Biancabella and the Snake

This is the original translation of Straparola’s story, which I referred to in my book, Known Only to Kings. I leave it here for those who are interested, however I don’t consider it to be suitable for young readers as they may not fully understand some of the events:

Biancabella, the daughter of Lamberico, the Marquis of Monferrato, is sent away by the stepmother of Ferrandino, King of Naples, in order that she may be put to death; but the assassins only cut off her hands and put out her eyes. Afterwards she, her hurts having been healed by a snake, returns happily to Ferrandino.

IT is praiseworthy, or even absolutely necessary, that a woman, of whatever state or condition she may be, should bear herself with prudence in each and every undertaking she may essay, for without prudence nothing will bring itself to a c6mmendat issue. And if a certain stepmother, of whom I am about to tell you, had used it with due moderation when she plotted wickedly to take another’s life, she would not herself have been cut off by divine judgment in such fashion as I will now relate to you.

Once upon a time, now many years ago there reigned in Monferrato a marquis called Lamberico, very puissant, both on account of his lordships and his great wealth, but wanting in children to carry on his name. He was, forsooth, mighty anxious for progeny, but this bounty of heaven was denied to him. Now one day it chanced that the marchioness his wife was walking for her pleasure in the palace garden, and, being suddenly overcome by sleep, she sat down at the foot of a tree and slumber fell upon her. While she slept gently there crept up to her side a very small snake, which, having passed stealthily under her clothes without arousing her by its presence, made its way into her body, and by subtle windings penetrated even into her womb, and there lay quiet. Before long time had elapsed the marchioness, with no small pleasure to herself, and with the highest delight of all the state, proved to be with child, and, when the season of her lying-in came, she was delivered of a female child, round the neck of which there was coiled three times something in the similitude of a serpent. When the midwives, who were in attendance upon the marchioness, saw this, they were much affrighted; but the snake, without causing any hurt whatsoever, untwined itself from the infant’s neck, and, winding itself along the floor and stretching itself out, made its way into the garden.

Now when the child had been duly cared for and clothed, the nurses having washed it clean in a bath of clear water and swathed it in snow-white linen, they began to see, little by little, that round about its neck was a collar of gold, fashioned with the most subtle handiwork. So fine was it, and so lovely, that it seemed to shed its lustre from between the skin and the flesh, just as the most precious jewels are wont to shine out from a closure of transparent crystal, and, moreover, it encircled the neck of the infant just as many times as the little serpent had cast its fold thereabout. The little girl, to whom, on account of her exceeding loveliness, the name of Biancabella was given, grew up in such goodliness and beauty that it seemed as if she must be sprung from divine and not from human stock. When she had come to the age of ten years it chanced that one day she went with her nurse upon a terrace, from whence she ob served a fair garden full of roses and all manner of other lovely flowers. Then, turning towards the nurse who had her in charge, she demanded of her what garden that was which she had never seen before. To this the nurse replied that it was a place which her mother called her own garden, and one, more over, in which she was wont often to take her recreation. Then said the child to her: ‘I have never seen any thing so fair before, and I had fain go into it and walk there.’ Then the nurse, taking Biancabella by the hand, led her into the garden, and, having suffered the child to go a little distance apart from her, she sat down under the shade of a leafy beech-tree and settled herself to sleep, letting the little girl take her pleasure the while in roaming about the garden. Biancabella, who was altogether charmed with the loveliness of the place, ran about, now here and now there, gathering flowers, and, at last, when she felt somewhat tired, she sat down under the shadow of a tree. Now scarcely had the child seated herself upon the ground when there appeared a little snake, which crept up close to her side. Biancabella, as soon as she saw the beast, was mightily alarmed, and was about to cry out, when the snake thus addressed her: ‘Cry not, I beg you, neither disturb yourself, nor have any fear, for know that I am your sister, born on the same day as yourself and at the same birth, and that Samaritana is my name. And I now tell you that, if you will be obedient to what I shall command you, I will make you happy in your life; but if, on the other hand, you disobey me, you will come to be the most luckless, the most wretched woman the world has ever yet seen. Wherefore, go your way now, without fear of any sort, and to-morrow cause to be brought into this garden two vessels, of which let one be filled with pure milk, and the other with the finest water of roses. Then you must come to me by yourself without companions.’

When the serpent was gone the little girl rose up from her seat and went back to seek her nurse, whom she found still sleeping, and, having aroused her, she returned with her to the palace without saying aught of what had befallen her. And when the morrow had come Biancabella chanced to be with her mother alone in the chamber, and the mother remarked that the child bore upon her face a melancholy look. Whereupon she said: ‘Biancabella, what ails you that you put on so discontented a face? You are wont to be lively and merry enough, but now you seem all sad and woebegone.’ To this Biancabella replied: ‘There is nothing amiss with me; it is only that I want to have taken into the garden two vessels, of which one shall be filled with pure milk and the other of the finest water of roses.’ The mother answered: ‘And why do you let your self be troubled by so small a matter as this, my child? Do you not know that everything here belongs to you?’ Then the marchioness caused to be brought to her two vessels, large and beautiful, filled, the one with milk and the other with rose water, and had them carried into the garden.

When the hour appointed by the serpent had come, Biancabella, without taking any other damsel to bear her company, repaired to the garden, and, having opened the door thereof, she went in and made fast the entrance, and then seated herself upon the ground at the spot where the two vessels had been placed. Almost as soon as she had sat down the serpent appeared and came near her, and straightway commanded her to strip off all her clothes, and then, naked as she was, to step into the vessel which was filled with milk. When she had done this, the serpent twined itself about her, thus bathing her body in every part with the white milk and licking her all over with his tongue, rendering her pure and perfect in every part where, peradventure, aught that was faulty might have been found. Next, having bid her come out of the vessel of milk, the ser pent made her enter the one which was filled with rose water, whereupon all her limbs were scented with odours so sweet and restorative that she felt as if she were filled with fresh life. Then the serpent bade her put on her clothes Once more, giving her at the same time ex press command that she should hold her peace as to what had befallen her, and to speak no word thereanent even to her father and mother. For the serpent willed that no other woman in all the world should be found to equal Biancabella in beauty or in grace. And finally, after she had bestowed upon her every good quality, the serpent crept away to its hiding-place.

When this was done Biancabella left the garden and returned to the palace. Her mother, when she perceived how her daughter had become more lovely and gracious than ever, and fairer than any other damsel in the world, was astonished beyond measure and knew not what to say. Wherefore she questioned the young girl as to what she had done to indue herself with such surpassing loveliness; but Biancabella had no answer to give her. Hereupon the marchioness took a comb and began to comb and dress her daughter’s fair locks, and forthwith from the girl’s hair there fell down pearls and all manner of precious stones, and when Biancabella went to ‘wash her hands roses and violets and lovely flowers of all sorts sprang up around them, and the odours which arose from these were so sweet that it seemed as if the place had indeed become an earthly paradise. Her mother, when she saw this marvel, ran to find Lamberico her husband, and, full of maternal pride, ,thus addressed him: ‘My lord, heaven has bestowed upon us a daughter who is the sweetest, the loveliest, and the most exquisite work nature ever produced.
For besides the divine beauty and grace in her, which is manifest to all eyes, pearls and gems and all other kinds of precious stones fall from her hair, and- to name something yet more marvellous-round about her white hands spring up roses and violets and all manner of flowers which give out the sweetest odours to all those who may come near her to wonder at the sight. All this I tell to you I assuredly would never have believed had I not looked thereon with my own eyes.

Her husband, who was of an unbelieving nature, was at first disinclined to put faith in his wife’s words, and treated her speech as a subject for laughter and ridicule, but she went on plying him without ceasing with accounts of what she had witnessed, so that he determined to see for himself how the matter really stood. Then, having made them bring his daughter into his presence, he found about her even more marvellous things than his wife had described, and on ac count of what he saw he rejoiced exceedingly, and in his pride swore a great oath that there was in the whole world no man worthy to be united to her in wedlock.

Very soon the fame and glory of the supreme and immortal beauty of Biancabella began to spread itself through the whole world, and many kings and princes and nobles came together from all parts in order to win her love and favour and have her to wife, but not one of all these suitors was counted worthy to enjoy her, inasmuch as each one of them proved to be lacking in respect of one thing or another. But at last one day there came a-wooing Ferrandino, King of Naples, who by his prowess and by his illustrious name blazed out resplendent like the sun in the midst of the smaller luminaries, and, having presented himself to the marquis, demanded of him the hand of his daughter in marriage. The marquis, seeing that the suitor was seemly of countenance, and well knit in person, and ft of grace, besides being a prince of great power and possessions and wealth, gave his consent to the nuptials at once, and, having summoned his daughter, without further parleying the two were betrothed by joining of hands and by kissing one another.

Scarcely were the rites of betrothal completed, when Biancabella called back to mind the words which her sister Samaritana had so lovingly spoken to her, wherefore she withdrew herself from the presence of her spouse under the pretext that she had certain business of her own to see to, and, having gone to her own chamber, made fast the door thereof from within, and then passed by a secret thoroughfare into the garden. When she had come into the garden, she began to call upon Samaritana in a low voice. But the serpent no more manifested herself as heretofore, and Biancabella, when she perceived this, was mightily astonished, and, after she had searched through every part of the garden without finding a trace of Samaritana, a deep grief fell upon her, for she knew that this thing had happened to her because she had not given due attention and obedience to the commands which her sister had laid upon her. Wherefore, grieving and bewailing heavily on account of the mischance that had befallen her, she returned into her chamber, and having opened the door, she went to rejoin her spouse, who had been waiting a long time for her, and sat own beside him. When the marriage ceremonies were completed, Ferrandino led his bride away with him to Naples, where, with sumptuous state and magnificent festivities and the sound of trumpets they were welcomed by the whole city with the highest honour.

It happened that there was living at Naples Ferrandino’s stepmother, who had two daughters of her own, both of hem deformed and ugly; but, notwithstanding this, she had set her heart on marrying one of them to the king. But now, when all hope was taken from her fever accomplishing this design of hers, her rage and anger against Biancabella became so savage that she could scarcely endure to look upon her. But she was careful to conceal her animosity, feigning the while to hold Biancabella in all love and affection. Now by a certain freak of fortune the King of Tunis at this time began to set in array a mighty force of armed men for service by land and like wise on sea, in order that he might in cite Ferrandino to make war (whether he did this because Ferrandino had won Biancabella to wife, or for some other reason I know not), and at the head of a very powerful army he had already passed the bounds of the kingdom of Naples. On this account it was necessary that Ferrandino should straightway take up arms for the defence of his realm, and hurry to the field to confront his foe. Therefore, having settled his affairs, and made provision of all things necessary for Biancabella (she being now with child), he gave her over to the care of his step mother and set forth with his army.

Ferrandino had not long departed when this malevolent and forward – minded woman made a wicked design on Biancabella’s life, and, having summoned into her presence certain retainers who were entirely devoted to her, she charged them to conduct Biancabella with them to some place or other – feigning that what they were doing was done for her recreation and that they should not leave her ‘until they had taken her life. More over, in order that she might be fully assured that they had discharged their duty, they were to bring back to her some sign of Biancabella’s death. These ruffians prompt for any sort of ill-doing, at once prepared to carry out the commands of their mistress, and making pretence of conducting Biancabella to some place where she might recreate herself, they carried her away into a wood, and forthwith began to make preparation to kill her. But when they perceived how lovely she was, and gracious, they were moved to pity and had not the heart to take her life. So they cut off both her ands and tore her eyes out of her head, ad these they carried back to the stepmother as certain proofs that Biancabella had been killed by them. When this impious and cruel woman saw what they brought in their hands, her joy and satisfaction were unbounded, and, scheming still in her wicked heart to carry out her nefarious designs, she spread through all the kingdom a report that both her own daughters were dead, the one of a continued fever, and the other of an imposthume of the heart, which had caused her death by suffocation. Moreover, she went on to declare that Biancabella, disordered by grief at the king’s departure, had miscarried of a child, and had like wise been seized with a tertian fever which had wasted her so cruelly that there was more cause to fear her death than to hope for her recovery. But the scheme of this wicked cunning woman was to keep one of her own daughters in the king’s bed, maintaining the while that she was Biancabella, shrunken and distempered by the fever.

Ferrandino, after he had attacked and put to rout the army of his foe, marched homeward in all the triumph of victory, hoping to find his beloved Biancabella full of joy and happiness, but in lieu of this he found her (as he believed) lying in bed shrivelled, pale, and disfigured. Then he went up to the bed and gazed closely at her face, and was overcome with astonishment when he looked upon the wreck she had become, and could hardly persuade himself that the woman he saw there could really be Biancabella. Afterwards he bade her attendants comb her hair, and, in place of the gems and the precious jewels which were wont to fall from the fair locks of his wife, there came forth great worms which had been feeding on the wretched woman’s flesh, and from the hands there came forth, not the roses and the sweet-smelling flowers which ever sprang up around Biancabella’s, but a foulness and filth which caused a nauseous sickness to all who came near her. But the wicked old stepmother kept on speaking words of consolation to him, declaring that all this distemper sprang from nothing else than the lengthened course of the ailment which possessed her.

In the meantime the ill-fated Biancabella, bereft of her hands and blind in both her eyes, was left alone in that solitary place, and, finding herself in such cruel affliction, she called over and over again upon her sister Samaritana, beseeching her to come to her rescue; but no answer came to her except from the re sounding voice of Echo, who cried aloud through all the place. And while the un happy Biancabella was left in the agony of despair, conscious that she was cut off from all human aid, there came into the wood a venerable old man, kindly of aspect and no less kindly in his heart. And he, when he listened to the sad and mournful voice which smote upon his hearing, made his way step by step to wards the place whence it came, and stopped when he found there a blind lady with her hands cut off who was bitterly mourning the sad fate which had overtaken her. When the good old man looked upon her, and saw how sad was her condition, he could not bear to leave her thus in this wilderness of broken trees and thorns and brambles, but, over come by the fatherly pity within him, he led her home with him to his house, and gave her into the charge of his wife, commanding her very strictly to take good care of the sufferer. Then he turned towards his three daughters, who verily were as beautiful as three of the brightest stars of heaven, and exhorted them earnestly to keep her company, and to render to her continually any loving service she might require, and to take care that she wanted for nothing. But the wife, who had a hard heart, and none of the old man’s pity, was violently moved to anger by these words of her husband, and, turning towards him, cried out: ‘Husband, what is this you would have us do with this woman, all blind and maimed as she is? Doubtless she has been thus treated as a punishment for her sins, and for no good behaviour.’ In reply to this speech the old man spake in an angry tone: ‘You will carry out all the commands I give you. If you should do aught else, you need not look to see me here again.’

It happened that while the unhappy Biancabella was left in charge of the wife and the three daughters, conversing with them of various things, and meditating over her own great misfortunes, she be sought one of the maidens to do her a favour and comb her hair a little. But when the mother heard this she was much angered, forasmuch as she would not al low either of her children to minister in any way to the unfortunate sufferer. But the daughter’s heart was more given to pity than was her mother’s, and more over she called to mind what her father’s commands had been, and was conscious of some subtle air of dignity and high breeding which seemed to emanate from Biancabella as a token of her lofty estate. So she straightway unfastened the apron from her waist, and, having spread it on the floor beside Biancabella, began to comb her hair softly and carefully. Scarcely had she passed the comb thrice through the blond tresses before there fell out of them pearls and rubies and diamonds and all sorts of precious stones. Now the mother, when she saw what had happened, was seized with dread, and stood as one struck with amazement; moreover, the great dislike which at first she had harboured towards Biancabella, now gave way to a feeling of kindly affection. And when the old man had come back to the house they all ran to embrace him, rejoicing with him greatly over the stroke of good fortune which had come to deliver them from the bitter poverty which had hitherto oppressed. Then Biancabella asked them to bring her a bucket of clear water, and bade them wash therewith her face and her maimed arms, and from these, while all were standing by, roses and violets and other flowers in great plenty fell down; whereupon they all deemed she must be some divine personage, and no mortal woman.

Now after a season it came to pass that Biancabella felt a desire to return to the spot where first the old man had found her. But he and his wife and his daughters, seeing how great were the benefits they gathered from her presence, loaded her with endearments, and besought her very earnestly that she would on no ac count depart from them, bringing for ward many reasons why she should not carry out her wish. But she, having resolutely made up her mind on this point, determined at all hazards to go away, promising at the same time to return to them hereafter. The old man, when he saw how firmly she was set on her departure, took her with him without any further delay back to the place where he had come upon her. And when they had reached this spot she gave directions to the old man that he should depart and leave her, bidding him also to come back there when evening should have fallen, in order that she might return with him to his house.

As soon as the old man had gone his way the ill-fated Biancabella began to wander up and down the gloomy wood, calling loudly upon Samaritana, so that her cries and lamentations rose up even to the high heavens. But Samaritana, though she was all the while nigh to her sister, and had never for one moment abandoned her, refused as yet to answer to her call. Whereupon the wretched Biancabella, deeming that she was scattering her words upon the heedless winds, cried out, ‘Alas! what further concern have I in this world, seeing that I have been bereft of my eyes and of my hands, and now at last all human help is denied to me.’ And as she thus spoke there came upon her a sort of frenzy, which took away from her all hope of deliverance from her present evil case, and urged her, in despair, to lay hands upon her own life. But because there was at hand no means by which she could put an end to her miserable being, she found her way to a pool of water, which lay not far distant, in the mind there to drown herself. But when she had come to the shore of the pool, and stood thereon ready to cast herself down into the water, there sounded in her ears a voice like thunder, saying: ‘Alas, alas, wretched one! keep back from self-murder, nor desire to take your own life, which you ought to preserve for some better end.’ Whereupon Biancabella, alarmed by this mighty voice, felt as it were every one of her hairs standing erect on her head, but after a moment it seemed to her that she knew the voice; so, having plucked up a little courage, she said: ‘Who are you who wander about these woods, pro claiming your presence to me by your kindly and pitiful words?’ Then the same voice replied: ‘I am Samaritana, your sister, for whom you have been calling so long and painfully.’ And Biancabella, when she listened to these words, answered in a voice all broken by agonized sobs, and said: ‘Alas, my sister! come to my aid, I beseech you; and if at any past time I have shown myself disregard of your counsel, I pray you to pardon me. Indeed I have erred, and I confess my fault, but my misdeed was the fruit of my ignorance, and not of my wickedness; for be sure, if it had come from wickedness, divine justice would not have suffered me, as the author of it, so long to cumber the earth.’ Samaritana, when she heard her sister’s woes set forth in this pitiful story, and witnessed the cruel wrongs that had been done her, spake some comforting words, and then, having gathered divers medicinal herbs of wonderful power and virtue, she spread these over the places where Biancabella’s eyes had been. Then she brought to her sister two hands, and having joined these on to the wounded wrists, at once made them whole and sound again. And when she had wrought this marvellous feat Samaritana threw off from herself the scaly skin of the serpent, and stood revealed as a maiden of lovely aspect.

The sun had already begun to veil its glittering rays, and the evening shadows were creeping around, when the old man with anxious hasty steps returned to the wood, where he found Biancabella sit ting beside a maiden well nigh as lovely as herself. And he gazed steadily into her beauteous face, standing the while like to a man struck with wonder, and could scarcely believe it was Biancabella he looked upon. But when he was sure it was really she, he cried: ‘My daughter, were you not this morning blind and bereft of your hands? How comes it that you have been thus speedily made whole again?’ Biancabella answered him: C My cure has been worked, not by anything I myself have done, but by the virtue and the kind ministering of this my dear sister who sits here beside me.’ Where upon both the sisters arose from the place where they were seated, and rejoicing greatly they went together with the old man to his house, where the wife and the three daughters gave them a most loving and hospitable welcome.

It came to pass after the lapse of many days that Samaritana and Biancabella, and the old man with his wife and his three daughters, left their cottage and betook themselves to the city of Naples, purposing to dwell there, and, when they had entered the city, they chanced to come upon a vacant space hard by the palace of the king, where they determined to make their resting-place. And when the dark night had fallen around them, Samaritana took in her hand a twig of laurel and thrice struck the earth there with, uttering certain mystic words the while, and almost before the sound of these words had ceased there sprang up forthwith before them a palace, the most beautiful and sumptuous that ever was seen. The next morning Ferrandino the king went early to look out of the window, and when he beheld the rich and marvellous palace standing where there had been nothing the night before, he was altogether overcome with amazement, and called his wife and his stepmother to come and see it; but these were greatly disturbed in mind at the sight thereof, for a boding came upon them that some ill was about to befall them.
While Ferrandino was standing, scanning closely the palace before him, and examining it in all parts, he lifted his eyes to a certain window, and there, in the chamber inside, he beheld two ladies of a beauty more rich and dazzling than the sun. And no sooner had his eyes fallen upon them than he felt a tempest of passion rising in his heart, for he assuredly recognized in one of them some similitude of that loveliness which had once been Biancabella’s. And when he asked who they were, and from what land they had come, the answer which was given him was that they were two ladies who had been exiled from their home, and that they had journeyed from Persia, with all their possessions, to take up their abode in the noble city of Naples. When he heard this, Ferrandino sent a messenger to inquire whether he would be doing them any pleasure in waiting upon them, accompanied by the ladies of his court, to pay them a visit of welcome, and to this gracious message they sent an answer, saying that it would indeed be a very precious honour to be thus visited by him, but that it would be more decorous and respectful if they, as subjects, should pay this duty to him, than that he, as lord and king, should visit them.

Hereupon Ferrandino bade them summon the queen and the other ladies of the court, and with these (although at first they refused to go, being so greatly in fear of their impending ruin) he be took himself to the palace of the two ladies, who, with all friendly signs of welcome and with modest bearing, gave him the reception due to a highly honoured guest, showing him the wide loggias, and the roomy halls, and the richly ornamented chambers, the walls of which were lined with alabaster and fine porphyry, while about them were to be seen on all sides carven figures which looked like life. And when they had exhibited to the king all parts of the sumptuous palace, the two fair young women approached Ferrandino and besought him most gracefully that he would deign to come one day with his queen and dine at their table. The king, whose heart was not hard enough to remain unaffected by all he had seen, and who was gifted moreover with a magnanimous and liberal spirit, graciously accepted the invitation. And when he had tendered his thanks to the two ladies for the noble welcome they had given him, he and the queen departed together and returned to their own palace. When the day fixed for the banquet had come, the king and the queen and the stepmother, clad in their royal robes and accompanied by some of the ladies of the court, went to do honour to the magnificent feast set out in the most sumptuous fashion. And after he had given them water to wash their hands, the seneschal bade them con duct the king and queen to a table apart, set somewhat higher, but at the same time near to the others, and having done this, he caused all the rest of the guests to seat themselves according to their rank, and in this fashion they all feasted merrily and joyfully together.

When the stately feast had come to an end and the tables had been cleared, Samaritana rose from her seat, and turning towards the king and the queen, spake thus: ‘Your majesties, in order that the time may not be irksome to us, as it may if we sit here idle, let one or other of us propose something in the way of diversion which will let us pass the day pleasantly.’ And when the guests heard what Samaritana said, they all agreed that she had spoken well, but yet there was found no one bold enough to make such a pro position as she had called for. Where upon Samaritana, when she perceived they were all silent, went on: ‘Since it appears that no one of this company is prepared to put forward anything, I, with your majesty’s leave, will bid come hither one of our own maidens, whose singing perchance will give you no little pleasure.’ And having summoned the damsel, whose name was Silveria, into the banqueting-room, Samaritana commanded her to take a lyre in her hand and to sing thereto something in honour of the king which should be worthy of their praise. And the damsel, obedient to her lady’s command, took her lyre, and, having placed herself before the king, sang in a soft and pleasant voice while she touched the resounding strings with the plectrum, telling in her chant the story of Biancabella from beginning to end, but not mentioning her by name. When the whole of the story had been set forth, Samaritana again rose to her feet, and demanded of the king what would be the fitting punishment, what torture would be cruel enough for those who had put their hands to such an execrable crime. Then the stepmother, who deemed that she might perchance get a release for her misdeeds by a prompt and ready reply, did not wait for the king to give his answer, but cried out in a bold and confident tone, ‘Surely to be cast into a furnace heated red hot would be but a light punishment for the offences of such a one.’ Then Samaritana, with her countenance all afire with vengeance and anger, made answer to her: ‘Thou thyself art the very same guilty and barbarous woman, through whose nefarious working all these cruel wrongs have been done; and thou, wicked and accursed one, hast condemned thyself to a righteous penalty out of thine own mouth.’ Then Samaritana, turning towards the king with a look of joy upon her face, said to him, ‘Behold! this is your Biancabella, this is the wife you loved so dearly, this is she without whom you could not live.’ Then, to prove the truth of her words, Samaritana gave the word to the three daughters of the old man that they should forthwith, in the presence of the king, begin to comb Biancabella’s fair and wavy hair, and scarcely had they be gun when (as has been told before) there fell out of her tresses many very precious and exquisite jewels, and from her hands came forth roses exhaling the sweet scents of morning, and all manner of odoriferous flowers. And for yet greater certainty she pointed out to the king how the snow-white neck of Biancabella was encircled by a fine chain of the most delicately wrought gold, which grew naturally between the skin and the flesh, and shone out as through the clearest crystal.

When the king perceived by these manifest and convincing signs that she was indeed his own Biancabella, he began to weep for the joy he felt, and to embrace her tenderly. But before he left that place he caused to be heated hot a furnace, and into this he bade them cast the stepmother and her two daughters. Thus their repentance for their crimes came too late, and they made a miserable end to their lives. And after this the three daughters of the old man were given honourably in marriage, and the King Ferrandino with Biancabella and Samaritana lived long and happily, and when Ferrandino died his son succeeded to his kingdom.

Straparola, Giovanni Francesco. The Facetious Nights by Straparola. W. G. Waters, translator. Jules Garnier and E. R. Hughes, illustrators. London: Privately Printed for Members of the Society of Bibliophiles, 1901. 4 volumes.

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Raw Footage of De Beers Diamond Sorting Rooms

Journeyman Pictures has dumped a quarter hour’s worth of unedited footage of a tour of De Beers’ sorting rooms by a Namibian Prime Ministerial delegation in 2000.

It gives a rare look into how they sort rough diamonds by machine and by hand. We also see diamonds being marked up for cutting.

This is followed by the display of a huge cut diamond, then an interview with an executive about the problems of illegal diamond mining and smuggling from Angola. He talks about the impact of additional supply on the market and the difficulty they have in maintaining an orderly price.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8lUszEd1Dw

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Diamonds in the Movies – a Select List

Jewellers have a long association with Hollywood. Prestige jewellers began opening branches there in the 1930’s not only to serve the wealthy film stars and producers but also for the influence and recognition their placement of jewellery in the movies themselves would bring. It is quite possible that De Beers also had a hand in squeezing out pearls and emeralds in favour of diamonds as the gemstone most likely to be featured in most films as the preferred gift of a love token.

Somehow diamonds looked their best in the black and white films. I assume the harsh lighting made them really sparkle. From the silent era onwards, actresses made a point of wearing real diamond jewellery on set. This helped publicise the film and it also gave Hollywood reporters something to write about. This seems to be less of a thing these days, and let’s face it – Hollywood doesn’t have the glamour it once had. But diamond jewellery remains prominent in red carpet parades at award ceremonies.

Here is a select listing of movies that featured diamonds either as the main theme or used in interesting ways:

The Master Crook Outwitted by a Child (1914). A diamond is planted on an orphan fruit seller. Perhaps the earliest film involving diamonds? Sounds charming.

You’d Be Surprised (1926). A spoof on the detective mystery genre. A diamond has been stolen and the District Attorney puts a box on the table and turns the lights out so the thief can return it anonymously. But when the lights are turned on the box has been stolen and the DA stabbed to death. Characters are accused without evidence or any logical basis until one is randomly chosen as the murderer, again for no apparent reason. It was the inspiration for the board game Cluedo, or Clue, with characters named Inspector Brown, Mr White etc.

The Big Diamond Robbery (1929). Stars Tom Mix in his last silent film.

She Done Him Wrong (1933). Mae West, as Diamond Lou the saloon singer, literally sparkles with diamonds given to her by the men she’s had in her life, each of them low life petty criminals. The diamonds are her pension plan but she gives them up for a Salvation Army missionary played by Cary Grant, who she ultimately marries. As he places the tiny diamond ring on her finger next to her other massive stones he says “you are my prisoner”. This movie is famous for Mae West’s line “come up and see me sometime”, but the actual words are “why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”

Ninotchka (1939). Greta Garbo is a Soviet diplomat who goes to Paris to sell a diamond tiara confiscated by the state from a duchess. She hopes to raise enough money to buy grain for her starving people.

Lifeboat (1944). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Tallulah Bankhead uses her diamond bracelet as fish bait.

Gilda (1946). Rita Hayworth uses her diamond necklace as a prop during her striptease scene to the tune of “Put the Blame on Mame”.

Crime on their Hands (1948). Not an early Three Stooges short, but quite good. At seventeen minutes it’s about three minutes too long. The Stooges are janitors at a newspaper office who get a phone tip off about a diamond theft. They take it upon themselves to go undercover and solve the crime. Shemp accidentally swallows a diamond hidden in a bowl of candy and the thieves want to cut it out of him. Among the mayhem there is a gorilla, which is always entertaining.

Malice in the Palace (1949). The Three Stooges again. This time hunting the stolen ‘Rootin Tootin Diamond’. Don’t blame me if you watch it.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe’s character collects diamond jewellery from her gentleman admirers as insurance for a future when she has lost her good looks. She proves not to be materialistic though, when she falls in love with a millionaire without realising who he is.

To Catch a Thief (1955). Cary Grant plays a retired cat burglar who is falsely accused of a spate of thefts on the French Riviera. Grace Kelly is a newly rich heiress attracted to dangerous men, and therefore Grant. She wears no diamonds throughout the movie except in one scene where she seduces him, he identifies the diamonds as paste. Contrasting the authentic with the false is a major theme of this romance.

The Pink Panther (1963). Cat burglar Charles Litton, played by David Niven, attempts to seduce a princess played by Claudia Cardinale in order to steal the Pink Panther diamond. Instead she charms him as she lies on a tiger skin rug sipping champagne and talking delightful nonsense. As a ‘virgin princess’ the tiger links her symbolically to the diamond, a symbol of purity. Peter Sellers plays Inspector Clauseau, a complete failure in the bedroom who becomes a sex symbol when he is falsely accused of being the diamond thief. The later Pink Panther films are more fun, in my opinion.

Marathon Man (1976). Dustin Hoffman throws handfuls of diamonds at a former Nazi death camp commandant (played by Sir Laurence Olivier), saying “you can keep as many as you can eat”.

The Moderns (1988). An underrated film which explores the notions of the fake versus the authentic. Linda Fiorentino, at a bar, exchanges her diamond earring for a glass of whiskey.

Reservoir Dogs (1992). A film about a diamond heist gone wrong. It goes well for Mr Pink, though, who makes off with the diamonds just before the police close in. Directed by Quentin Tarentino who homages everything, it was only a matter of time before diamonds showed up in one of his films.

Schindler’s List (1993). Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, pours out a mound of diamonds on a Nazi’s desk in exchange for the lives of a trainload of Jews.

Die Another Day (2002).

Blood Diamonds (2006). Leonardo De Caprio plays a South African soldier of fortune and diamond smuggler who helps a fisherman recover an enormous pink diamond he hid while working as a slave in a diamond mine in Sierra Leone. For a fisherman, he has an incredibly charmed life. He narrowly avoids having his hands chopped off by the rebel soldiers after they capture his village, but there seems no reason why he should be spared and others punished. He finds the massive diamond and not only manages to hide it but also escapes from the mine unharmed. He gets a job as a porter at a fancy hotel, why he didn’t take that job in the first place and avoid having to fish for a living is not explained. He wades through the movie unharmed, in fact going from strength to strength, as bullets fly around him and everyone he meets suffers and usually dies. Except for members of his immediate family, who come out of the civil war virtually unharmed. It is never explained why merely finding the diamond makes it morally his property instead of the owners of the mine, even if he was working as a slave at the time. That’s Hollywood.

It’s an action adventure film which showcases some of the worst abuses in Sierra Leone during their nasty civil war. It was the film which did more than any other media to bring the problem of conflict diamonds to the public consciousness in the West.

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Diamonds in English Literature – Twentieth Century Novels and Short Stories

King Solomon’s Mines. H Rider Haggard
The climax of this novel has the heroes finding a secret cave filled with gold, diamonds and other treasure. But they are trapped in the cave when the evil witch doctor closes the heavy stone door on them. I hope I’m not giving too much away by telling you they manage to find a way out, pockets filled with diamonds that allow them to spend the rest of their lives in luxury.

While the idea of lost worlds, vaults filled with treasure and heroes almost getting trapped in them, seems worn-out these days, Haggard invented the genre with this novel. The only precedent I can think of is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Since this novel was published, many have copied Haggard and at least six films have been made based on this story and its hero, Alan Quartermain.

The Diamond of Kali. O. Henry
A newspaper reporter is reluctantly sent to interview a retired British general. The general regales him with a story about how he seized a blue diamond which had been stolen from an Indian temple of the goddess Kali. Followers of Kali were infamous for their practice of ritual murder. The general relates how he has been attacked on many occasions by members of the Kali cult, sent to retrieve the diamond. The story dissolves into farce as it emerges that the general is paranoid yet has been flaunting the stone in the street for all to see. There are satirical references which would require someone familiar with the history of New York in the early 1900’s to recognise.

In his semi-autobiographical story “The Making of a New Yorker”, O. Henry says that he found the city “as cold, glittering, serene, impossible as a four-carat diamond in a window to a lover outside fingering damply in his pocket his ribbon-counter salary.”

The Diamond as big as the Ritz. F Scott Fitzgerald
In this short story a boy visits his friend’s family during a school holiday. The family live in a hidden valley, kept secret to hide the diamond this story is named after. They are guarded and served by a tribe of negro slaves who were never informed that the North had won the American Civil War. Thanks to the sale of parts of the diamond, the family is fantastically rich and live a life of impossible and impractical luxury.

Their only fear is discovery by the outside world. Once everyone knows there are so many diamonds, the value will drop to nothing and they will be ruined. For this reason they conspire to alter geological survey maps and even shoot down airplanes which happen to stray into their airspace. They keep a collection of pilots whose planes have been shot down, in a pit in the middle of the father’s golf course (which, apart from the pilot pit, has no sand traps or obstacles to spoil a pleasant round of golf).

After enjoying the company of their visitors, the family has them quietly murdered so their secret does not leak out. On the night our hero is supposed to die however, there is an attack on the mansion lead by one pilot who managed to escape.

A dated fantasy, but interesting to read what a writer from a hundred years ago thought was the pinnacle of luxury. As if owning diamonds were not enough, the family patriarch invests the proceeds of the sales of his diamonds into huge quantities of the most valuable thing known to man at the time – radium!

I’m not sure if even a diamond the size of a hotel would be enough to depress diamond prices for much more than a few years, considering that many tons are sold each year to satisfy the world’s demand.

The Diamond of Jeru. Louis L’Amour.
L’Amour is better known for his westerns. This crackerjack story is set deep in the heart of tropical Borneo. A bandit discovers a big black diamond. But instead of cashing it in at the nearest trading post and living happily ever after, he uses it to entice prospectors, travellers and anyone who takes an interest to go with him on his longboat to see the source of the diamond and endless wealth.

Once they reach his bandit kingdom, they are murdered for their belongings and he shrinks their heads to decorate his longhouse. He conducts his business in this way for a number of years until… well, all good things come to an end, but I won’t tell you how.

How many of us are enticed by someone’s attractive quality or the dream they weave for us, so that we follow them into buying things we don’t need, or making bad investments? Another head for them, swinging in the breeze? All of us, I’m sure.

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Diamonds in English Literature – Victorian Novelists and Poets

The Diamond Necklace. Thomas Carlyle
At a time when scientists were just beginning to understand gemstones and how they form, writers were experimenting with ideas that we now call ‘new age’. Spiritualism, Eastern mysticism, even fairies were catching not only the public’s attention but also intellectuals.

Thomas Carlyle was a philosopher and writer. The Diamond Necklace is an essay in which he relates the story of the affair of the diamond necklace which the French queen, Marie Antoinette, was accused of stealing. Like many writers at this time, he writes as if the diamonds have feelings and are able to influence human thoughts and actions, even to take actions themselves.

The Moonstone. Wilkie Collins
In 1799 a British soldier kills three temple guards in order to steal a huge yellow diamond from a statue of Vishnu. He returns to England with a fortune but is not accepted into decent society. When he dies the diamond passes to his niece, Rachel Verinder. However the gift is malicious as he knows the stone holds a curse on whoever owns it.

Rachel wears the diamond at her birthday party, at her family’s country estate, but the stone gives a sinister atmosphere as it replaces the ‘life and sparkle’ of the party. That night the diamond disappears and the local police are called in to investigate. They prove to be inept and are replaced by Sergeant Cuff from Scotland Yard. He is sacked when he suspects Rachel organised the theft for the insurance money.

The action moves to London, some people are murdered, others commit suicide. While all these things are going on, three mysterious Indian men lurk in the shadows of nearly every scene. Things become increasingly complicated as the narration moves from one character to another, some of whom may be lying, none of whom knows the full story. Rachel’s boyfriend is suspected of stealing the stone. Eventually Sergeant Cuff returns to the case and solves it.

The Indians turn out to be hereditary priestly guardians of the stone who have been tracking it in England for generations. They take the diamond back to India and return it to their temple.

While Charles Dickens is famous for being the most popular Victorian novelist, this novel was more popular at the time than anything Dickens wrote. It is most notable for being the first detective novel. In establishing the genre, Collins established many tropes which would later become cliches: the country house murder; the bumbling local police; the genius but eccentric detective; the detective who gets pulled off the case but solves it anyway; the red herring and many more. T.S. Eliot described it as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.”

The novel also includes the story of a diamond stolen from an idol. This theme was common in adventure stories involving large gemstones, and it was particularly common since the time gemstones started arriving in large quantities from British India. Yet there is little evidence for it ever happening. There is no tradition for gemstones to be implanted in the eye sockets of Indian statues. Surely the desecration of a religious image important enough to hold such a valuable stone would cause outrage among the community, causing even the colonial authorities to want to track down the perpetrator. In any case, I have not yet found any reliable historical record that shows that such a theft ever took place.

It has been suggested that the notion of damaging a ‘false idol’ is attractive to Protestants, who are mostly opposed to sacred images on the grounds that they are the worshipping of idols. This would explain why the story is so popular, even though it is untrue. Yet it does not explain why there would be a curse attached to the theft. If the god is ‘untrue’, how would it be able to exercise power in the material world? Perhaps some iconoclasts secretly wish for a spiritual element in their lives.

Although the stone in this story is a diamond, it is called the Moonstone. A moonstone is a different type of gemstone, a form of feldspar called adularia. It is notable for having a blue or white flash which is called schiller, or adularescence. it can also have a cat’s eye effect where a line of light reflects from a stone, like you see when light shines on an old dvd.

Collins combined the details of several real diamonds to construct his Moonstone. The Orloff was reputedly stolen from the eye socket of an Indian temple statue. A legend also places the Koh-i-Noor in the third eye of a statue of Shiva at one time although there is, again, no real proof of this. Collins is reported to have seen the 410 carat Pitt diamond, which proved to be a burden to its owner – Pitt complained of spending too much time and money on protecting a “too precious stone”. Finally, the Sancy Diamond, like Collins’ Moonstone, was stolen in an unsolved robbery and found its way back to India when it was purchased in 1965 by Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy of Bombay.

I wonder if those South Asian nationalists who long for the Koh-i-Noor were inspired by Wilkie Collins’ novel.

The Eustace Diamonds. Anthony Trollope
Lizzie is a high spirited social climber with a habit of telling lies for her own amusement. She manages to marry Sir Florian Eustace, who has a much higher social position and wealth, but is also sickly. He allows her to wear a diamond necklace with a diamond-studded Maltese cross. But he warns her they are a family heirloom, only to be inherited by sons of the Eustace family. Sir Florian dies and Lizzie decides to keep the necklace for herself.

By tradition, the necklace should have gone to John Eustace, Sir Florian’s brother. The family lawyer makes strenuous efforts to retrieve the necklace. But this causes some embarassment to the family as Lizzie is also the mother of Sir Florian’s son, who is also entitled to an inheritance.

In the court case, the family claims the necklace is an heirloom and therefore should be passed down according to tradition, regardless of what the will says. The court decides it is not an heirloom but ‘paraphernalia’ (stuff, things) because gems are likely to be recut and reset and that would strip them of any sentimental value.

Although it is technically a win for Lizzie, the decision diminishes her social status. As the holder of an heirloom of a great family she held a higher social status than being the owner of mere ‘paraphernalia’. Furthermore, her obsession with the diamonds gets in the way of securing a new, high status, husband. The few decent men who she stands a chance of marrying are disgusted by her actions in relation to the jewels.

Afraid that the necklace could get stolen, Lizzie keeps it in a strongbox when she is travelling. One night she returns to her rooms to find the strongbox stolen. Police are called in but she does not reveal to them that she hid the necklace under her pillow and it is still, in fact, in her possession. Some time later the necklace really is stolen, but Lizzie maintains the lie that it was stolen previously. The police investigations gradually reveal the truth, which shames LIzzie further.

The thieves take the necklace to Vienna where it is taken apart and the diamonds recut. It then goes to Hamburg to be made into a new necklace and sold to a Russian princess. LIzzie finds a husband but he has a hidden past. It seems likely this past will catch up with him before long, which will lower Lizzie’s social status even further.

It seems to me the diamond necklace seems to share a similar fate to Lizzie. Her social standing is reduced in stages just as the necklace is degraded in steps, although the losses suffered do not happen simultaneously.

Victorian Poetry

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection. Gerald Manley Hopkins
Heraclitus is known as ‘the weeping philosopher’, because his vision of life is so gloomy. This poem has two parts, beginning with references to clouds and bodily flesh which is to be consumed by worms. The transition is marked by fire, which consumes everything but cannot harm a diamond. In the second part he refers to the resurrection and the diamond as a more permanent state, perhaps our true state. It reads:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is,
since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd,
patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Notice here the wordplay in the rhyme of ‘I am, and’; ‘diamond’; and ‘diamond’ and that ‘I am’ is part of the word ‘diamond’ itself. So through the resurrection he becomes immortal, like a diamond.

Hopkins died in 1889 at the age of 44, not long after he wrote this poem. But in contrast to Heraclitus, his last words were: “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life”.

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Diamonds in English Literary Culture – Elizabethan Drama

Love’s Labour’s Lost. William Shakespeare
This play has an unusual ending for a Shakespearean comedy. Instead of every character getting married at the end, news of a death causes each couple to separate for a year. In the case of the King of Navarre and the French Princess, the King gives her a gift of diamonds. At the beginning of the final scene, the ladies enter –

Princess: Sweet hearts, we shall be rich ere we depart,
If fairiings come thus plentifully in:
A lady wall’d about with diamonds!
Look you what I have from the loving king.

Rosaline: Madame, came nothing else along with that?

Princess: Nothing but this! yes, as much love in rhyme
As would be cramm’d up in a sheet of paper,
Writ o’ both sides the leaf, margent and all,
That he was fain to seal on Cupid’s name.

So the Princess values the diamonds as a more important sign of the King’s love than the poem he wrote for her. This play was written in 1597, a hundred years after the first diamond engagement ring was given by Archduke Maximillian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy. So the association of diamonds with the promise of marriage seems to be more than an occasional thing among the European elite.

Cymbeline. William Shakespeare
A play set in Roman Britain, it has a complicated plot and critics either love it or hate it. But a diamond ring is at the centre of the plot. Cymbeline is a British chief. His daughter, Imogen falls in love with a Roman, Posthumus. When Cymbeline hears of this he banishes Posthumus. Before Posthumus is banished, he gives Imogen a bracelet and she gives him a diamond ring.

In Rome, Posthumus brags about how loyal Imogen is, just like the diamond he gave her. Jachimo bets with him that he can seduce her. But Posthumus compares the hardness of his diamond to Imogen’s ability to resist Jachimo.

As it happens, Imogen does reject Jachimo, but he manages to learn enough about her for him to pretend that he did, in fact, seduce her. When he hears that Imogen was unfaithful, Posthumus doesn’t think the diamond is so beautiful anymore –

Posthumus: It is a basilisk unto mine eye,
Kills me to look on’t.

But the diamond is also the item which brings the truth to light. Imogen’s father recognises the ring and Jachimo is made to admit his slander. Both woman and diamond are beautiful to Posthumus again.

For Shakespeare, the ideal woman needs to be beautiful, loyal and chaste. These are qualities which he also associates with diamonds.

The Jew of Malta. Christopher Marlowe
Barabas is the Jew of the title. After the Governor of Malta seizes all Jewish property on the island to pay off the Turks and stop them from attacking, Barabas embarks on a course of bloody revenge against the Christians. He starts by using his daughter Abigail to cause a fight which kills both the Governor’s son, Lodowick, and his friend. Abigail was in love with the Lodowick and she converts to Christianity and becomes a nun. Barabas murders her and a lot of priests.

Next, he helps the Turks to capture the city and they appoint him as governor as a reward. But then he switches to the Christian side and plots to kill the Turkish prince and a whole lot of other people too. But the former governor manages to foil the plot and Barabas ends up boiling alive in a vat, which he intended for the Turkish prince. The Turks and the Christians come to terms and agree not to fight with each other again.

Although all of his assets are seized at the beginning of the play, Barabas doesn’t lose his diamonds because he is able to hide them under a floorboard when the Christians come looking for them.

He also refers to Abigail as a diamond:

Lodowick: Well, Barabas, cans’t help me to a diamond?
Barabas: O, sir, your father had my diamonds.
Yet I have one left that will serve your turn:-
I mean my daughter [aside] but ere he shall have her
I’ll sacrifice her on a pile of wood.

So, although Barabas values his daughter as much as his diamonds, he would kill her rather than have her married to a gentile (a non-jew). In fact, he kills her for converting to Christianity.

The Merchant of Venice. William Shakespeare
Bassanio is spendthrift who has wasted his family’s money and is now bankrupt. He needs money to pursue a wealthy heiress, Portia. Antonio is a merchant who hates Jews so much that he bullies Shylock constantly – breaking contracts, slandering him, doing everything he can to make Shylock lose money and reputation, even though he has nothing to gain from doing so. Antonio also does not charge interest on any money he lends, which also enrages Shylock as it means he has to charge a lower interest rate to attract borrowers. Bassanio asks Antonio for money but Antonio’s ships haven’t returned so he has no spare cash. But he offers to guarantee a loan if Bassanio can find a lender.

Shylock agrees to lend the money on condition that if it is not repaid on the due date he can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. As the loan is interest free, and thinking that his ships will return soon, Antonio agrees to the loan. Bassanio succeeds in courting Portia, but Antonio’s ships are reported as lost so he is unable to pay and Shylock calls in his debt. The matter goes to trial and Portia acts as Antonio’s lawyer. Shylock wins the case and demands his pound of flesh. But Portia points out that the contract only entitles Shylock to Antonio’s flesh, not his blood. Shylock will be executed if Antonio loses a drop of blood from the operation.

Unable to perform the operation without losing his own head, Shylock renounces his claim. But the court proceeds to use further legal contrivances to cause him to lose his claim not only to the money he lent, but all of his assets and he is forced to convert to Christianity. Antonio’s ships finally make it back to Venice and he is wealthy again.

The diamonds come up in a sub-plot. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with Lorenzo, one of Antonio’s friends and a Christian. Jessica steals Shylock’s best diamond and the turquoise ring that was given to him by his deceased wife. When he hears that his daughter was seen in Genoa and spent eighty ducats and traded the ring for a monkey, he says famously “I would not have traded it for a wilderness of monkeys”. He continues to lament –

Shylock: Why there, there, there, there! A diamond gone, cost me
two thousand ducats in Frankfort! The curse never fell upon our
nation till now; I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in
that, and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter
were dead at my feet, and the jewels in her ear; would she were
hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin! No news of
them? Why, so: and I know not what’s spent in the search. Why,
thou – loss upon loss! The thief gone with so much and so much to
find the thief; and no satisfaction, no revenge; nor no ill luck
stirring but what lights on my shoulder; no sighs but of my
breathing; no tears but of my shedding.

Tubal: Yes, other men have ill luck too. Antonio, as I heard in
Genoa, –

Shylock: What, what, what? Ill luck, ill luck?

Tubal: -hath an argosy cast away, coming from Tripolis.

Shylock: I thank God! I thank God! Is it true, is it true?

Jessica has rejected her father in the worst possible way, abusing the memory of his wife and destroying his family’s reputation. There is nothing left for him now but his messenger gives him hope of revenge and with nothing left to lose, Shylock latches on to the news of Antonio’s apparent misfortune and the opportunity to take revenge through that.

In both The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, jews are associated with diamonds. As a people who were forbidden to own land and who might need to leave their homes on short notice, they needed to be able to store their wealth in easily transportable assets – gold and gems. This is probably one reason why so many jews are involved in the jewellery trade.

Both jews have daughters who fall in love with gentiles, setting their fathers on a course of self-hurting revenge. Barabas causes his daughter’s death, Shylock wishes it. Both daughters convert to Christianity. Elizabethan audiences would have been delighted by the willing conversion of jews, or the idea of it.

 

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Diamond Myths – that De Beers Invented the Engagement Ring

People who say De Beers’ advertising agency is responsible for the tradition of giving a diamond ring to secure a promise of marriage are giving De Beers far too much credit. They point to a famous advertising campaign which started in 1947 by De Beers’ advertising company N. W. Ayer as the source of the diamond engagement ring. But in fact the identification of diamonds with love and the finest female qualities stretches far back in history. Long before the post World War Two era, when the ‘invention’ is said to have taken place.

The identification of rings with love dates back to ancient Rome and the play Curculio (the weevil) written by Plautus in the second century BC. In the play, Phaedromus loves the slave girl Planesium, but he needs money to buy her from her owner, Cappadox. He sends Curculio to borrow the money but Curculio happens to meet a soldier who also wants to buy Planesium. Curculio steals the soldier’s signet ring and he and Phaedromus use it to seal a fake letter to the soldier’s banker to get the money. And so Phaedromus ‘gets the girl’.

Soon the banker and the soldier realise they’ve been swindled and confront Phaedromus. But Planesium recognises the ring and she uses it to prove that she is actually the soldier’s sister. As she is freeborn, Cappadox has to return the money and Planesium marries Phaedromus.

That might not sound very romantic to you, but things were different back then. The Romans used to mercilessly mock Pompey (a great general and politician) when they discovered he was actually in love with his wife, a ridiculous notion in their opinion.

Apart from literature, there is also evidence in the form of inscriptions concerning marriage contracts. By the fourth century AD, Saint Augustine was begging priests to allow marriages for poor people who could not afford rings.

Much was lost to Europe during the early Middle Ages, including a love of diamonds. Ancient peoples rated diamond as the best of all gemstones. But lapidaries written during the Middle Ages rate diamonds seventh or eighth. Scholars have puzzled over this loss in prestige and nobody has a satisfactory reason for it. Some say it was the Christian influence which sought austerity. That may be so, but wouldn’t all gemstones suffer equally from this, not only diamonds? Others say it was the poor quality of the diamonds that were available and the lack of supply due to the wars and social upheavals of the times. But if supply was restricted, wouldn’t that make diamonds even more desirable?

Whether they used diamonds or not, we don’t know for sure, but wedding rings were still an essential part of the Western marriage tradition. In 860, Pope Nicholas I wrote a letter to answer some questions about Western marriages from Boris I of Bulgaria. Importantly the ring is given at the betrothal:

“…our men and women do not wear upon their heads a band of gold, silver, or some other metal when they contract a marriage pact. Instead, after the betrothal is celebrated — which is the promised pact of future marriage made with the consent of both those who contract the pact and those under whose power they are — the betrothed man joins the bride to himself with vows through the finger marked by him with the ring of faith.”

Betrothals were not an essential part of the marriage process, though, they were mostly used when one or both of the partners were underage, or if they were living in different courts while the marriage was being negotiated (we’re still talking about the aristocracy). This was the case until 1215 when Pope Innocent III introduced reforms which included a compulsory cooling off period between the time the marriage was agreed and when it actually took place.

By the Renaissance, wedding rings were being worn set with gemstones, and diamonds were back in fashion. This is noted by Dante in The Divine Comedy in the early fourteenth century. A fifteenth century set of miniatures, painted to celebrate the wedding of Costanzo Sforza and Camilla d’Aragona include one showing the god of marriage, Hymen, wearing a coat decorated with diamond rings standing next to a huge diamond ring holding two torches. There is a verse: 

Two torches in one ring of burning fire,

Two wills, two hearts, two passions,

Are bonded in marriage by a diamond.

The first well recorded engagement ring was given in 1477 by the Archduke Maximillian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy. A letter from her father, Charles the Bold, specified “at the betrothal, your Grace must have a ring set with a diamond and also a gold ring.” In securing Mary’s hand, he also gained the important market city of Bruges in Belgium, which was probably also the location of the invention of faceted diamonds. Previously, diamonds were set in jewellery in their original crystal forms. The diamonds that were set in the ring probably came from Bruges. Numerous other diamond-set wedding rings have survived from those times.

The Protestant Reformation, which started in the early sixteenth century, did not reform the diamond wedding ring tradition. Martin Luther himself, the man who initiated the Reformation, gave his bride one of the fashionable new gemmel (twin) rings. A gemmel ring can be separated into two but can also be combined into one during the wedding ceremony. Sometimes they paired a ruby (representing love) with a diamond (for endurance).

By the seventeenth century, some middle class citizens were able to afford diamonds. The diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in 1668 that his aunt was “mighty proud of her wedding ring lately set with diamonds.” This reflected a greater availability of diamonds to Europe as ships started to sail around Africa to buy luxury items directly from India and other Eastern places.

Since those times styles changed but the basic pairing of a gold ring with one or more diamonds has remained the same. As diamonds became cheaper and more available with the opening up of Brazilian and South African mines, the engagement ring tradition spread to include people from most walks of life. By the 1880’s jewellery trade catalogues showcased solitaire rings from as little as £2 each.

In 1926, Ethel Cushing wrote in ‘Culture and Good Manners’: “An engagement ring is a matter for serious thought on the part of the young man. The best that his pocket can afford is what he desires and a ring that will please his fiancee’s taste is even more important. Either by asking her directly or from someone who knows her preferences he finds out her desire and tries in every way to fulfill it. The solitarie diamond as large and perfect as he could afford has for many years been the standard engagement ring.”

Critics of De Beers say the company invented the diamond engagement ring sometime during the Great Depression or in the years leading to the Second World War, when diamond sales were low. The Great Depression started in 1929, a few years after Cushing wrote the above paragraph. We might not agree with Cushing that young men should spend all their money on a diamond rings. But there is no doubt that the association between marriage, engagement, love, and diamond rings stretches back to ancient times in an unbroken chain.

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The Fate of the Elderly in Japan

With the breaking down of its traditional society, most elderly Japanese people are facing a lonely end to life. One of the social costs needed to build the economic miracle of the 70’s was developing the ‘nuclear family’. A family consisting of two parents and one or two children. Grandparents were an unnecessary expense. Children were kept to a minimum. The nuclear family was promoted as an ideal, but it is proving to be a nightmare.

Most of us in the English speaking world know that Japan’s failure to increase or even replace its population is one of the main reasons for three decades of economic stagnation. What is less well known is the effects of this social engineering on the elderly.

The New York Times has recently published an article by Norimitsu Onishi which considers two elderly Japanese, a man and a woman living in the same apartment complex, who are ending their lives in loneliness. It is not uncommon for an elderly person to pass away in their apartment and not be found until either the stink becomes obvious to people outside or when their automatic bill payments cease.

The article doesn’t mention what happened to the parents of the two elderly people, whether or not they made an effort to comfort them in the time leading up to their deaths. It is often said that the way you treat your parents will be the way your children will treat you, since children are more likely to follow your example than your advice.

The man featured in the story had a son, but he never had anything to do with him. He made no attempt to contact the son before his death. The woman in the story lost her daughter and husband to cancer when the daughter was in her early 30’s. However she had a stepdaughter who exchanges cards with her on birthdays and New Year’s holidays. Otherwise they are not in contact.

One of their biggest concerns seems to be that nobody will pray for them after they die. I find that astonishing for a society which from the outside seems to be one of the most agnostic.

Despite their loneliness, it seems that most elderly Japanese die at home. In English speaking countries we tend to send them to nursing homes. The nursing home is an uncertain fate. We don’t know for sure how our parents will be treated by the staff. I assume that, even with the strongest intention to be kind, staff are driven by KPIs and simple economics to spend the minimum time on each person under their charge. It isn’t unknown for the aged to die of malnutrition in these homes. Bed sores aren’t uncommon.

Most of us wish to live a long and healthy life. One of the Greek philosophers refused to acknowledge that anyone who is still alive can say they had a happy life. The future is never certain.

We need to prepare a better end for ourselves than the one we have developed for our own parents.

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Money Talks

‘Money talks’ because money is a metaphor, a transfer, and a bridge. Like words and language, money is a storehouse of communally achieved work, skill, and experience. Money, however, is also a specialist technology like writing; and as writing intensifies the visual aspect of speech and order, and from the other social functions. Even today money is a language for translating the work of the farmer into the work of the barber, doctor, engineer, or plumber. As a vast social metaphor, bridge, or translator, money – like writing – speeds up exchange and tightens the bonds of interdependence in any community. It gives great spatial extension and control to political organizations, just as writing does, or the calendar. It is action at a distance, both in space and in time. In a highly literate, fragmented society, ‘Time is money,’ and money is the store of other people’s time and effort.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964.

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Papa! What’s money?

‘Papa! what’s money?’

The abrupt question had such immediate reference to the subject of Mr Dombey’s thoughts, that Mr Dombey was quite disconcerted.
‘What is money, Paul?’ he answered. ‘Money?’
‘Yes,’ said the child, laying his hands upon the elbows of his little chair, and turning the old face up towards Mr Dombey’s; ‘what is money?’
Mr Dombey was in a difficulty. He would have liked to give him some explanation involving the terms circulating-medium, currency, depreciation of currency, paper, bullion, rates of exchange, value of precious metals in the market, and so forth; but looking down at the little chair, and seeing what a long way down it was, he answered: ‘Gold, and silver, and copper, Guineas, shillings, half-pence. You know what they are?’
‘Oh yes, I know what they are,’ said Paul. ‘I don’t mean that Papa. I mean what’s money after all?’

From Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.

 

Money is hard to define because it serves two separate functions. It is both a store of value and a measurement of value. It’s a bit like asking ‘what is a litre?’ You can buy milk by the litre and you can store a litre of milk in the fridge, and the meaning of ‘litre’ is different in each case.

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