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  • Of Judges and Jewelers:Pearl and the Life of Saint John
  • Susanna Fein

In the middle english poem Pearl, a swooning, grief-stricken Jeweler experiences a gem-studded vision wherein precious stone becomes richly symbolic of heavenly wealth. The Jeweler first apprehends himself to be in a bejeweled landscape, then he perceives a glistening Pearl-Maiden, and ultimately he beholds the Heavenly City walled in diverse precious stones and gated with pearl, wherein gleaming citizens follow Christ “ϸat gay Juelle” (line 1124) in procession. The twelve gems of the city’s foundation and walls conform to the architectural model spelled out in Revelation, which itself stands as the record of a spectacular vision experienced by an earlier, deeply blessed visionary. By medieval tradition, Saint John the Evangelist, the Divine Apostle, was the author of both the Gospel of John and the Book of the Apocalypse. He was also popularly known as Jesus’ good friend. Christ had tenderly permitted him to nap on his breast at the Last Supper, a privilege that led John to have extraordinary insight into the ways of God.1 He was the apostle who had stood with Mary at the Crucifixion and the one to whom the crucified Lord had entrusted his own mother.

Because Saint John, being privy to God’s wonders, had witnessed the New Jerusalem, naming its precious stones in his Apocalypse, he also [End Page 41] held honorific status as a gemologist—a reputation much strengthened by lapidarian metaphors, exempla, and moral teachings attached to his hagiography. Traditional episodes in the apocryphal Life of Saint John underscored the apostle’s wisdom regarding rocks, gems, and the right valuation of earthly substance as accorded by the Creator. Three of his most famous miracles center on jewels being transformed or exchanged. One of these episodes introduces the apostle into the life of Edward the Confessor, wherein a precious gem comes to symbolize a “Prince’s pay.” Ultimately, Saint John’s narrative becomes entwined with a core national myth of English monarchic privilege—a myth materially invested in the Confessor’s shrine at Westminster and the royal crown. Expressed in worldly terms, the contours of Saint John’s medieval legend exalt the Divine Apostle as peerless among jewelers.

I offer here a hitherto unexplored perspective by which to understand the trope of the Jeweler in Pearl. As the Jeweler’s dream unfolds in ineffable splendor, a good deal of its credibility borrows from sanctified authority: Saint John and the vision recorded in Apocalypse. When the narrating “I” exhibits his skill in appraisal and eventually is called a “juelere,” this professional identity serves as a crucial marker of similitude to Saint John, the Divine Jeweler of earthly matter and spiritual worth. The narrating “I” performs a role in the poem consistent with his named occupation: he is an expert appraiser of physical substance. A jeweler evaluates things by size, dimension, symmetry, color, and purity. Medieval science and theology held that precious stones and metals possess virtues—magical, God-given properties—that hold potency when in a pure, unalloyed state. By his own introduction, the Jeweler is a creature who by trained discernment deals in quality assessment:

Oute of oryent, I hardyly saye,Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.So rounde, so reken in vche araye, …Queresoeuer I jugged gemmez gayeI sette hyr sengeley in synglure.

(lines 3–5, 7–8; emphasis added)2 [End Page 42]

As a judge of gems, the Jeweler is drawn to objects of refinement, for singular beauty enhances worth, and his now-lost pearl was his most valuable treasure.

Playing a prominent role later in Pearl, deep within the vision, is the saint whose own devysement—dreaming, narrating, assessing—becomes the spiritualized, extrasensory exemplar for the sensory acumen of the Jeweler. The medieval lapidary tradition, recorded for many centuries in many languages—Latin, French, Old English, Middle English, and so on—promoted John as the authority who reigned supreme among other divine experts in stone, such as Moses and Solomon. The apostle’s Revelation held the position of highest honor because it closes the Holy Book. Rather than constructing temples on earth, John saw the truths of heaven...


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