In the whole history of alchemy surely one of the most interesting stories is that of Nicholas Flamel (1330-1418), the most successful and most celebrated of France's adepts, and I am accordingly giving in his own words the account of the discovery which proved be the turning point in his life:
'I, Nicholas Flamel, Scrivener, living in Paris in the year of our Lord 1399 in the Notary Street, near St. James of the Boucherie, though I learned not much Latin, because of the poverty of my parents who, notwithstanding, were even by those who envy me most, accounted honest and good people: yet by the blessing of God I have not wanted an understanding of the books of the philosophers, but learned them and attained to a certain kind of knowledge, even of their hidden secrets. For which cause's sake, there shall not any moment of my life pass wherein, remembering this so vast good, I will not render thanks to this my good and gracious God. After the death of my parents, I Nicholas Flamel, got my living by the art of writing, ingrossing and the like, and in the course of time there fell into my hands a gilded book, very old and large, which cost me only two florins. It was not made of paper or parchment as other books are, but of admirable rinds, as it seemed to me, of young trees; the cover of it was brass, well bound, and graven all over with a strange sort of letters, which I took to be Greek characters, or some such like. This I know, that I could not read them; but as to the matter that was written within, it was engraven, as I suppose, with an iron pencil, or graven upon the said bark leaves; done admirably well, and in fair neat Latin letters, and curiously coloured.
'The book contained thrice seven leaves, so numbered at the top of each folio, every seventh leaf having painted images and figures instead of writing. On the first of these seven leaves there was depicted a virgin who was being swallowed by serpents; on the second a Cross upon which a serpent was crucified; on the last a wilderness watered by many fair fountains, out of which came a number of serpents, running here and there. On the first written leaf the following words were inscribed in great characters of gold "Abraham the Jew, Prince, Priest, Levite, Astrologer and Philosopher, unto the Jewish nation scattered through France by the wrath of God, wishing health in the name of the God of Israel."
'Thereafter followed great execrations and maledictions, with the word Maranatha repeated over and over, poured forth against anyone who should glance within, unless he were priest or scribe.
'The person who sold me this book must have known its value as much and as little as I who bought it. My suspicion is that it was either stolen from the miserable Jews or found hidden somewhere in the old place of their abode. On the second leaf the said Abraham consoled his people, praying them to avoid vices and idolatry more than all and await with patience the Messiah to come, who would vanquish all kings of the earth and thereafter reign, with those who were his own, in eternal glory. Without doubt this Abraham was a man of great understanding. On the third and rest of the written leaves he taught them the transmutation of metals in plain words, to help his captive nation in paying tribute to Roman Emperors and for other objects which I shall not disclose. He painted the vessels on the margin, discovered the colours, with all the rest of the work, but concerning the Prime Agent he uttered no word, advising them only that he had figured and emblazoned it with great care in the fourth and fifth leaves. But all his skill notwithstanding, no one could interpret the designs unless he was far advanced in Jewish kabalah and well studied in the book of the Philosophers. It follows that the fourth and fifth leaves were also without writing but full of illuminated figures exquisitely designed. On the obverse of the fourth leaf there was shewn a young man with winged feet having in his hand a caducean rod, encompassed by two serpents, and with this he stroke upon a helmet which covered his head. I took him to represent the Greek God Mercury. Unto him came running and flying with open wings a very old man, having an hour glass set upon his head and a scythe in his hands, like the figure of death, with which scythe he would have struck off the feet of Mercury. On the reverse of the fourth leaf a fair flower was depicted on the summit of a very high mountain, round which the North wind blustered. The plant had a blue stem, white and red flowers, leaves shining like fine gold, while about it the dragons and griffins of the North made their nests and their dwellings. On the obverse side of the fifth leaf there was a rose bush in flowers, in the midst of a fair garden, and growing hard by a hollow oak tree. At the foot bubbled forth a spring of very white water, which ran headlong into the depths below, passing first through the hands of a great concourse of people who were digging up the ground in search of it, save one person only, who paid attentionto its weight. On the reverse side appeared a king carrying a great faulchion who caused his soldiers to destroy in his presence a multitude of little children, the mothers weeping at the feet of the murderers. The streams of blood were gathered by other soldiers into a great vessel, wherein the sun and moon bathe. Now, seeing that the history appeared to depict the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, and that I learned the main part of the Art in this book, it came about that I placed in their cemetery these hieroglyphic symbols of the Sacred Science.
'I have now described the content of the first five leaves, but I shall say nothing of all that was written in fair and intelligible Latin on the other pages, lest God should visit me for a greater wickedness than that of him who wished that all mankind had but one head so that he could cut it oft at a blow. The precious book being in my possession I did little but study it night and day till I attained a fair understanding of all its processes, knowing nothing, however, respecting the matter of the work. I could therefore make no beginning and the result was that I became very sad and depressed. My wife Peronelle, whom I had married recently and loved as much as myself, was astonished and concerned greatly, endeavouring to comfort me and desiring earnestly to know whether she could not help me in my distress. I was never one who could hold his tongue and not only told her everything but showed her the book itself, for which she conceived the same affection as my own, taking great delight in the beautiful cover, the pictures and inscriptions, all of which she understood as little as I did. There was no small consolation, however, in talking with her about them and in wondering what could be done to discover their meaning. At length I caused the figures on the fourth and fifth leaves to be painted as well as I could and had them put up in my workroom, where I shewed them to many scholars in Paris; but these also could throw no light upon them. I went so far as to tell them that they had been found in a book about the Philosophers' Stone, but most of them made a mock of it and also of me. An exception however was one named Anselm, a licentiate of medicine and a deep student of the Art. He desired earnestly to see my book and would have done anything to have his way in the matter, but I persisted in saying that it was not in my possession, though I gave him a full account of the process described therein.
'He declared that the first figures represented time, which devours all things, while the six written leaves shewed that a space of six years was required to perfect the Stone, after which there must be no further coction. When I pointed out that according to the book the figures were designed to teach the First Matter he answered that the six years coction was like a second agent; that as regards the first it was certainly shewn forth as a white and heavy water, which was doubtless quicksilver. The feet of this substance could not be cut off, meaning that it could not be fixed and so deprived of volatility except by such long decoction in the pure blood of young children. The quicksilver uniting with gold and silver in this blood would change with them, firstly into a herb like that of the fair flower on the reverse of the fourth leaf, secondly by corruption into serpents, which serpents, being dried and digested by fire, would become Powder of Gold, and of such in truth is the Stone.
'This explanation sent me astray through a labyrinth of innumerable false processes for a period of one and twenty years, it being always understood that I made no experiments with the blood of children, for that I accounted villainous. Moreover, I found in my book that what the philosophers called blood is the mineral spirit in metals, more especially in gold, silver and quicksilver to the admixture of which I tended always. The licentiate's interpretation being more subtle than true, my processes never exhibited the proper signs at the times given in the book, so I was ever to begin again. At last, however, having lost all hope of understanding the figures, I made a vow to God and St. James that I would seek their key of some Jewish priest belonging to one of the Spanish synagogues. Thereupon, with the consent of Peronelle and carrying a copy of the figures, I assumed a pilgrim's weeds and staff, in the same manner as you see me depicted outside the said arch in the said churchyard where I put up the hieroglyphic figures, as also a procession representing on both sides of the wall and successive colours of the Stone which arise and pass off in the work, and the following inscription in French: "A procession is pleasing to God when it is done in devotion." These are the first words, or their equivalent, of a tract on the colours of the Stone by the King Hercules, entitled Iris, which opens thus "Operis Processio Multum Naturae Placet." I quote them for the benefit of scholars, who will understand the allusion. Having donned my pilgrim's weeds, I began to fare on the road, reaching Mountjoy and finally my destination at St. James, where I fulfilled my vow with great devotion. On the return journey I met with a merchant of Boulogne in Leon, and to him I was indebted for acquaintance with Master Candies, a doctor of great learning who was Jewish by nation but now a Christian. When I shewed him my copy of the figures he was ravished with wonder and joy, and asked with great earnestness whether I could give him news of the book from which they were taken. He spoke in Latin and I answered in the same language that if anyone could decipher the enigma there was good hope of learning its whereabouts. He began at once to decipher the beginning.
'To shorten this part of the story he had heard much talk of the work but as of a thing that was utterly lost. I resumed my journey in his company, proceeding from Leon to Ovideo and thence to Sareson, at which port we set sail for France and arrived in due time, after a prosperous voyage. On our way to Paris my companion most truly interpreted the major or part of my figures, in which he found great mysteries, even to the points and pricks. But unhappily when we reached Orleans this learned man fell sick and was afflicted with extreme vomitings, a recurrence of those from which he had suffered at sea. He was continually in fear of my leaving him, and though I was ever at his side he would still be calling me. To my great sorrow he died on the seventh day, and to the best of my ability I saw that he was buried in the Church of Holy Cross at Orleans. There he still lies, and may God keep his soul, seeing that he made a good Christian end.
'He who would see the manner of my arrival home and the satisfaction of Peronelle may look on us both as we are painted on the door of. the Chapel of St. James of the Boucherie hard by my house. We are shewn on our knees, myself at the feet of St. James of Spain and she at those of St. John, to whom she prayed so often. By the grace of God and the intercession of the Holy and Blessed Virgin, as also of the Saints just mentioned, I had gained that which I desired, being a knowledge of the First Matter, but not as yet of its initial preparation, a thing of all else most difficult in the world. In the end, however, I attained this also, after errors innumerable through the space of some three years, during which I did nothing but study and work as you will see me depicted outside the arch at the Chapel of St. James and St. John, ever praying to God rosary in hand, engrossed in a book, pondering the words of the philosophers and proving various operations suggested by their study. The fact of my success was revealed to me by the strong odour, and thereafter I accomplished the mastery with ease indeed I could scarcely miss the work had I wished, given a knowledge of the prime agents, their preparation and following my book to the letter. On the first occasion projection was made upon Mercury, of which I transmuted a half pound or thereabouts into pure silver, better than that of the mine, as I and others proved by assaying several times. This was done on a certain Monday, the seventeenth day of January 1392, Peronelle only being present. Thereafter, still following--word for word--the directions of my book, about five o'clock in the evening of the twenty-fifth day of the following April I made projection of the Red stone on the same amount of Mercury, still at my own house, Peronelle and no other with me, and it was duly transmuted into the same quantity of pure gold, much better than that of the ordinary metal, softer and more pliable. I speak in all truth. I have made it three times, with the aid of Peronelle, for she helped me in all my operations and understood the subject as well as myself. She could have done it alone without doubt, had she desired, and would have brought it to the same term. The first occasion gave me all that I needed, but I took great delight in contemplating the wonderful works of Nature within the vessels, and to signify that I made three transmutations you have only to look at the arch and the three furnaces depicted thereupon, answering to those which served in our operations.
'For a considerable time I was in no little anxiety lest Peronelle should prove unable to conceal her happiness and should let fall some words among her kinsfolk concerning our great treasure. I judged of her joy by my own, and great joy, like great sorrow is apt to diminish caution. But the most high God in His Goodness had not only granted me the blessing of the Stone, He had given me a chaste and prudent wife, herself endowed with reason, qualified to act reasonably, and more discreet and secret than other women are for the most part. Above all she was very devout and having no expectations of children, for we were now advanced in years, she began--like myself-- to think of God and to occupy herself with works of mercy. Before I wrote this commentary, which was towards the end of the year 1413, after the passing of my faithful companion, whom I shall lament all the days of my life, she and I had already founded and endowed fourteen hospitals, had built three Chapels and provided seven Churches with substantial gifts and revenues, as well as restoring their cemeteries.'
Nicholas Flamel died eventually in 1415 at the age of one hundred and sixteen years. Some evidence of his house, dating from 1407, is still to be seen in the building of 51, rue de Montmorency in Paris, and in the Musée de Cluny there is an inscribed tablet from his tomb in the old Church of St. Jaques-la-Boucherie, now demolished. This tablet, which is quite unique, had an interesting and somewhat chequered career. Lost for many years, after the demolition of St. Jacques-laBoucherie in 1717, it was eventually found in a shop in the rue des Arias, where the owner, a greengrocer and herbalist, had been using the smooth marble back as a chopping block for his herbs.
The tablet itself measures 58 x 45 centimetres, and is four centimetres thick. At the top is a carved representation of Christ, St. Peter, and St. Paul, and the inscription records that Nicholas Flamel, formerly a scrivener, left certain moneys and properties for religious and charitable purposes, including gifts to churches and hospitals in Paris.
I have retailed this account of Flamel's experiences in full as it seems to me to be of no mean interest, despite the fact that certain authorities have doubted its veracity. My own feeling about it is that the history is a true one; that the book of Abraham the Jew to which Flamel refers is evidently an allegorical writing of the whole process, and that the corresponding pictures are, to anyone versed in alchemical language, representative of the different phases of the work. Some writers and critics, certainly, have held these allegories up to ridicule as the outpourings of religious visionaries, but here I think they demonstrate their ignorance of the whole process. One of the greatest proofs of the truth of this history is, in my opinion, the point at which Flamel refers to the attainment of the First Matter. Of this he says 'The fact of my success was revealed to me by the strong odour,' and this fact I myself have demonstrated in the laboratory; the odour is unmistakable, and the gas of such a volatile nature that it pervades the whole house. In the theoretical and practical sections I shall refer to this more fully.