The oldest stone house in Paris, located at 51 rue de Montmorency. is in the Marais, in the 3rd Arrondissement. Built in 1407, the Maison du Haut-Pignon was owned by Nicolas Flamel, who lived from about 1330 to 1418. The bottom two stories are original, and still bear sculptures of musical angels and the initials N and F on two of the decorative pillars of the façade.
If you’ve read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or seen the movie, you’ll be familiar with Nicolas Flamel’s name. After his death, a story grew up that Flamel had the ability to turn lead into gold and had discovered the so-called Philosopher’s Stone. The real Flamel was probably not an alchemist, however; he was a copyist and scrivener associated with the University of Paris (in other words, he wrote documents for those who were illiterate). According to 17th century texts, Flamel met a Jewish alchemist while the scrivener was on a spiritual pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostello. The account was probably nothing more than a marketing scheme to sell modern manuscripts by making them appear to be associated with ancient knowledge. Since then, Flamel’s been borrowed as a character in a number of novels.
Today, the house with the dark façade and medieval carvings is home to a restaurant called L’Auberge de Nicolas Flamel. An auberge was traditionally a restaurant that also provided a few rooms for travelers. This is a particularly appropriate association since the inscription on the façade in old French is “Nous homes et femes laboureurs demourans ou porche de ceste maison qui fut faite en l’an de grâce mil quatre cens et sept somes tenus chascun en droit soy dire tous les jours une paternostre et un ave maria en priant Dieu que sa grâce face pardon aus povres pescheurs trespasses Amen,” which means “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.” This was Flamel’s way of letting the neighborhood poor know that they’d be welcome to find food and shelter inside his home. He had married a wealthy widow and the couple became known for their good works, financed by her deeper pockets.
The house has been classified as an historic monument for over a hundred years. Flamel’s gravestone is preserved in the Musée de Cluny. His will was that of a wealthy man, but not of such proportions as to support the legend of being an alchemist. Flamel’s important enough that a street near the Louvre is named after him, which intersects with rue Perenelle, named after his wife.
As I said at the beginning, the house is known as la Maison du Haut-Pignon, which means “the House of the High Gable.” In French, there’s an expression with the word for gable, avoir pignon sur rue (avwahr pinyohn soor roo), which literally means “to have a gable on the street.” Figuratively, it means to be well-off, or well-established, which fits Nicolas Flamel rather well. The idea was that if a person or businessman were wealthy enough to own his own real estate, he had to be doing rather well. Our little piece of real estate is currently for sale, so wish us luck at disposing of our own pignon sur rue for a tidy sum so I can get my own pignon sur rue in Paris. Well, I can dream, can’t I?