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: 1 : Sex, Death, and the Sea Pearls in the Early Modern Imagination “There may well be a strong alliance between the sea and our stomach, but what connection is there with our backs? Are we not satisfied by feeding on dangerous things without also being clothed by them? Do we get most bodily pleasure from luxuries that cost human life?” —Pliny the Elder Pearls’ appeal in the late Middle Ages and Spain’s management of the extraordinary American pearl-­fishing grounds and their products can be understood only by reconstructing long-­standing, classically derived ideas about the geographic and marine origins of pearls and looking at pearls’ particular Iberian legal and cultural contexts. Pearls had a sensual, mysterious, and risqué allure that would shape the jewel’s evolving identityas pearls’ European inheritance collided with distinct traditions governing pearl fishing and worship in the East and West Indies.1 Pearls were not an unfamiliar product of the New World, but the millions of American pearls produced in the Caribbean in the early years of the sixteenth century transformed the global market for them and their role in the imperial imaginary in Iberia and beyond. Furthermore, the particular circumstances of pearls’ harvesting in the Americas posed new administrative challenges that existing Iberian legal precedents could not solve. With no clear body of laws regulating the treatment of pearls—were they treasure, a commodity and trade item, or a natural resource?—vernacular practice, elaborated on the ground and at sea in the new American settlements, would fill the void.2 1. Pliny the Elder’s lengthiest consideration of pearls occurs in Book IX of his Natural History. See Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus), Natural History: A Selection, trans. John F. Healy (London, 1991), 135. 2. A similar upheaval would not occur again until Mikimoto Kōkichi learned to cultivate pearls in the early twentieth century; and even then many continuities in the trade remained. For the recent history of the pearl trade, see Stephen G. Bloom, Tears of Mermaids : The Secret Storyof Pearls (NewYork, 2009); and Keith Bradsher, “Pearls, Finer but Still Cheap, Flow from China,” New York Times, Aug. 1, 2011. For an early and influential Pearls in the Early Modern Imagination { 13 } “The Decay of Morality Is Caused by the Produce of the Sea”: Pearls and Unnatural Encounters in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History No single sourceon the nature and origin of pearls was more important to late medieval European understandings of the jewel than the first-­century writings of Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. Pliny’s treatment of pearls laid the groundwork for ideas about the jewel that would persist for millennia, including pearls’ association with the Far East. In his Natural History, Pliny identified “Taprobane,” “Stoidis” (probably Sri Lanka and an island in the lower Persian Gulf), and “the Indian promontory of Perimula” as major sources of pearls. The best “specially praised” specimens were “the pearls from the islands around Arabia and in the Persian Gulfand Red Sea.” Plinyalso underscored the natural variety that characterized pearls—those from the Red Sea were “bright,” he explained, “while those in the Indian Ocean are like flakes of mica and exceed others in size.” This inherent diversity of form was central to pearls’ appeal: “The longer ones have their own intrinsic charm,” he noted, while “the greatest praise is for pearls to be called alum-­ coloured.” In an assessment of the factors contributing to any particular pearl’s valuation, Pliny explained that “their value lies in their brilliance, size, roundness, smoothness and weight.” The same physical qualities would shape perceptions of pearls’ worth for thousands of years, but Pliny went on to note how the sheer range of types of pearls made any standard assessment of them very difficult to enforce. After providing the list of criteria for assessing pearls, Pliny noted that they had “such uncommon qualities that no two pearls are found exactly alike.” Pliny explained that this inherent uniqueness was why the Romans called pearls uniones (whereas foreigners called pearls margaritae). The etymological emphasis of theword uniones on oneness reflected anygiven pearl’s unique qualities, and the word’s plural form (as opposed to unio for a single pearl) thus conjures a collective of distinctive specimens.3 studyof maritime commodity trades that introduced the notion of “vernacular practices,” see Peter E. Pope, Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2004). 3. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, trans. Healy...


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