Station 1 - English

Gallows by the Perlenbach Station

Precious pearls for the sovereign

Until 1667 everyone was allowed to take part in the Eifel pearl fishery. Then the Prince-Elector Philipp Wilhelm Duke of Jülich declared his sole, sovereign right to the fishery and forbid his subjects to “search and fish for pearl mussels”, under penalty of severe punishment.

Once a year, closely watched employees of the Elector forcibly broke open thousands of mussels in the search for pearls. The yield of pearls was never particularly plentiful. Nevertheless, it was reported of the later, last Electress that “the extent, fineness and whiteness of the pearls in her jewellery were reminiscent of precious Oriental pearls.”

Although the prohibition against gathering mussels (the sovereign right to collect pearls) was preached from every church pulpit, this did not deter subjects of the Elector from poaching. When even the strict guarding of bodies of water containing mussels was no longer effective, in 1746 the house of the Elector ordered the administrative offices of Monschau and Heimbach of that time to erect gallows near various brooks to deter the “strippers”. It is not known how many mussel thieves lost their lives there.

In 1794, when the new French rulers repealed the royal privileges, and hence also the sovereign right to collect pearls, reckless plundering of the mussel stocks of the Eifel waters began.

Below is a historical text by Ludwig Mathar from Narzissen im Venn (Daffodils in the Fens), 1934:

Now everyone could hunt for the jewels that were inaccessible for so long. Ah! In those days, as the French, the revolutionaries, descended upon the country, it was a wild and wicked time.

To whom does the forest belong? To us! Into whose hands do the deer fall? Ours! And the pearls in the Schwalm? They belong to us! Only to us! Down with the gallows on the Bieley, into the brook the pillory of serfdom! Our girls shall also wear the blue-black pearls around their swan-like necks!

And thus, even before the last of the snow had melted on the valley slopes, all those wearing linen smocks and cloth caps, if they were courting and wished to marry, dashed to search for pearls in the crystal-clear brook.

Hey! And then, frankly and openly, the search for pearls began. There was no longer any gallows or forester to hinder the search. Waist-deep, they dug in the ice-cold water that rushed in a wide arc around the gallows hill. Aha! Clumps of mussels! Undisturbed, they could gather below the gallows in the clear, lime-free water.

However, the more greedily they pried open the grey mussels, one after the other ... they found no pearls!

Then something like grim scorn crossed the weather-grey face of the Bieley towering high above the valley, or was it a shadow, stretching down from the Fens? You fools, blinded by greed, don’t you know what the legend says: That the pearl is revealed only to the pure of heart?