My manes mynde to maddying malte: Encountering the Pearl Maiden in Divine Enclosure

When we take a look at the mappae mundi that were produced in the Christian medieval west, we are well-aware of the fact that these maps are not to be used for navigational purposes. Still, most spectators find their minds wandering through the fantastic depictions of the world, mentally visiting known and unknown creatures or places. The most striking aspect however, may be the arrangement of the different elements on the map, with Jerusalem as the centre of the world. In an Apocalyptic sense, the book of Revelations describes that Heavenly Jerusalem appears after the defeat of Satan and the hold of Judgment Day. (Rev 21) 

In this blogpost however, I would like to take a closer look at the depiction of Heavenly Jerusalem in relation to grief in the Middle English poem Pearl. In this poem, the reader is confronted with a narrator grieving for the loss of his perfect and precious pearl in a garden. Through a dream vision, he finds himself in a marvellous land and encounters a Pearl Maiden who he identifies as his own pearl. She guides him through his grief and eventually allows him to take a look at Heavenly Jerusalem.

In Pearl, different types of enclosure converge. A common interpretation for the lost pearl is the death of the narrator’s daughter, who later becomes his omniscient mentor. This experience left the male narrator in a state of grief that certainly can be seen as a type of earthly and emotional enclosure. The well-fortified city of Heavenly Jerusalem may be referred to as divine and mostly female enclosure, which can only be entered by those who were chosen to be Christ’s brides. Interestingly, the earthly enclosure of the narrator gets loosened by the sight of Jerusalem. So, through the Maiden’s heavenly authority, she lectures the bereaved man and allows him to break out of his earthly grief. 

Introduction: The Narrator’s Enclosure

Looking at the different types of enclosure, it is crucial to understand the narrator’s grief before looking at his journey to see Heavenly Jerusalem. After his pearl, a treasured and loved possession, sprang from him, the narrator is overwhelmed by the grief he is feeling. He mourns the loss of his pearl by describing its ideal beauty. The bereaved is aware of the approximate spot of where he lost his jewel, but even after searching for it desperately, he has not been able to retrieve it. He describes the feeling of loss as a piercing pain that makes his heart feel swollen and burning. 

The feeling of sorrow is well-mirrored by the garden he lost his pearl in. It is late August, which is a time of change. The harvesting season is nearly over and autumn is about to arrive. The plants wither and the colourful atmosphere of the summer is lost. In this environment the grieving narrator is overcome with a deep sleep.

The loss of consciousness puts him into a state of trance, leading him into a marvellous dream land. The landscapes in his dreams are astonishing as he is surrounded by crystal cliffs, sparkling stones and a floor made of pearls. This sight suddenly makes the narrator forget all his grief and sorrow. 

As he decides to wander through this breathtaking landscape, he eventually reaches a stream. In this case, water clearly serves as a final division between the narrator’s earthly sorrow and the pain relief he experiences during the dream vision and the encounter with the Pearl Maiden.

It is apparent that the feeling of grief is a highly dynamic state. The deep sleep the narrator dropped off, allows him to take his mind off the desperate search for comfort. Instead, he gets time to process his emotions. While the dreamer is seraching for a way to cross the river, he catches sight of the Pearl Maiden. She is crowned, wears richly decorated, white garment and is instantly recognoised as the narrator’s pearl.

The thought of enclosure and hierarchy is fascinating in this scene. While in earthly terms the narrator exercises authority over his daughter, the Pearl Maiden reached a state of divine power in her own heavenly enclosure.

British Library: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, fol. 42r.

The Pearl Maiden’s Introduction to Heavenly Jerusalem

The Pearl Maiden carefully explains the divine cause of being chosen to be the Lamb’s (i.e. Christ’s) bride in Heavenly Jerusalem. By referring to the book of Revelations, the Pearl Maiden carefully tries to lecture the dreamer about the meaning of Jerusalem. While Jesus suffered in the earthly city, New Jerusalem has to be understood to appear after the defeat of evil and wrong-doing. 

As the dreamer asks if it was possible for him to get to see the Heavenly city, it becomes apparent that he does not fully grasp the concept of the division of the earthly and heavenly sphere. While the Pearl Maiden obviously rejects his request to casually visit this holy place, she tells the dreamer that it is possible to gain insight into Jerusalem from a nearby hill.

The Maiden prepares the dreamer for the sight he will witness. What he is about to see will verify the vision in John’s Revelations. In Heavenly Jerusalem, which is on the other side of the stream, there are twelve gates, richly decorated with the most beautiful ornaments. The existence of sunshine is obsolete and the architectural perfection of the city can hardly be processed by mortals.  The Maiden is aware of the different spheres and the effect this otherworldy sight has on those, who can only think in earthly categories.

Shortly after the dreamer reaches the hill, he gets to see the  procession of the Lamb and the 144,000 maidens residing in Jerusalem. A striking shift in the emotional state of the dreamer can be observed when he describes the hold of the celebration as he spotted his own beautiful pearl joining the service. 

In contrast to the piercing pain of grief in sorrow in the beginning, the narrator feels massive euphoria in his eyes and ears, which makes his human mind melt to madness. As he sees the success and beauty of his pearl and mentor, he cannot hold his emotions back and plunges into the stream. As he faces difficulties swimming, he wakes up in the garden, feeling less sorrow and pledging to never lose faith in the Christian God.

Although Pearl is told from the male narrator’s perspective, the role of the Pearl Maiden is striking. While the dreamer is caught in his own mind, grieving for his loss, the Pearl Maiden finds herself able to guide him out of his sorrow. She herself is embedded into an otherworldly enclosure that is fully dedicated to the life in Heavenly Jerusalem, but still she can affect worldy emotions.

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