Pearls and coral have been worn on the body not only for adornment, but also for the belief in their powerful and mysterious properties as an effective prophylaxis against injury and disease. In literature, Elaine the lily maid of Astolat gave Sir Lancelot a red sleeve of scarlet embroidered with great pearls worn on his helmet during a tournament, while archaeological grave goods reveals that pearl or coral amulets and beads were worn for protection both in this world and the afterlife. Images and portraiture, of children in particular shows coral jewellery was worn in the belief that the stones would protect them in their fragile early years (fig 1). From a lay perspective the use of precious stones was not ‘enchantment’ but stemmed from a belief in a cosmology in which the divine was present in and could work through the natural world. Indeed, only a diminutive gem was needed – rings could incorporate just a tiny shard of material to make them efficacious as no matter how infinitesimal, it was the material’s presence that counted.
Taken internally the protective and healing power of pearls and coral have been revered for their medicinal properties and they have an extensive history in pharamacology, particularly in traditional Chinese and Far Eastern treatments where they remain in use to this day. In the early modern period European doctors praised them for their efficacious medicinal uses and they were taken either in the form of ground powder or dissolved in acid solutions such as lemon juice. Albertus Magnus, a Dominican scholar born in Germany in the 12th century, wrote that pearls were used in mental diseases, in affections of the heart, haemorrhages and dysentery. The 13th century Lapidario of Alfonso X of Castile, noted:
Even more miraculous properties were ascribed to pearls by Anselmus de Boot, the physician to Emperor Rudolph II, whose recipe for aqua perlata claimed to be: ‘most excellent for restoring the strength and almost for resuscitating the dead’. The English philosopher Francis Bacon also noted that pearls were used for in recipes for the prolongation of life.
For the European market, pearls came from India and the Middle East, while coral was fished from the Mediterranean coast around Naples, Capri and Sardinia. As an expensive, imported ingredient pearl and coral were usually sourced from an apothecary’s supplies, where they were dispensed from decorated mayolica or pottery jars (fig 2). Coral, for example, is itemised in the 1571 inventory of the the Southampton apothecary John Brodocke.
From the early 16th century pearl and coral appear in many domestic recipe collections, although as a costly element the quantities used are generally quite small. Dorothy Pennyman’s 1698 manuscript (FSL digital image 130614) has a recipe ‘For a Cough. Cousin Wakes it has done great cures’ that included ‘Powder of Red Coral 2 drams’. The gems often feature in remedies for the most serious maladies when they were frequently credited to a well-known doctor or came with aristocratic provenance. Mr Gaskin’s ‘Cordial powder’ first published in Natura Exenterata (London, 1655), and attributed to the countess of Arundel, instructed: “Take the rags of pearle or seed pearle, of red Corrall, of Crabs Eyes, of Hawthorne, of white Amber, being all severally beaten into fine pouder, and searced through a fine searce.” It purported to prevent small-pox, cure consumption, mitigate against fits and even claimed to cure plague and all other burning fevers. Hannah Wooley’s Accomplished Ladies Delight (London, 1675) contained a recipe called the countess of Kent’s Powder that called for a mixture of “magistery of pearl [pearl dissolved in vinegar], prepared crabs eyes, white amber and hartshorn,” which claimed to be: “Excellent against all Malignant, and Pestilent Diseases, French Pox, Small-Pox, Measles, Plague, Pestilence, Malignant or Scarlet Fevers, and Melancholy; twenty or thirty Grains thereof being exhibited (in a little warm Sack, or Harts-Horn-Jelly) to a Man, and half as much, or twelve Grains to a Child.” As well as featuring in general panaceas pearl and coral also had more specialist uses. Coral was an important ingredient for toothpaste, and certainly ground calcium carbonate is an effective scouring agent. The countess of Arundel’s own manuscript (Wellcome MS 213/34) includes: “A Medecine to skower the teethe to make them cleane and stronge, and to preserue them from perishyinge beyng vsed two or three tymes a weeke,” which used equal parts of finely beaten coral and amber blended with honey rubbed onto the teeth with a coarse cloth. While the Queen’s Delight (London, 1671) contained a recipe for powdered pearl or mother of pearl mixed with lemon juice that was used as a face wash. Both traditions that continue to the modern day – babies still chew on coral teething rings, while references to pearls remain a consistent feature of expensive face creams and make-up.