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Thomas Usk, The Testament of Love: Appendix 1

The Pearl
(TL 2.12 and 3.1)

I list here several accounts, beginning with Pliny, whose remarks are repeated throughout the medieval and early modern period. I proceed to Albert the Great, who closely follows Pliny. I then include Marbod of Rennes's De Lapidibus, probably the most important lapidary of the Middle Ages. I then proceed to Trevisa's translation of Bartholomæus Anglicus's De Proprietatibus Rerum and to The Peterborough Lapidary as examples of Middle English texts. And I also include McCulloch's commentary on the pearl since it is a useful brief overview.

For the origin of the pearl in dew penetrating the oyster, the best witness I can provide the reader is the frontispiece to this edition. This beautiful illumination tells the entire story. Under the rays of the sun striking both the pearl and the Virgin, the oyster receives the dew that begets the pearl and the Virgin receives the Trinity that begets the Christ. Notice in particular the progression indicated by the closed oyster in between the open oyster and the Virgin -- it has received the dew and is "gestating" the pearl as the illumination draws our eye toward the Virgin who becomes both "mussel" and mother. For allegorical developments and extensions of this image, see the many patristic comments collected in Vona and the further discussion in Ohly's two articles. In English, Manning's study is an excellent introduction to the basic allegory of the dew and the Incarnation, with references to essential sources in Scripture and commentaries on Scripture.

List of Works Cited

Albert the Great. Man and the Beasts: de Animalibus (Books 22-26). Trans. James J. Scanlan, M.D. Binghamton: MRTS, 1987.

Anglicus, Bartholomæus. De Proprietatibus Rerum. Trans. John Trevisa. On the Properties of Things. Ed. M. C. Seymour. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Ebenbauer, Alfred et al., eds. Strukturen und Interpretationen: Studien zur deutschen Philologie gewidmet Blanka Horacek zum 60. Geburtstag. Philologica Germanica 1. Vienna: Wilhelm Braumüller, 1974.

Luria, Maxwell S., and Richard L. Hoffman, eds. Middle English Lyrics. New York: Norton, 1974.

McCulloch, Florence. Mediaeval Latin and French Bestiaries. Second ed. University of North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures 33. 1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962.

------. "Mermecolion -- A Mediaeval Latin Word for `Pearl Oyster'." Mediaeval Studies 27 (1965), 331-34.

Manning, Stephen. "`I Sing of a Myden."' PMLA 75 (1960), 8-12; rpt. in Luria and Hoffman. Pp. 330-36.

Marbod of Rennes (1035-1123). De Lapidibus. Trans. C. W. King and John M. Riddle. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1977.

Ohly, Friedrich. "Die Geburt der Perle aus dem Blitz." In Ebenbauer et al. Pp. 263-78.

------. "Tau und Perl, Ein Vortrag." In Schmidtke and Schupert. Pp. 263-78.

Pliny. Natural History. In 10 vols. First ed. Trans. H. Rackham. 1940. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983. [See especially III. 235-47.]

Schmidtke, Dietrich, and Helga Schuperte, eds. Festschrift fur Ingeborg Schrobler zum 65. Geburtstag. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1973.

Vona, Costantino. "La Margarita Pretiosa nella interpretazione di alcuni scrittori ecclesiastici." Divinitas 1 (1957), 118-60.

Pliny, Natural History, 9.54 (III, 235-37; 239-41; 243)

The first place therefore and the topmost rank among all things of price is held by pearls. These are sent chiefly by the Indian Ocean, among the huge and curious animals that we have described as coming across all those seas over that wide expanse of lands from those burning heats of the sun. And to procure them for the Indians as well, men go to the islands -- and those quite few in number: the most productive is Ceylon, and also Stoidis, as we said in our circuit of the world, and also the Indian promontory of Perimula; but those round Arabia on the Persian Gulf of the Red Sea are specially praised.

The source and breeding-ground of pearls are shells not much differing from oyster-shells. These, we are told, when stimulated by the generative season of the year gape open as it were and are filled with dewy pregnancy, and subsequently when heavy are delivered, and the offspring of the shells are pearls that correspond to the quality of the dew received: if it was a pure inflow, their brilliance is conspicuous but if it was turbid, the product also becomes dirty in colour. Also if the sky is lowering (they say) the pearl is pale in colour: for it is certain that it was conceived from the sky, and that pearls have more connexion with the sky than with the sea, and derive from it a cloudy hue, or a clear one corresponding with a brilliant morning. If they are well fed in due season, the offspring also grows in size. If there is lightning, the shells shut up, and diminish in size in proportion to their abstinence from food, but if it also thunders they are frightened and shut up suddenly, producing what are called "wind-pearls," which are only inflated with an empty, unsubstantial show: these are the pearls' miscarriages. Indeed a healthy offspring is formed with a skin of many thicknesses, so that it may not improperly be considered as a hardening of the body; and consequently experts subject them to a cleansing process. I am surprised that though pearls rejoice so much in the actual sky, they redden and lose their whiteness in the sun, like the human body; consequently sea-pearls preserve a special brilliance, being too deeply immersed for the rays to penetrate; nevertheless even they get yellow from age and doze off with wrinkles, and the vigour that is sought after is only found in youth. Also in old age they get thick and stick to the shells, and cannot be torn out of these except by using a file. Pearls with only one surface, and round on that side but flat at the back, are consequently termed tambourine pearls; we have seen them clustering together in shells that owing to this enrichment were used for carrying round perfumes. For the rest, a large pearl is soft when in the water but gets hard as soon as it is taken out. . . .

56. There is no doubt that pearls are worn away by use, and that lack of care makes them change their colour. Their whole value lies in their brilliance, size, roundness, smoothness and weight, qualities of such rarity that no two pearls are found that are exactly alike: this is doubtless the reason why Roman luxury has given them the name of "unique gems," the word unio not existing in Greece, and indeed among foreign races, who discovered this fact, the only name for them is margarita. There is also a great variety in their actual brilliance; it is brighter with those found in the Red Sea, whereas those found in the Indian Ocean resemble flakes of mica, though they excel others in size. The highest praise given to their colour is for them to be called alum-coloured. The longer ones also have a charm of their own. Those that end in a wider circle, tapering lengthwise in the shape of perfume-caskets, are termed "probes." Women glory in hanging these on their fingers and using two or three for a single-earring, and foreign names for this luxury occur, names invented by abandoned extravagance, inasmuch as when they have done this they call them "castanets," as if they enjoyed even the sound and the mere rattling together of the pearls. . . . .

57. It is established that small pearls of poor colour grow in Britain, since the late lamented Julius desired it to be known that the breastplate which he dedicated to Venus Genetrix in her temple was made of British pearls.

Albert the Great, de Animalibus (p. 361)

16. MARGARITAE (Pearl shellfish) belong to the class of hard-shelled mollusks and live in shells lined with a pearly iridescence. When they come to the shoreline, these oysters absorb the dew that descends from the heavens; if it is a clear morning dew and the body of the oyster is well cleansed and vigorous, the creature conceives and forms a pearl from this absorbed dew, and the product is well rounded and shot through with a resplendent whiteness that rivals the color of the moon. If it is an evening dew produced in overcast weather, and the body of the oyster is poorly cleansed and defective, the shellfish conceives and forms a dirty pearl; up to now a pearl has not been found to exceed half an ounce in weight. Pearls are called "uniones" because at most two are found together in the same shell, but in most instances only one is found. If the oyster is in a state of fear from lightning, hail, or some other reason while the seed-pearl is developing, the final pearl will be somewhat flattened from its usual sphericity and lacking in its customary color. While still in the water, a pearl is soft in consistency, but after exposure to air it hardens to a stony durability. Oysters emerge in droves to absorb the pearl-inducing dew. Pearls that are dropped into vinegar grow soft and eventually dissolve.

Within the scope of our own observations, pearls are found in three sites: at the point of closure of the oyster's shells; within the substance of the oyster itself; and among the stones under which the oysters lurk. The best pearls come from the Orient.

When ground to a powder and taken as medicine, pearls cure stomach disorders; they fortify the chastity of those who wear or eat them; and they strengthen the heart.

Marbod of Rennes, De Lapidibus (p. 84)
Tollitur a conchis species memoranda marinis
Unio dictus ob hoc,quod ab una tollitur unus,
Non duo vel plures unquam simul inveniuntur.
Cujus adornatum laudatur candida forma
Cum deceat vestes, deceat nichilominus aurum.
Conchae, temporibus certis, referuntur hiantes
In coelum, patulae rores haurire supernos
Ex quibus orbiculi candentes concipiuntur.
De matutino fit clarior unio rore,
Ros vespertinus fetus soles edere fuscos;
At juvenes conchae dant baccas candidiores.
Obscurat fetus concharum grandior aetas.
Quanto rorantis fuerit plus aeris haustum,
Tanto majorem gignit roratio baccam.
Ultra seminucem sed crescere nulla putatur.
Quod si celsa miscent tonitru convexo corusco,
Conchae diffugiunt subita formidine clausae.
Sic intercepto conceptio deperit hausta.
Et fit abortivum quod coeperat inde creari,
Insignes baccas praedam Maris India gignit,
Gignit et insignes antiqua Britannia baccas.

[The sea-born shell conceals the Union round,
Called by this name as always single found.
One in one shell, for ne'er a larger race,
Within their pearly walls the valves embrace.
Prized as an ornament its whiteness gleams,
And well the robe, and well the gold beseems.
At certain seasons do the oysters lie
With valves wide gaping towards the teeming sky,
And seize falling dews, and pregnant breed
The shining globules of th' ethereal seed.
Brighter the offspring of the morning dew,
The evening yields a duskier birth to view;
The younger shells produce a whiter race,
We greater age in darker colours trace.
The more of dew the gaping shell receives,
Larger the pearl its fruitful womb conceives;
However favoring airs its growth may raise,
Its utmost bulk ne'er half an ounce outweighs,
If thunders rattle through the vaulted sky
The closing shells in sudden panic fly;
Killed by the shock the embryo pearls they breed,
Shapeless abortions in their place succeed.
These spoils of Neptune th' Indian ocean boasts;
But equal those from ancient Albions's coasts.]

Bartholomæus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum (II, 856)

. . . [After repeating the standard lore from Pliny, he continues] And haue vertue of comfort by alle þe kynde þerof, as some men meneþ, oþer, for þey ben bysprongen wiþ certeyn kynde, it comforteþ lymes and membres for it clenseþ hem of superfluites of humours and fastneþ þe lymes. And helpeþ a3eins þe cardiacle passioun and a3eins swownyng of herte and a3eins feblenesse þat comeþ of fluxe of medicyne, and helpeþ also a3eins rennynge of blood and a3eins fluxe of þe wombe, as Plato seiþ. . . [He continues with the standard lore about generation from dew].

The Peterborough Lapidary (Peterborough 33. MS F, fol. 14)

[Adapted into METS format from Joan Evans and Mary S. Serjeantson, ed., English Medieval Lapidaries. EETS o.s. 190. (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), pp. 107-08.]

CXIV. Margarita is chef of al stons that ben wyght and preciose, as Ised seyth. And it hathe the name margarita for it is founde in shellis which ben cokelis or in mosclys and in schellfyssh of the see; this bredyng is schellfyssh, and it is genderd of the dewe of heven, which dewe the schell fissh receyveth in certen tymes of the yer, of the which dew margarites comen. Some ben cleped unyons, and they han a conable name, for ther is oonly one ifonde and never two togeder; and the whight margarites ben better then the yelow, and tho that ben conceyved of the morow dew ben made dym with the eyr of eventyde: hucusque Isodorus. Also some ben fonde which ben perced kenly, and they ben better then that other; and some ben persed by crafte, as Plato seyth. And they ben best wyght, cler and rownde; and they han vertu of comfort by al kend therof; and somme seyne that they comforten lymes and membris, for it clenseth him of superfluite of homours and fasten the lymes, and helpen agen the cordiacle passioun and agens swonyng of hert, and agens febilnes of Flux by cause of medecyne, and also agens rennyng of blod, and agens the flyx of the wombe, as Plato seyth. And also in Plato it is seyd that margarites ben gendred of the morow dewe, and some more and some lesse, but it is trowed that no margarite groweth past half a fote. Also it is seyd that when lightnynge or thundringe falleth, when the margarite sholde bred of the dew that it resseyveth, the schel closeth be most soden strength and the gendringes faileth and is cast owt. The best and most noblyst margarites comen owt of Inde and of old Brytayn.

Mediaeval Latin and French Bestiaries (McCulloch, pp. 154-55)

[The abbreviations (sigla) refer to groups of manuscripts from the eighth century onward that McCullough has based her comments on. Abbreviations: Y=MSS based on Munich Lat. 19417; B=MSS based on Bern. Lat. 233, f.1-13; B-Is=Bern. Lat. 233, f.1-13, with additions from Isidore; H=Latin MSS of a bestiary attributed to Hugh of St. Victor; PT=MSS based on the added French bestiary by Phillipe de Thaon.]

margarita, unio, perla, concha, concha sabea, mermecolion, achates; union.

To find pearls divers tie an agate to a rope which is dropped into the sea. The stone comes to a pearl, remains there, and the diver follows the rope to its treasure.

According to Y (23) before dawn at sea the stone which is called oyster (sostoros) opens its mouth and swallows dew, the rays of the sun, moon, and stars. From this the pearl is born.

The essential part of the long allegory as recorded in B-Is (37) is found at the beginning, which says that the pearl signifies the Virgin Mary, who ascended to the temple of God and there received the words (celestial dew) of Gabriel. The opening of the shell symbolizes the Virgin who said "Ecce ancilla Domini. . . ." PT adds that as the shell opens and closes without a break, so did the Virgin conceive and give birth.

Isidore's account (xii.7.49) is followed in some later bestiaries which call the pearl oceloe. This word has numerous spellings and its origin is somewhat uncertain. In H (ii.35) pearls are called uniones, though the common people say perlae. Of these a certain kind are called marmaetholion (mermecolion), for which the Greek word is concha sabea. In manuscripts of the common B or B-Is version this passage begins "Item lapis est in mari qui dicitur latine mermecolion, grece concha sabea, quia concavus est et rotundus." What concha sabea means or why the name that was attached to the Ant-Lion, mermecolion, found also applied to the pearl remains so far unexplained. [But see her later article.]

The role of the agate in finding pearls is unknown before the Physiologus, but in Arrian's Indica (viii.8) Megasthenes reports that should the king pearl be captured, the others are easily caught. The birth of the pearl from dew is recorded in classical Indian poetry.

Two descriptions of the pearl are found in PT (3015-3062), which include some statements similar to those in Pliny (ix.35.54,56), where the pearl is called unio as in PT and where the island of Taprobane (Ceylon, PT Tapne) is said to be very fertile in pearls. PT adds that if one drinks the pearl mixed with dew it will cure any illness but death.

The only miniature seen of the agate's use in finding pearls is Bern 318, fol. 20v., which shows two men in a boat while a third dives into the water, guiding himself with a rope. In Bodl. 602, fol. 35 [sic] [see frontispiece] the two valves of an oyster are open to receive drops of dew from the sky and rays from the sun. Beside a closed oyster, to illustrate the allegory, is a graceful drawing of the Virgin holding her young Son.

Go To Thomas Usk, The Testament of Love, Appendix 2