with a cover made of brass. The book cost two florins. The calligraphy was as admirable as the language was cryptical. Each seventh leaf was free from writing but emblazoned with a picture; the first representing a serpent swallowing rods, the second, a serpent crucified on a cross, and the third, the arid expanse of a desert in whose depths a fountain bubbled, with serpents trailing their slimy folds from side to side.
The author of this mysterious book purported to be "Abraham, the patriarch, Jew, prince, philosopher, Levite, priest, and astrologer." He had included a complete exposition of the art of transmuting metals—describing every process, explaining the different vessels, and pointing out the proper seasons for making experiments. The book was addressed not so much to the novice as to the expert, however, and took it for granted that the reader was already in possession of the philosophers' stone.
Flamel showed the book to scholars and learned men, but they were unable to interpret the text, until one day it was suggested that a rabbi might be able to translate it. Since the chiefs of the Jews were principally located in Spain, Flamel went there and from one of the Hebrew sages obtained some hints that afforded a key to the mysteries. Returning to Paris, he resumed his studies with a new vigor and was rewarded with success.
On February 13, 1382, according to the story, Flamel made a projection on mercury and produced some virgin silver. During the following April he converted some mercury into gold and found himself the fortunate possessor of an inexhaustible treasure. His wife assisted in his experiments. As they had no children, they spent their wealth on churches and hospitals, and several of the religious and charitable institutions of France still attest to their well-directed benevolence.
One of Flamel's works on the fascinating science of alchemy—a poem entitled The Philosophic Summary —was printed as late as 1735. William Salmon's valuable and unusual Medicina Practica (1691) preserves some specimens of the drawings in Abraham's treatise on metallurgy and some of his handwriting.
More skeptical writers have suggested that Flamel used his alchemical studies to disguise his financial activities, primarily his usurious practices. The writers also say he used alchemy to account for immense wealth acquired by money-lending to young French nobles and by transacting business between the Jews of France and those of Spain, and they accuse him of inventing the story of his discovery of the philosophers' stone. For an argument against this theory, see Alchemists Through The Ages (1970), a reprint of A. E. Waite's Lives of the Alchemystical Philosophers (1888).
Federmann, Reinhard. The Royal Art of Alchemy. New York: Chilton, 1964.
Magre, Maurice. The Return of the Magi. London: P. Allen, 1931.
Waite, A. E. Lives of the Alchemystical Philosophers. London: George Redway, 1888. Reprinted as Alchemists Through The Ages. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1970.