The Alchemy web site on Levity.comA short examination of the Book of Hieroglyphical images of Nicolas Flamel.
By David Lindholm
This short inquiry is intended only to examine the stated facts by the author regarding the physical appearance of the book reputed to have been acquired by Flamel. My main interest is to establish if it is possible that a book of that description could have existed at that time, and if not when could the text possibly have been written given the evidence in the text itself.
The text: ….fell into my hands a gilded book, very old and exceedingly large. It was not of paper nor of parchment, as others are, but was made of thin bark, (as it seemed to me) of tender young trees. Its cover was of very thin copper, wholly engraved with strange letters or figures; and as for myself, I believe that they could indeed be Greek characters, or of some other such ancient language. In any case I did not know how to read them, but I well know that they were neither Latin or Gallic notes or letters; for I understand a little of them. As for its inside, the leaves of bark were engraved, and with great industry written upon with a point of iron in fair and very clear colored Latin letters. (The book of the Hieroglyphical figures of Nicholas Flamel. Alchemical Press 2001. Ed. Patrick J. Smith)
This is the basic text that concerns me; it deals solely (almost) with the physical appearance of the book. Since Flamel is supposed to have been well acquainted with books in general, I will assume that he knew what he was describing.
The size of the book: A very large book would be very unusual prior to the advent of paper in the making of the book blocks. That is why most medieval books are of a very moderate proportion. Only bibles were of any significant size, this could be what the author is trying to conjure up the image of.
Material of the book block: The reference to paper is interesting since paper was only used in book blocks after the invention of printing that is the second half of the 15th century, well after Flamels supposed death. All medieval books had book blocks made of Vellum or Parchment. The idea that it could have been made of paper place it firmly after 1470. The author also says that other books are made of paper this supports this late date and a guess would be that it lies well into the 17th century. At this date most books were made of paper but parchment and Vellum continue to be used for special works or books for bibliophiles.
The thin bark, there are no existing specimens I know of that have bark for material. However there is a possibility here, namely papyrus. This could look like thin bark for a person that has no experience from the material. It was not used after the 11th century when the Coptic style of binding was generally abandoned in favour for the Islamic style which used a thin and highly glossed paper. (Of course this Islamic style existed earlier then the 11th century.)
The cover of the book: The use of metal covering was used only as a thin sheet over wood; this existed mostly in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. Covers were often tooled in geometric, pictorial or arabesque designs. Metal bosses were numerous and common. There are no specific specimens from any kind of provenance that allow a clear source for the copper cover. A medieval date is not impossible. However virtually all medieval books regardless or place of origin had covers of leather over wood.
The writing: The use of an iron point as a writing implement is unknown prior to the 1700 when we have the first reference to this invention in France. It becomes common in the mid 18th century. The idea that a man would refer to this in the Middle Ages is simply not possible. A second possibility is that he refers to an engraving tool, but thin bark does not lend itself very well to engraving. Colouring this afterwards sound very unlikely, but again possible.
The illustrations in the 1612 edition: These illustrations are in no way medieval in any sense. The details as well as the general outline place them firmly in the 17th century. However, it is again possible that there may have existed an original with older styled illustrations that were modernized for the readers benefit.
Conclusion: Based on the description as such it is evident that whoever wrote this cannot have written it in this form at the beginning of the 15th century. A likely date would be sometime between early 17th and 18th century. At this date Europe were beginning to receive material from the orient, and Coptic writings found their way here. I believe that Coptic or Possibly Ethiopian books are the inspiration for the book of Flamel. It is possible of course that whoever wrote it could have been working from a badly damaged copy that exhibit these traits listed above, and compiled a new version. Then there is the reference to the Lambspring (printed 1599 I believe), which is rather difficult given the dating of the two works in question. The first edition of Flamels work seems to be dated to 1612; this is well within the framework of the description of the book as an object. The illustrations as stated above place the book in the 17th century as well. Taken together it is clear that the book reputed to have been acquired by Flamel could not have existed in the middle ages as an object. The description of the object gives the author away as being firmly in the era of enlightenment.