Pearl and Number Symbolism: the Mathematics of Meaning

             We have all heard, and learned to be skeptical of, the interpretations of readers who spot a simple numerical pattern in a work and use it to anchor their entire sense of the work’s meaning.  The mere repetition of "three battles" in “Puss in Boots” does not necessarily supply enough evidence to determine that the tale is an allegory of the Trinity, or that Puss is a "Christ figure."  Part of the problem arises from the mixed pagan/Christian nature of our linguistic inheritance.  Pagan cultures attributed different values to numbers than Christian cultures, and a work produced with no Christian doctrinal intent still might use numerical patterns of twos or threes to provide pleasing aesthetic symmetry, as well as to signify some pagan numerical association. 

             When we are dealing with a medieval poem with avowed Christian content, however, the odds increase that the poet intends us to interpret overt numerical references.  Christianity has a well-known interest in number as a sign of divine order in the universe, the most pure sense of the larger belief that the universe is a sort of "book" which can be "read" for the signs of God's divinely encoded will.  To understand Pearl's use of number as a structuring principle, we have to know how early Christians recoded pre-existing Greek and Roman pagan signs, and how they grafted to pagan numerological practices a new, more complex mathematics of meaning.

             The belief that the gods left messages for humans in natural signs can be found in classical times among Greek and Roman pagans who practiced various forms of divination to determine the gods' will.  Greek city-state armies might stand motionless in the field, enduring the enemies taunts and hurled missiles, until the priests' “sortilege” or oracle interpretation determined that the auspices for battle were favorable.  The Iliad and the Odyssey both contain instances of interpreted omens, and in the latter, bird flight often was interpreted using the logic of “sympathetic magic” or magic-by-analogy, like that found in Medieval Breton lais.  Ordinary things that are physically “like” extraordinary things are thought to operate like the extraordinary things, or to foretell the immanent arrival of something like the extraordinary things.  Eagles flying were Zeus's birds because their great physical power and high flight resembled the power and altitude assigned to the ruler of the gods.  When eagles swooped down upon the suitors occupying Odysseus' hall, tearing at their faces, one didn't need to be much of a prophet to realize this was a sign of Zeus’s displeasure with the suitors for violating the laws of hospitality, which the gods’ ruler protected as one of his special prerogatives.  The hall visitor who warned the suitors of immanent doom simply used appropriate pagan interpretive procedures by which one might easily infer the likelihood of Odysseus' immanent return to kill them.  The modern literary interpreter might go one step further by noticing the poet’s association of Odysseus with the eagles and with Zeus as an attempt to identify the hero with inevitable and well-deserved divine vengeance.  If there are two eagles, identifying them by association with the hero and his son, Telemachus, who fights beside him, completes the equation sympathetic magic demands.

             Christians borrowed pagan magic-by-analogy to interpret the parables and miracles of Jesus (e.g., the abundant nurturing of the gospel's message is signified in the feeding of the multitudes at the Sermon on the Mount by a small quantity of loaves and fishes).  The Parable of the Vineyard is especially relevant to readings of Pearl because it explains how the Pearl-maiden might receive rewards in Heaven as great as those who lived long and holy lives, although she had died when still a child.  Jesus’ parable tells us that the vineyard owner paid the worker who began early in the morning the same wages he paid the worker who began working only in the last hour of the day, explaining to the protesting “early-bird” that it was the owner’s right to set wages for work done in his vineyard.  Jesus’ association with “the vine” which wonderfully flowers forth every spring after being cut down in the fall is familiar to us from many sermons and biblical texts, as well as in the popular Latin verse, “Perispice christacola,” sung to the tune of “Sumer is icumen in,” rejoicing in the spring as the sign of divine rebirth. To complete the parable’s interpretation, the “vineyard owner” must be identified as God, Jesus’ father, and the “laborers” would be souls who live long lives (the “early-bird,” and also our Dreamer) and those whose time in the “vineyard” is short because they die as children (the late arrival and the “Pearl-maiden”).  The imagery of the poem's conclusion also draws upon the apostle John's visionary analogy between marriage and the reunion of the soul with God.  In each case, the analogous likeness between earthly events and divine ones must be understood in order to decode the poem’s basic symbolism before we can tackle its numerological level.

             Pagan interpretations of number symbols usually are said to arise with Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher who sought wisdom in math and geometry, hence the theorem for calculating the triangle's longest side which you probably memorized.  His observations on the relationship between lengths of vibrating strings and the notes they produced led him to propose that the universe functioned according to a divinely ordained system of harmonic numbers.  When examining numbers themselves to explain this relationship, Pythagoras discovered "divine tetraktus," the fact that the number 10 is the sum of the first four numbers and those numbers corresponded to the geometric forms necessary to construct physical space (1=point, 2=line, 3=planar surfaces, 4=geometric solids).  Plato adopted this thinking to suggest ways in which we might see the divine "forms" beyond the illusory facade of phenomena we perceive with the senses.  He drew attention to the two primitive numerical series which he said could explain both physical creation and its relationship to the great soul which animates it: the addition sequence 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 in which each number, added to itself, produces the next [i.e., 2 parents yield ordinary abundance in offspring], and the multiplicative sequence 1, 3, 9, 27, 243 in which the previous two numbers are multiplied together to produce the next in the series [i.e., contact with the divine yields spiritual “super-abundance”].  This led arithmetical philosophy to consider a number's factors, as well.  Numbers are made up of other smaller numbers ("factors") which could be divided into them. 

              Some numbers are "prime" in terms of factorial analysis, that is, they are divisible only by themselves and 1 (e.g., 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, etc.).  Some numbers' factors add up to the numbers themselves (e.g., 1, 2, and 3 are the factors of 6), and such numbers were considered "perfect" because they were exactly harmonious with their divisors.  Others were considered "deficient" if their divisors added up to less than themselves (e.g., 4’s factors, 1 + 2 = 3, which makes 4 "deficient").  Still other numbers were "superabundant" if their divisors added up to more than themselves (e.g., 12’s factors, 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 6 = 16, which makes 12 "superabundant").  For this reason, it should come as no surprise that Pearl is composed of 1212 lines grouped in 12-line stanzas.  Pearl is especially concerned with the number "12" because of its relevance to the issue of divine abundance (esp. salvific grace), an abundance which the Dreamer doubts and which the Pearl-maiden defends.  The concluding vision of the New Jerusalem (i.e., Creation perfected after Jesus’ eschaton or Second Coming) draws heavily upon the book of Revelations attributed to the apostle John, which is filled with instances of 12 either as a number (12 levels [l. 993], 12 furlongs long, high and deep [l. 1030], 12 sacred trees [l. 1078]), or as a factor (e.g., the number of souls John and the Dreamer see in l. 786, 144,000, a number which is divisible twice by 12 and once by 1000).

             Here, mainly drawn from Brian Stone's Chaucer (N.Y.: Penguin, 1987, page 219), is a list of numbers medieval Christians might have considered “positive” or blessed, and "negative" or evil, which may be relevant to your reading of Pearl:

1          Unity; God.

2          Diversity; unlimit or excess (ME "lak of mesure"); evil, strife

3          Perfect harmony (unity + diversity); limit, good; the Trinity

4          Perfection (the first square, 2x2); the gospels & apostles, the cardinal graces, senses of allegory, quadrivium of subjects first taught in Medieval schools; elements, humors, seasons, winds, points of the compass.

5          The union of the first even and odd numbers after 1, and hence the prevailing number in nature and art; Christ's wounds (Cf. Gawain's pentangle's explication in SGGK ll. 619-69); stanzas in all but one of Pearl's stanza groups.

6          The sum of the first three numbers; the trinity; the days of Creation; stanzas in Pearl stanza group XV (and 15 is, itself, a deficient number [factors 1+3+5 = 9]).

7          Prime number; the sum of 3 and 4, which are both “god” numbers; mystical in many contexts; the climacteric of all diseases; the sins; the virtues; the Joys of the Virgin; the Sorrows of the Virgin; innumerable biblical and other referents.

8          The first cube, 2x2x2; new beginning and stability; eternity; Christ; baptism; Resurrection; circumcision; Beatitudes; the number who survived the Flood.

10         The Tetraktus; the Commandments; the number of strings on David's harp.

12         'Superabundant'; the New Jerusalem (see Revelation); the Apostles; 144 Virgins, 144,000 population of the ten tribes, etc.

             Though Stone does not discuss it, the logic used to interpret the “good” numbers implies that the numbers he omits, 9, 11, and 13, are problematic, deficient, or outright bad.  The number 9 is massively “deficient” in terms of its factors: it is divisible only by 1 and 3, whose sum only equals 4.  The numbers 11 and 13, though primes, are produced by taking away or adding to adjacent “good” numbers, by implication a dangerous thing to do.  The number 11 is especially interesting for Pearl's readers because the "missing line" (472) makes a superabundant 12-line stanza massively deficient by its loss.  Or does it turn the 11 line stanza into something that suggests God "twice" (1 and 1)?

         Stone observes that "Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight both have 101 stanzas (101 being a prime number, in which unity figures twice) and those of Pearl are in twenty linked sets, all but one of which are fives" (219).  He might have gone much, much further in the case of Pearl, which is one of the most densely numerological texts I know of.  For but one example of many I know of, and others I am sure have not yet been discovered, compare the Dreamer's self-description in lines which are given the standard numbering 184 and 1085, and consider that they are exactly 1000 lines apart: "I stod as hende as hawk in halle" (a bird of prey, though courtly/calm/"hende"); "I stod as stylle as dased quayle" (a prey species, and no longer merely courtly or calm, but "dazed"--in a spell cast by the vision of the New Jerusalem's "frech fygure" (1086).  The perfection of that 1000-line verbal and thematic parallel is possible only if we allow the "missing line" 472's imperfection to be intentional, both present and absent in form and meaning.

            Stone has created his list from a wide range of sources, most of which agree on the numbers' significance.  Notice, though, that the supposed transcendent significance of numbers becomes complicated even within Christian tradition because of variations in doctrinal interpretation of divine events.  For instance, Stone follows the tradition in which the Virgin has seven "Joys" and "Woes," but the Pearl-poet obviously follows a tradition in which there are five (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ll. 646-7).  Thus, interpreters searching the companion poem, Pearl, for the significance of "five" should keep that in mind.