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Sunday, October 25, 2009


I shall now relate, as best I can, the true story of the legendary Nicolas Flamel. He may not be the man you expect him to be, the man from the pages of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. But then I’m willing to bet that you, dear reader, are probably not the person he expected you to be, either.

Nicolas was born about 1335 in village of Pontoise ("bridge on the Oise"), just 17 miles north-northwest of Paris, along the old Roman Road. The village still retained the flavor of a border town, balanced as it was between the "Ile-de-France", where the King of France ruled, and "The Vexin", where feudal lords ruled. They were nominally vassals to the King. But sometimes the King in question was French and sometimes he was English.

It was a very bad time to be growing up French. In the first place the Hundred’s Year War had just begun and was proving so popular amongst the nobility that it seemed certain to be held over for a long run. Its very name implied optimism. The French ruler, Phillip VI, was a competent King, as far as inbred nobility goes. Unfortunately he was surrounded by a lot of inbred noble idiots. At the battle of Crecy in August of 1346, 35,000 disorganized yet haughty French noblemen charged uphill at 12,000 Englishmen, killing maybe 300 of the sausage eaters, while losing 13,000 of their own bluebloods. And if that wasn’t bad enough, in 1349 the Black Death descended upon Paris. That year they were burying 800 people a day, peasants and nobility and even clergy. By the time the little bug Yersinia pestis had moved on, half of France had been buried.

In this world of doom and death it would have been no surprise that young Nicolas studied for the priesthood. There were only two ways to get close to God in the Middle Ages, and only one that did not require dying first. I suspect that Nicolas was trained by priests because we know for a fact he could read and write. Those skills in the 14th Century were still restricted by law to members of the church or to the nobility. And most of the French nobility were, quite frankly, not that bright. (See Battle of Crecy, above)

It is also rumored that young Nicolas received a small inheritance. I admit that is a possibility. It is also possible that he stole the money. What we know is that about 1350 he arrived in Paris. There, Nicolas used his precious funds to buy paper and ink and set himself up in business on the street near the Cathedral of Saint-Jacques la Boucherue, (the butcher), as a scribe.

The church was at the center of the Paris market, Les Halles, the “stomach of Paris”. It was the financial core of the metropolis. And Nicolas, surrounded by butchers, bakers and candlestick makers and buyers of everything from rare silks to local farmers’ produce, wrote and copied letters for a fee. And that made him a Middle Ages high tech worker, a web site designer 700 years before there was a web.

Any merchant wishing to communicate with his clients or suppliers or debtors outside of Paris would pause at the cathedral the same way later generations would visit a telegraph office or an internet cafe. And in time Nicolas moved from being a simple scribe into the greatest and most dangerous profession an ambitious young Christian in 14th century Europe could aspire to; banker.

“Nicolas Flamel”, she whispered dramatically, “is the only known maker of the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
This didn’t have quite the effect she’d expected.
“The what?” said Harry and Ron.
“Oh, honestly, don’t you read? Look – read that, there.”
"The ancient study of Alchemy is concerned with making the Sorcerer’s Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.”
There have also been many reports of the Sorcerer’s Stone over the centuries, but the only stone currently in existence belongs to Mr. Nicolas Flamel, who celebrated his six hundredth 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 Sorcerer’s Stone. pp 219-220. J.K. Rowling. Scholastic, Inc. 1997)

Nicolas’ entry into banking would have been a natural evolution. When writing a dunning letter for a merchant, or to establish a business agreement, Nicolas would offer to forgo his usual fee in exchange for a percentage of the payment or the profit. In business today this is called a “finders fee”. If the debt was not repaid or the deal not made Nicolas was out just his paper and ink. But by insisting in the letter that any payment be sent to him rather than directly to the illiterate merchant, Nicolas insured that his percentage – often upwards of 50% - was paid before the merchant received so much as a sou.

But anything that smacked of interest charges was illegal. It was illegal because making it so solved a major dilemma for the Christian Church. On the one hand Jesus Christ was on the record as saying some nasty things about rich people. (“Again I say to you that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” Gospel of St. Mark, 12:25.) On the other hand the Christian Church was incredibly wealthy while the peasants were incredibly poor. The Popes in particular liked to wear nice things. In order to avoid the awkwardness of priests extolling selflessness while eating off gold and silver plate, it was decreed that by a “rich man” Jesus was not in fact referring to powerful landowners like Bishops and Dukes. Profit from sweat was godly. Thus being a serf was God like. Even the indirect profit of rent was, thank God, godly. Profit from non-sweat, like, say, interest, was un-godly. It was a fine line but the church happily walked it for seventeen hundred years.

As recently as 1311 Pope Clement V had declared that charging interest on a loan was heresy for a Christian, and punishable by death at the stake. And they really did it. Not as often as the movies might want you to believe, but often enough to serve as a warning to anybody who got on the bad side of the Pope, like say the Knights Temple, or the Huguenots, or the Jews.

It was the function of a Jew in medieval Europe to be the Christian equivalent of a Hindu untouchable. In fact the followers of the Hebrew God were restricted from doing any other business with gentiles except money lending. This left the ambitious Red Sea Pedestrian with little choice as to a career. And this had the added appeal that every time the French nobility found their debts piling up they simply burned a few Jews, forced a few to convert, expelled the rest from the country and seized their property, including their accounting books, as did the misnamed “Phillip the Fair” in 1306. Charles VI did again in 1394.

In between these persecutions the crown quietly re-admitted the Jews because even medieval economies could not function without bankers. But the persecutions could break out again at anytime, with the slaughter of innocents, whose only crime was that they were easy scapegoats and were profiting doing something the Christian church profited from but disapproved of, at least publicly.

So it was easy for Flamel to keep his business arraignments secret since the merchants involved were Nicolas’ co-conspirators and equally as guilty as Nicolas, in the eyes of the church. As the profits began to roll in Nicolas was able to rent space for a stall that rested against the very columns of the front of la Boucherue.

Now that he had a roof over his head and some privacy when he did business, Nicolas’s profits increased. And Nicolas now had the capital to offer direct loans to tide customers over while they were waiting for their debts to be repaid; more profit for Nicolas, and more risk. He needed a cover story to explain where his growing wealth was coming from.

“I, Nicholas Flamel, a scrivener of Paris, in the year 1414, in the reign of our gracious Prince Charles the VIth, whom God preserve; and after the death of my faithful partner Perenelle, am seized with a desire and a delight, in remembrance of her, and in your behalf, dear nephew, to write out the whole majesty of the secret of the Powder of Projection, or the Philosophical Tincture,…”.
The Testament of Nicolas Flamel

The testament of Nicolas Flamel continues for some 3,000 words, and not one word of it was actually written by Nicolas Flamel, or anybody who knew him. He had no brother or sister that we know of, so he had no nephew. And modern researchers have noticed in the testament the use of words and phrases that were not in use in 14th or even 15th century France.

Nobody even heard of the testament until the 18th century, which is when it was probably written and sold several hundred times over for a tidy profit to those who wanted to believe they were buying the secret of unlimited wealth and life. There are always such people about, ask any Wall Street guru or the merchants of Amsterdam in the 15th century who invested their fortunes in Tulip bulbs. But there is an underlying truth to the so called Flamel testament - with emphases on the lying part.

Nicolas chose as a cover story, alchemy, from the Arabic, meaning “Art of Transformation”. The modern English translation is “con man”, from the criminal code meaning the art of stealing. Alchemy was a shell game, a bunk, a fraud, a card trick where the colored liquids and the incantations and the clouds of smoky incense performed the same function which the modern day scantly clad magician’s assistant performs. What would you rather look at, an egg turning into a dove, or a half dressed woman with a really great pair of legs? Let me rephrase that question; which will you look at? One defies the laws of natures, but the other is natural law. Millions of magicians have built their careers on this equation. You can take that to the bank; they did.

There is no shortage of examples of Alchemist proven to be frauds. Edward Kelly lost his ears in Lancaster, England, for forging title deeds. Only then did he delve into alchemy. He claimed to have learned how to transmute common metals into gold. And yet, somehow, he never got rich from it. He wrote his most famous book, “The Stone of the Philosophers” during one of his jail terms. Biographer Ralph Sargent said Kelly’s career only “…differs from that of an ordinary mountebank by the audacity of his claims and the magnitude of his success.” Kelly’s success ended in 1596 during a prison escape when the bed sheet rope he had knotted together failed to support his rather substantial weight.

Peter; (to Rafe)
“Alchemy is a secret science. None almost can understand the language of it and it has as many terms impossible to be uttered…If thou have any gold to work on, (my master’s) art is then made for you. For with one pound of gold, he will go near to transmuting it into ten acres of ground….But here comes my Master.
(Enter the Alchemist)
Rafe: (disbelieving)
This is a begger.
No. Such cunning men must disguise themselves as though there were nothing in them. For otherwise they shall be compelled to work for Princes, and so be constrained to betray their secrets
“Gallathea” 1592 - John Lyly.

One more thing: the modern myths about alchemy being a predecessor for chemistry are “merde”, which is modern French for “I don’t think so”, spoken in a bratty voice, slowly, and with thick sarcasm. In fact alchemy is to chemistry what UFO’s are to rocket science. Most rational people in the middle ages, who actually knew real alchemists, knew they were frauds and said so. So why would anybody want to be associated with alchemy?

“Who in his dusty workshop bending, with proved adepts in company, made, from his recipes unending, opposing substances agree…There was a lion red…a wooer daring, within the Lilly’s tepid bath espoused. And both, tormented then by flame unsparing, by terms in either bridal chamber housed, if then appeared, with colors splendid, the young queen in her crystal shell, This was the medicine – the patient’s woes soon ended, and none demanded – who got well.”
“The Cannon’s Yoeman’s Tale. Canturbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer. 1400

About 1370 Nicolas married the widow Perenelle. She offered Nicolas emotional comfort and I certainly hope some physical comfort as well – for the both of them. She also probably provided the funds to build the new home they constructed on the Rue des Escrivains. (Hey, if George Washington could marry into Mount Vernon, then Nicolas Flamel could marry into the street of 'fakes'.) They lived frugally in order not to attract attention to Nicolas' business, and because they were both set in their ways and that is the way they had always lived - call it the Silas Marner syndrome. In 1407 Nicolas built a shop at 51 rue de Montmorency (now a restaurant) where he employed other scribes and artists to create illuminated manuscripts. The mafia would call this kind of business a front, or a money laundering scheme. And the most prominently displayed and the best selling books Nicolas sold were, no doubt, the copies of ancient texts on alchemy. Call it the 14th century self help market.

Remember; it was far safer in medieval France to be rumored a magician than to be known as a banker. But is it more logical to believe that Nicolas Flamel turned lead into gold and discovered something which still eludes science, or to believe that Nicolas Flamel knew how to add and subtract the vig and figure the percentages of interest rates? Well, we know which option is the more romantic to read about.

“It is certain that he had been seen often walking along the Rue des Lombards, and furtively entering a small house at the corner of the Rue des Ecrivains and the Rue de Marivault. It was the house built by Nicolas Flamel, in which he died about 1407, and which, unoccupied ever since, was beginning to fall into ruins, so greatly had the hermetics and alchemists of all countries worn away its walls merely by scratching their names upon them…It was supposed that Flamel had buried the philosophers stone in these cellars, and for two centuries alchemists from Magistri to Father Pacificque, never ceased to worry the soil, until the house, so mercilessly ransacked and turned inside out ended up crumbling into dust under their feet.”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Page 134. Victor Hugo. Carey, Lea and Blanchard. 1834.

On the second and the third floors of Flamel’s bookshop, now the oldest house in Paris, Nicolas sheltered the poor, as he did in several other houses he owned or rented in Paris. But if Nicolas were not a money lender and a secret banker, what fueled all his generosity? If it came from turning lead into gold, why did it ever stop? Have we humans gotten greedier in the last 700 years? I don’t believe we have. If lead can be transmuted into gold, and if Citibank’s International group could lose $20 billion in 2008 and then in 2009 the VP in charge could still expect a $5 million bonus for a job well done, why is gold not as common as lead? The answer screams for your attention.

The visits by Jews and the nobility to Flamel’s humble shop, usually made after dark, were all cloacked in the legends of alchemy. Even a trip Nicolas made to southern France (then under English control) to collect debts fit into the cover story. It was claimed Nicolas had traveled to Spain to learn more about magic from Muslim mystics. But the truth was the faith of Mohammad executed its alchemists just as often as the Catholic Church, and for the same reason; most of the practitioners were frauds and con men.

True, Sir. The two favorite studies of my youth were botany and mineralogy. I have regretted I were not a man, that I might have been a Flamel, a Fontana or Cabanas” Page 523. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas. Oxford World Classics. 1846

During his lifetime Nicolas donated large sums to la Boucherue cathedral, and he endowed seven churches, fourteen hospitals and three chapels. The church was no more likely to ask questions about the source of Nicolas’ generosity than a modern politician is prone to inquire about the source of a campaign donation. But sooner or later all donations, like all lives, must be spent. Perenelle died sometime around 1410. Nicolas himself died in 1418. They were both buried in the cemetery “…of the innocents” in Paris.

Nicolas left his substantial fortune to the Catholic Church, which put his name and image on the hospitals and the churches they built with his money. And that is how his name and the mystery of his wealth has survived for 500 years; proof positive that bankers, too, have hearts; at least as long as they are afraid of being burnt at the stake. Remove that threat and they are just as selfish as the rest of us.

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