The Legend of Nicolas Flamel and the Oldest House in Paris
There have been many reports of the Philosopher’s Stone over the centuries, but the only Stone currently in existence belongs to Mr. Nicolas Flamel, the noted alchemist and opera lover. Mr. Flamel, who celebrated his six hundred and sixty-fifth birthday last year, enjoys a quiet life in Devon with his wife, Perenelle (six hundred and fifty-eight).
–Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Named Auberge Nicolas Flamel after its original owner, this house was built in 1407 and is considered to be the oldest house in Paris. According to legend, Flamel was an alchemist and discovered the Philosopher’s Stone.
51 rue Montmorency, 75003
Closest metro stops: Rambuteau (line 11) and Etienne Marcel (lines 4), Arts et Métiers (lines 3 and 11)
Nicolas Flamel and the Philosopher’s Stone
The house at 51 rue Montmorency is easy to overlook. Like much of the Marais, the street is an eclectic blend of new and old. Street art, shops, restaurants and homes are all present on rue Montmorency. But the building at number 51 is unlike any other in the city. Named Auberge Nicolas Flamel after its original owner, it was built in 1407 and is considered to be the oldest house in Paris.
So who was Nicolas Flamel? And why, hundreds of years after his death, has his name become synonymous with the mystical practice of alchemy? It depends on who you ask. The official story is that Nicolas Flamel was a wealthy French manuscript seller and scribe who lived in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Flamel ran two successful shops in Paris and married his wife Perenelle in 1368. The couple were active philanthropists, making frequent donations and contributing to the Catholic Church. Their house on rue Montmorency served as a home for the poor. The inscription still present above the door attests to the house’s original purpose: “We, ploughmen and women living at the porch of this house, built in 1407, are requested to say every day an ‘Our Father’ and an ‘Ave Maria’ praying God that His grace forgive poor and dead sinners.” Today the building serves as a restaurant.
Who was Nicolas Flamel?
But that’s just the official story. According to legend, Flamel really achieved his great wealth through the practice of alchemy, the seemingly magical process of transforming ordinary metals into gold. Flamel allegedly discovered the Philosopher’s Stone, which alchemists described as key to eternal life. Flamel’s reputation as an alchemist seems to have come from the 1612 publication of the book Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques (Book of Hieroglyphical Figures), which was attributed to Flamel. The book tells the story of Flamel’s discovery of a mysterious book:
It was not on paper or parchment as are other books, but was made (so it seemed to me) only of thin barks of tender leaves. Its cover was of well beaten copper, all engraved with strange letters of figures, and as for me, I thought that they could be Greek characters or of another similar ancient tongue. Thus it happened that I was unable to read them…
After spending twenty-one years trying to decipher the text, Flamel decided to travel to Spain where he asked a master of alchemy to help him with the translation. According to the book, his quest led him and his wife Perenelle to the study and mastery of alchemy. The author claims that they finally managed to transform mercury into gold:
I speak in all truth. I have made it three times, with the aid of Perenelle, for she helped me in all my operations and understood the subject as well as myself.
The Birth of a Legend
Historians are doubtful that Flamel really wrote the account in Book of Hieroglyphical Figures. After all, it was published almost two hundred years after his death. Still, Flamel’s name has been immortalized in popular culture. Isaac Newton and Victor Hugo have linked him to alchemy in their writing. Furthermore, Flamel has appeared as a character in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code. Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel even have intersecting streets named after them in central Paris.
The practice of alchemy is no longer considered a science and has been relegated to the realm of mysticism and legend. Nicolas Flamel’s tombstone is currently at the National Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris. Yet even though he died in 1418, Flamel’s legend is now larger than life.