Nicholas Flamel was born outside Paris in 1300. Though he family was poor, he received a good education.
For a time, he worked as a scrivener copying texts, writing letters, and selling manuscripts, he also wrote some poetry.
He married late in life an intelligent and attractive widow named Perenelle. Like Nicholas, his wife supposedly had explored alchemy, the science of the age.
The most interesting part of Flamel’s life may not have been part of his life. We can find out about his marriage contract and his will by seeing them in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The legends are much more interesting.
That story says that Flamel came to own an odd book via a two florins purchase he made from someone who came to his bookstall in need of money. The manuscript volume was bound in worked copper and it was engraved with curious symbols and characters. It had only twenty-one leaves/pages that were not paper but made of young tree bark and written/inscribed with a sharp stylus.
It was illustrated on some pages with serpents. The serpents are swallowing swords, crucified on a cross, and trailing from a bubbling fountain in the middle of a treeless desert. It is said that this was the Book of Abraham the Jew, but it was not a religious text. It is supposed to contain a complete exposition on the art of transmuting base metals to gold – alchemy.
To use the book as an alchemist, you would also need to create the “philosopher’s stone” (AKA the Sorcerer’s Stone) Using the stone and book one could distill the Elixir of Life which can give eternal life.
The only historical evidence we can point to for this possible ownership is that the Flamels did become suddenly rich at one point. They had no children and used the money to help the poor, establishing low-income housing, free hospitals, and endowing Catholic churches to do good works.
We believe the couple lived quiet scholarly lives studying and writing about alchemy. Perenelle and then Nicholas died while they were in their eighties and were buried in the Cemetery of the Innocents. Nicholas designed their tombstone which has the Sun above a key, a book, Christ, St. Peter, St. Paul. and curious engravings. The tombstone was located in the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, but is now at the Cluny Museum in Paris.
Obtaining the book is the first part of the legend. The next part comes shortly after Nicholas’s death, when their tomb was opened by vandals. Were they searching for the philosopher’s stone, gold, or the book? Well, not only did they not find those things, but they did not find the bodies of the Flamels.
Amongst devotees of the Flamels’ work, it was said that Nicholas and Perenelle had distilled the Elixir of Life and had staged their own deaths. They then took the book and stone and went on to the rest of their eternal life.
What I had not heard before was a story recounted by Garrison Keillor on his Writers’ Almanac podcast recently. An 18th-century archaeologist working in Turkey met a “philosopher” who seemed able to speak almost every known language and also knew a very detailed history of the Flamels. He did not claim to be Nicholas, but told the archaeologist that Nicholas and Perenelle were in fact still alive.
This philosopher said that after they left France the couple went to India and there sought out adepts and mystics with abilities that exceeded the known science.
The couple lives in Devon, England. Their immortality continues through infusions of the Elixir of Life (in this version, one drink is not give eternal life – it is more of a Fountain of Youth). In the Potter version, their Philosopher’s Stone had to be destroyed to keep it from the dark wizard Voldemort. They made enough Elixir to set their affairs in order. Flamel and his wife were assumed to have died when the Elixir ran out. Harry thought this was terrible, but Dumbledore told him that their deaths would be like “going to bed after a very, very long day.”
But did they die? That is fiction. What about the real Flamels? Nicholas created a Philosopher’s Stone once. Might he have created another?