Nicolas Flamel

In 1357, in Paris, on the corner of the Rue des Ecrivains and the Rue des Marivaux (or Marais), there was a house bearing the sign of the Fleur de Lys.  A young man lived there.  A young man who was to intrigue his neighbours.  Six hundred years after his death, he still intrigues us.

The young man’s name was Nicolas Flamel.  He was twenty-seven-years-old.  He was fairly tall, dark-haired, and well-liked.  We are told that he was sharp-eyed, and had a kind mouth.  His profession was that of sworn writer.  That is to say that, at this time, when printing did not yet exist, he was one of those men who copied onto parchment, letters, documents, and even books destined for scholars.

Bachelor of Arts, he wrote Latin just as well as French.  However, his activity was not limited to calligraphy:  he was also an illuminator, a painter, a drawer, a writer of epitaphs and a librarian.  He received, as well, a few pupils to whom he gave writing lessons.

Nicolas Flamel had a beautiful house, a faithful clientele, and work that he loved.  He considered himself to be a happy man.  However, an apparently ordinary event will slightly trouble the course of this peaceful existence.  One night, Nicolas Flamel dreams that an angel dressed in white, holding in its hands a thick book with a copper cover, says to him:

“See this book that you do not understand, neither you, nor others.  One day you will see in it that which others are unable to see… “

Intrigued, the young man holds out his hands to take the volume, but the Angel retreats with a smile, and disappears in an sea of light…

For some time, this curious dream obsesses Nicolas Flamel who tries to discover what it means.  Unsuccessful, he stops thinking any more about it.  However, a few months later, a man with a brown, tanned skin enters his shop.  He is dirty, seems very tired, and expresses himself with difficulty.  Nicolas sees that he must have travelled far, and sits him down on a bench.  Then, he asks how he can help him.

The man explains in a stammer that he has something to sell.  He pulls a packet, wrapped in a piece of cloth, from his sack.  He studies the writer-librarian intently.  Then, he removes the cloth, and holds out the book.

Nicolas Flamel is astounded to recognise the volume shown to him by the Angel in his dream.  It has the same copper binding, the same mysterious inscriptions, the same strange diagrams.  The librarian is troubled.  He asks the man where he had found the book.  The man says that he doesn’t know.  Nicolas wants to know if the man had bought the book from someone.  He receives no answer, so he asks how much he wants for it.  The stranger says two florins.  Nicolas pays him, and the man leaves.

Nicolas examines his acquisition.  It is a very old gilded book whose pages are made from diverse barks of different bushes.  Most of them are decorated with strange illuminated images representing dragons, griffons, snakes nailed to crosses, men with winged heels, or suns bathing in a sea of blood.  On the first page, Nicolas Flamel discovers an inscription in big, golden letters:

“Abraham, Jew, Prince, Priest, Levite, Astrologist, Philosopher, to the nation of Jews by God’s wrath dispersed in the countries of the Gauls, salutations.  D.I.”

Underneath, the mysterious author pronounces a curse on any person who dares to read his book without being a sacrificer or a scribe.

Nicolas Flamel is certainly not a sacrificer, but he is a public writer, that is to say, a scribe.  Therefore, he can plunge without fear into the study of this coded book.  Besides, would the Angel have come to show it to him in a dream if he didn’t have the right to read it?  He turns the pages, and soon finds a few fascinating lines.  The author explains that, to help the Jewish people, he is giving, in this work, all of the secrets of the transmutation of metals, except for the name of the first agent, represented only by a series of allegories.  So, the book is a manual of alchemy.

For days, then weeks, then months, Nicolas Flamel will try to understand the signification of the hermetic images and Hebrew characters which accompany them.  He knows that, within these bizarre diagrams, the secrets of the philosophical stone are hidden;  but he can scrutinize them, analyse them, turn them around in all directions, the key escapes him.  Three years pass by, almost entirely consecrated to this passionate research.

Then, in 1360, Nicolas Flamel marries a lovely widow, Dame Pernelle, to whom he divulges the story of the Angel, and his research.  From then on, night after night, behind closed shutters and barricaded door, they will huddle over Abraham’s book, by the light of a candle.  At the same time, they pray, they meditate, they read other manuals, they consult the stained-glass windows of the Sainte-Chapelle, they interrogate certain sculptures of Notre-Dame de Paris which contain, they know, an alchemical message;  without ever finding what they are seeking.

One day, Dame Pernelle exclaims:

“To understand this book of Abraham, you would have to be a Kabbalist!”

So, Nicolas goes to see some Jews that he knows;  but in this Paris of the XIVth Century, where they are only just tolerated, the poor things shake with fear at the idea of being suspected of sorcery, and declare that they know nothing about the Kabbala.

Eighteen years pass by.  But neither Flamel, nor Pernelle, shows any sign of impatience.  Not the slightest discouragement.  They both know that the quest for the philosophical stone is not only for finding out how to make gold.  Its aim is to voyage into the most precious part of themselves.  And these eighteen years of research have already given them smiling serenity, if not the key that they are searching.

To be continued.