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Pearls. Beauty formed as protection for oysters and mussels from tiny stones or grains of sand. Layers and layers of a lustrous substance, nacre. Light reflected from the overlapping layers gives pearls their iridescent luster.

I’ll be talking about The King’s Mistress at a book club tomorrow evening. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been thinking about Alice Perrers and her pearls.

US trade paperbackIn my novel, pearls encrust Alice’s gowns, powder her hair, adorn her hats, her gloves, her neck—most of them gifts from her lover, King Edward. I took artistic license in imagining the occasion of these gifts, but that she had a remarkable collection of pearls is a fact, at least according to the records of the Exchequer: “When the pearls of Alice Ferrers [sic], the mistress of Edward III of England, were confiscated by his successor Richard II, they were appraised in May 1379 as 600 pearls worth 20d each (£50); 1700 pearls worth 10d each (£70 16s 8d); 5940 pearls, worth 5d each (£123 15s); 1800 pearls, worth 4d each (£30); 2000 pearls, each also worth 4d (50 marks); 1380 pearls, each worth 6d (£34 10s); 500 pearls, worth 2d each (£4 3s 4d); 3948 pearls, worth 3d each (£49 7s); 2000 pearls, worth 1 ½ d each (£25); and 30 ounces of pearls valued at £50 gross. Their total value was the huge sum [at that time] of £469 18s 8d.” (Mediaeval European Jewellery, R. W. Lightbown, V&A 1992, p. 30, attributed to  F. Devon, Issues of the Exchequer, London 1837)

That’s 19868 pearls, plus however many were in the 30 oz (I imagine these might have been tiny seed pearls too small to count). So many pearls.

The pearl is not the gem I would have chosen to represent Alice as it was a symbol of purity, and came to be used in medieval literature as a symbol of maidens and maidenhood. Aldhelm describes holy maidens as Christi margaritae, paradisi gemmae  (Pearl, E.V. Gordon, ed., Oxford 1953, p. xxvii).

Brazil TKMBut as I dressed Alice in pearls I imagined how subtly they catch the light, and how the beloved glows from within, how as she and Edward came to know each other they discovered layers upon layers of complexity, and it became for me a fitting gemstone for the story.

In one of my favorite scenes, Alice tells Edward about meeting a pearl merchant as a child. The inspiration from this story comes from Lightbown’s book: “The technique of piercing pearls was already well-known in the West in the early twelfth century: Theophilus recommends the use of a slender steel drill, turned on a lead wheel attached to a shaft of wood and worked by a strap, to make a hole, and for enlarging it a wire and a little fine sand. Oriental pearls often arrived in Europe already pierced, so producing a general belief in the West, in spite of Theophilus and his recipes, that these holes were natural, as Albertus Magnus … records. It was only in the fourteenth century that this legend was finally overset.” (30)

“Scotch pearls” were found in rivers in Wales, Ireland, Cumberland, and particularly Scotland. They were considered inferior to those from the “orient,” but richly encrusting a jacket or gown they must have made a gorgeous display.

Some additional pearl lore: Pearls are thought to give wisdom through experience, to quicken the laws of karma and to cement engagements and love relationships. They are thought to keep children safe. Early Chinese myths told of pearls falling from the sky when dragons fought. Ancient legend says that pearls were thought to be the tears of the gods and the Greeks believed that wearing pearls would promote marital bliss and prevent newlywed women from crying. (from bernardine.com)

In Hindu culture, pearls were associated with the Moon and were symbols of love and purity. Hindu texts say that Krishna discovered the first pearl, which he presented to his daughter on her wedding day. Islamic tradition holds pearls in even higher regard. The Koran speaks of pearls as one of the great rewards found in Paradise, and the gem itself has become a symbol of perfection. (from pearl-guide.com)