Nicolas Flamel: The Medieval Alchemist in Paris

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Nicolas Flamel: The Medieval Alchemist in Paris
Well before water was miraculously turned into wine, ancient alchemists claimed to have discovered the secrets of turning base metals into gold and prolonging the life of any person who consumed the elixir of immortality. The very word alchemy conjures up images of wizards and witches bent over bubbling cauldrons. Perhaps the most famous fictional alchemist was Merlin, the wizard who helped King Arthur create Camelot over a thousand years ago. However, before Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, The Egyptian Secret by Javier Sierra, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were written, a real alchemist living in medieval Paris purported to have uncovered the arcane mysteries of “The Philosopher’s Stone” deciphering the recipes for immortality and turning lead into gold. The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone. © Public Domain Nicolas Flamel is thought to have been born in 1330 in Pontoise, a northwestern suburb of Paris in the Val d’Oise region. He spent his adult life in Paris as a bookseller, manuscript copyist, and notary. He married a woman by the name of Perenelle in 1368. There are scant details about her birth and early life. She outlived two previous husbands and brought their fortune to the marriage. She and Flamel were devoted Catholics, contributing financially to churches and almshouses for the poor. Like her husband, she developed a reputation as an alchemist. By the 12th century, European scholars had begun to translate the alchemical corpus of Greek and Arabic cultures, introducing them to the term al-kimiya. From this newfound knowledge, a dynamic literature emerged, dealing with alchemical techniques for dye-making, distilling, metallurgy, mineralogy, and the transmutation of metals. Flamel’s trade in books brought him familiarity with these ancient writings. The art of alchemy eventually gave birth to astrology, astronomy, cosmology, biology, medicine, chemistry and physics. Although these modern sciences took on a life of their own down through the ages, many have remained true to the original ideals of the early alchemists. Nicolas Flamel. © Public Domain According to legend, one night Flamel had a vivid, unsettling dream in which an angel appeared to him. The angel gave him a beautiful book bound with hand-tooled copper, its pages made out of fine tree bark. As Flamel was about to take the book from the angel’s hands, he suddenly awoke from his dreams convinced that this was no ordinary book, that it might contain the very secrets of life. He knew many symbols that alchemists used back then, but the ones in this book were beyond his comprehension.

Lead photo credit : Flamel house in Paris. © Public Domain

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.


  • Patricia Thon
    2021-04-01 11:10:12
    Patricia Thon
    I enjoyed reading your article, great information! Oddly enough this week I listened to a podcast that tells a version of this story. Very fascinating information. It posits that Flamel perfected the secrets of immortality and may have re entered society as Count Saint Germaine. History is so full of interesting questions.


    • Sue Aran
      2021-04-05 12:53:45
      Sue Aran
      Bonjour Patricia, Thanks for your comments. There actually was a Saint Germain who supposedly lived over 500 years. If you copy this link you'll be able to read all about him. I believe they were 2 people, not one and the same. History is fascinating indeed! Kind regards, Sue