Episode 17. The Alchemist Nicolas Flamel
Hello and welcome back to Paname a podcast that turns dusty history into gold. In todays episode come with me as we as we visit Paris’ oldest house, built by the famous, and possibly immortal Nicolas Flamel.
Who doesn’t like a good story about the mystical world of Alchemists? Certainly JK Rowling does, as did Victor Hugo, both of which make mention of Paris most famous alchemist Nicolas Flamel. But NF was a real person so who was he? And did he crack the secret that so many alchemists have been searching for – The Philosphers Stone the key to eternal life and wealth. Is he still alive? Was he even an Alchemist and what is alchemy anyway? Come with me and let's see if we can find out a bit more.
Here at no. 51 rue de Montmorency in the 3rd arrt Paris’ oldest house built in 1407 by perhaps paris oldest inhabitant. At over 600 years old, it beats the building at no 3 rue Volta, also in the third arrt, which for a long time was erroneously considered to be Paris oldest house - it is a mere 300 years old people. Practically a new build. But while this is fascinating place to visit because of its status as the oldest house it is made all the more delicious because of who built it as it was constructed by none other than Nicolas Flamel himself. The building has of course been updated and changed over the years but there are still a number of original features to be seen, his ornate initials on the pillars and the motto “ora et Labora” pray and work. He constructed the house in 1407 following the death of his much loved wife Pernelle, (don’t hear that name often these days do you.) and it was built as a refuge for the poor who could stay there absolutely free. In return they were asked to say a prayer. Above the door the inscription reads “We men and women, living under the roof of this house built in the year 1407, are honorable bound to recite one Paternoster and one Hail Mary every day, and ask God, in his grace, to forgive the sins of the poor departed. Amen.” Although Nicolas Flamel apparently never lived here some say that it was here that he had his atelier and where all the magic happened. So who was he really? And what do we know about him?
NF was a bookseller and a scribe, Born around 1330. He and his wife, Pernelle, were very devout Catholics and donated a lot of their money to charitable causes. Pernelle actually came from money and by all accounts Nicolas was quite a shrewd businessman and made good money through property investments but also through his work - he was after all just a hop away from the Sorbonne and there was a great need for written documents. His shop, originally stood alongside the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie. Neither the church nor his shop remain, instead more or less where the shop would have been, a street was named after him ‘rue Nicolas Flamel’ and rather sweetly it crosses with that of his wife ‘rue Pernelle’. All that is left of the once wealthy church were Nicolas and his wife donated money and were indeed buried is the Tour Saint Jacques which stands rather forlornly today in a small park. The neighbourhood was completely altered in Hausmanns reorganisation of the city. So let’s take a moment to go back in time and imagine the Paris of Flamell.
It is the late 14th Century. This neighbourhood was right in the very heart of Paris it would have been dominated by the Grand Chatelet a fortress which no longer exists and was built in the 9th Century to protect the ile de la cite from attack from the North. However it was rendered rather less useful due to the creation of Philippe Auguste walls in the 12th Century. It was subsequently turned into the law courts, prison and a morgue and by all accounts was rather a grusom place. Poet Clement Marot who was unlucky enough to be imprisoned there in 1526 wrote a poem inspired by his stay entitled ‘hell’ so I think we get the idea.
The church, of which the tower only remains was called Saint Jacques de la boucherie, or Saint Jack of the butchers it was so named as it was financed in part by the wealthy and powerful guild of butchers as this was the principle trade which took place in this area. Butchers had been installed here for a good couple of hundred years. The proximity to the seine was ideas as they could dispose of waste directly into the water. With the butchers here other trades that were linked to this work also sprang up. Don’t forget that the animals would have been brought to the market and slaughtered on sight. The names of the old Paris streets, which are now gone, remind us of the kind of traders we would have found here - Rue de la Vielle tannerie, rue des fourreurs, rue de la tuerie, rue de l’ecorcherie, the tannery, fur makers, slaughters, skinners but you would have also found candle makers (due to the tallow) as well as parchment makers and hence booksellers which is why Nicolas Shop was here, leaning against the very church itself. So The church was flanked by the imposign grand chatelet on one side and the huge meat market on the other.
Paris in the 14th Century was a very different place. Lets bear in mind that Europe had just been ravaged by the plague, and France was going through the Hundred years war which ran from 1337-1453 - yes I know that is more than 100 years but the 116 year war just doesn’t have the same ring. This neighbourhood was densely populated as it was right in what was then the centre of Paris, but people lived in terrible poverty in awful conditions. Nicolas Flamel amongst all of this was an educated, wealthy, pious and generous man. Once can see how he might have stood out in this neighbourhood that was little more than a maze of narrow streets full of blood, death, animal slaughter, foul smells, rotting meat, and an imposing prison no wonder hausmann wanted to breathe fresh life into this neighbourhood and sweep away some of all that... history. But I’m not sure he did a great job though, chatelet is a bit of a wasteland in my opinion without much charm or personality.
It was not however Hausmann that dismantled the church rather the revolution that saw it become ‘obsolete’ and it was sold off. the tower was saved and was used as various things from a lead manufacturer to meteorological station and there was even thought to making it a fireman lookout post where I suppose someone would keep an eye out for smoke and send in the fireman since it had such a good view of the city. Today I honestly don’t know what use, if any it has, but sadly you are not able to visit so although it looms quite large over the rue de Rivoli it is rather overlooked.
But let's get back to Flamel. He not only had his shop just next to the church but he had donated generously to the church, financing the construction of one door as well as 2 arcades in the cemetery Saint Innocents. The cemetery and these 2 arcades about which much ink has been spilled no longer exists. And, after designing his own tombstone he was ultimately buried in the church itself. After the revolution and the church's destruction his gravestone was only saved by a sharp eyed conservationist M Justin Pontonnier who spotted it being used by a vegetable seller to cut her spinach upon - how ignoble. Today it can still be seen in the Musee de Moyen age. Although did he need a tombstone or was his death just a ruse? Myths abound about sightings of Nicolas and Pernelle years, nay centuries after their supposed death and there is even a story circulating of an empty coffin. Because as we all known alchemists have the key to eternal life! So what do we know of NF the alchemist?
The story goes that NF apparently bought a mysterious book, as a bookseller and scribe it seems logical that he might come across some unusual texts. But this one was stranger than most, filled with cryptic signs and symbols the language of Alchemy. Flamell would go on to spend his life studying the text even traveling to spain where he met a Jewish sage who helped translate some of the hebrew text within the book. He ultimately goes on to discover the Philosopher's Stone, which turns base metal into gold. Or so that is what people said of him. Remember 14th century paris was poor, filthy and dangerous. Flamel already stood out during his lifetime he was a wealthy and generous man. Today if we meet someone who seems unexpectedly rich we might say ‘did he rob a bank?’ or ‘did he win the lottery?’ It seems in the 14th Century they might say ‘did he find the PS?’ But It seems his business acumen was more likely explanation of his wealth than any interest in Alchemy. Indeed there seems to be no evidence whatsoever that Flamell was an alchemist or ever dabbled in Alchemy at all. Sorry.
But, I hear you say, what of the eternal life? The PS is not just about gold but also immortality. The myth of eternal life might have come about due the the publication of a book under his name which was published a couple of hundred - years after his death but written in the first person, as if he was writing it himself. It discussed the arcade the commissioned for the saint innocents cemetery, but in this book it is no longer a mere religious image but loaded with secret meanings. To give you a taste it explained that the whole arch could be seen as a furnace - a furnace is important for alchemists who need to heat up the metal in their experiments. It goes on to say that Peter, who appears on the arch is of course is the stone, but here it has a double meaning implying petere is the PS and he has the key - the key to making gold. It’s such a good story that people want to believe it which is why we still know of his name today and why he is used in popular fiction. But it seems more likely he was a wise businessman who gained a ‘reputation’ and someone cashed in on this by publishing a book under his name and so they myth was born. Saint innocents no longer exists so we are not able to check out the secret messages but i do feel that it is fitting that at least his house seems to be immortal if indeed the man is not.
But do not fear the study of Alchemy is a real thing, even if their ideas were fundamentally flawed. I kind of thought it was nonsense before looking into it for the podcast but it is much more complex than I appreciated. So let’s find out more a little about Alchemy? Is it, like I thought, at best a desire to turn base metals into gold and possibly live forever? Or at its worst the exploitation of the greed, stupidity or desperation of others for eternal wealth and eternal life? Or is there more to it? And why were so many great thinkers and philosophers like Newton, Roger Bacon or Albert the Great interested in Alchemy? Let’s have a quick look at this complex subject which I do not hope to fully explore but give you a bit more of an idea.
The language and world of alchemy is cryptic, coded, symbolic and secretive. I suppose it would have to be or we would all be at it. Alchemy really hits Europe in the 12th century upon the translation into Latin of the Emerald Tablet, a cryptic piece of writing thought to contain the very keys to alchemy and believed to have been written around 500BC by Hermes Trismegistus. It appeared in a book called the ‘Secrets of Secrets’ supposedly by Aristotle. Although the Emerald Tablet is only 12 or 13 lines long it includes the very famous line: “As above and so below” a key phrases which becomes one of the major maxims of magical philosophy and alchemy. But what have people understood it mean? And why is it so powerful? I’ll do my best to give you a bit of an idea.
Lets first turn to famous thinker and theologian and apparent Alchemists Albert the Great. Albert was a 13th Century philosopher and theologian and was also Thomas Aquinas teacher. In his lifetime he was known as Albert the Great or Albert Magnus. He, and others thought ‘as above so below’ referred to the influence of the heavens, then believed to be made up of 7 planets which in turn influenced the 7 metals in the Earth and even the humours or characters of people.
So for example Saturn, the planet farthest from the sun, influenced the most base of metals ‘lead’ and the sun the purest metal: gold.
I find this notion of a planet being linked to a specific metal and personality traits quite fascinating so let’s have a quick look at a few, I won't go through all them but I’ll put up a link on my website for you to find out more.
Lead is an easy metal to extract and has been in wide use for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians used it for making weights and ornaments and it was also widely used in cosmetics and makeup. In ancient Rome it was used for making water pipes, many of which were underground. Consequently the word plumbing is derived from the Latin word for the metal, plumbum (Pb). Leading us to wonder if the fall of Rome was due to dodgy lead plumbing because of course lead is poisons – the Romans realised this but thought it would be ok in small doses. It is not as it accumulates in the bones and teeth and has some pretty serious consequences. Lead poisoning—a condition in which one’s temperament becomes gloomy cynical and taciturn and if someone was just a bit like this they were called saturnine - think eeyore. In Medieval times, The French referred to it as poudre de la succession — or succession powder as it could be used to poison an unwanted relative.
Saturnism, is the word for lead poisoning, This metal was also considered the father of all metals, and during the Middle Ages alchemists repeatedly used it as a key ingredient trying to generate gold.
The other planets and metals were as follows: Jupiter, the planet of good luck and abundance was responsible for tin, mars was responsible for Iron, which makes sense the Mars is the god of war and weapons made of Iron, copper controls Venus; Copper was traditionally mined in Cyprus which is thought to be the birthplace of the goddess herself, it is also a very beautiful metal. Mercury is responsible for mercury of course, Mercury is associated with quickness, it is also known as quicksilver. One thinks of the god Mercury speeding around delivering messages in his winged boots. It was used to cure syphilis and until recently in fillings. Mercury however is also poisonous, causing tremors, mood changes and madness. Describe someone as mercurial and they are prone to mood swings. Think of the hatter in Alice in wonderland. The moon controlled silver, and of course the sun gold. So here above as below is the idea of planets directly influencing the earth, both what is contained within it and the people upon it.
What is fascinating however is that in Aristotelian theory all things are growing to perfection. In other words lead will one day become gold – they are essential the same metal just at different levels of development. What the Alchemists are trying to do is speed up this natural process of turning lead or other metals more quickly into gold. But how do they do that?
With The philosophers stone of course. Now what is the PS? No one really knows (or do they?) Essential the PS is a sort of magical ingredient that could be added and act as a catalyst to move things from a primitive base state like lead to a pure more noble state like gold.
Now, when we consider 12th century Europe, and the study of alchemy we have to remember that it overlaps and is bound up in a number of different disciplines such as , astrology, astronomy, mathematics, medicine and the study of the natural world. These disciplines were less clearly defined or understood as they are today. And, importantly to the medieval mind the planets were considered to be a heavenly, spiritual sphere. The ‘above’ was not only literal but metaphysical.
The green tablets famous phrase ‘as above so below’ brings to mind the Christian creation myth. In Genesis light is created which correlates to the Sun and the “above”, “below” the formless Earth. Alchemists saw their work as linked keenly with religion and religious philosophy. By transforming lead or base substances to gold, or light they are bringing them closer to purity, in the metaphysical sense of the word.
Another facet of Alchemy is the search for the Elixir of Life a substance that could cleanse the body of impurities bringing it to the most perfect health, not eternal life necessarily but possibly prolonged life. This again brings to mind the bible story of Adam and Eve. Before The Fall there was no illness, disease or death people lived forever in perfect health and close to god. So the Elixir of life is a way of redressing Eve’s original sin. A return to a a state of prelapsarian purity - a pure human without disease or death.
Now this is all rather noble, philosophical and religious. Alchemists are not just trying to make money and live forever but return us to a state of purity. Which is why it attracted so many great thinkers and they must have found at least some interesting results as they tired to puzzle out the natural world the heavens and the world around them. Alchemists are essentially scientists, mainly work by distilling things - experimenting, questioning. Nonetheless if you are turning lead into gold or curing disease or possibly finding the key to eternal life you are going to get a lot of charlatans which is also why they have rather a tarnished reputation. And to be fair, even an honest Alchemist driven by the purest motives is never going to turn lead into gold because at its heart their theory is simply wrong. Lead will never be gold. But that has not stopped people studying alchemy and myths abounding. Ironically in their search for the PS they often used lead and mercury, both poisonous resulting if anything in the shortening of their lives rather than the prolongation.
But Let’s now turn our attention to someone who is often refered to as an alchemist and who also lived in Paris. Albert Magnus or albert the great who earned this title during his lifetime and would later become Saint albert - so pretty important if people know you as ‘the great’ during your lifetime, although it does sound a bit sarcastic although I don’t think they were trying to be. Albert lived in paris in the mid 1200s He came from Germany to teach in Paris as did many of the great minds of the time. Paris was considered the intellectual center of the world. He would be joined by his italian student Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most famous medieval theologian, Brunetto Latinit the master of Dante and indeed Dante himself. Some pretty big thinkers. The only subject was of course theology and the language latin, which is why we still call this neighbourhood the latin quarter. Albert lived on what was once called ‘rue perdue’ or lost street but today it bears his name. Rue Maitre Albert in the 5th. Dante lived on the nearby rue Bieve and may have even started the Divine comedy while living here. Today it is a very charming neighbourhood but a couple of hundred years ago was once considered the most putrid place in Paris, quite an achievement.
Albert was fascinated by the natural world and was always keen to investigate and experiment. He believed all knowledge was founded in sensations and individual observations. He also believed strongly that the astral sphere had a powerful effect on the natural world. Sometimes he was right, the moon, as he said does indeed affect the tides but not due to vapor under the water to expand as he went on to explain..
Albert however, for all the things you find about him being an alchemist, teaching Thomas Aquinas alchemy seems was not an alchemist. Indeed it seems he dismissed the works of alchemists, saying that alchemist could only produce something that looked like gold but was not gold - following his own experiments with ‘gold’ as produced by an alchemist. He was interested in the elements, minerals, stones and metals and even seemed to give minerals certain ‘magical’ healing qualities.
Sadly it seems no Alchemists can be found in Paris, not any renown ones and certainly no successful ones. and although it is easy to mock or find it bewildering how medieval thinkers could get things so wrong We should bear in mind that in a way we are still striving today to find the Philosopher's stone, or the Elixir of life. We spend a fortunes on clean eating, mindfulness or other health fads to prolong our lives and we are constantly looking for the next medical breakthrough to save us from disease and ultimately death.