“If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” – Beyonce, “Single Ladies”
Susan here – we’ve just had a wedding in our family, and weddings and rings go, well, hand in hand—the giving and receiving, the symbolism and significance of those little metal circlets is very special and significant. Rings and marriage have a long history, and the Wenches have all written about weddings at one point or another. And it's been such a busy month in our household, I've chosen a Wench classic blog – about rings! – to give you today.
When did couples start giving and wearing rings to symbolize a marriage commitment? The history of rings goes far back in history and lore.
Rings are among the oldest bits of personal adornment – a few prehistoric rings have been found, like this ancient bronze spiral found in Sussex – though the purpose of certain ancient rings is too often unknown to historians. In very early societies, a braided twist of reeds or hair admired around a finger may have led to other observations and then meaning – circles are unending, round as the moon, the sun, and so symbolism was quickly associated. Knotted designs could serve as charms against evil and bind lovers in an eternal promise. Pliny claimed that the origin of wearing a ring came from Prometheus’ travails, as he was doomed to wear a chunk of his iron chains forever – though the idea of an endless knot and promises in eternity is much more appealing!
Ancient rings were fashioned from stone, twists of wire, braided reeds, copper, bronze, iron, ivory, gold and silver. They occur in a range of variety throughout history—rings that represented wealth, royalty, authority, a warrior’s promise of loyalty or a lover’s of affection and fidelity; signet rings bearing the owner’s seal and status; rings for kings, queens, bishops, noblemen, clerics, merchants, husbands, wives, ladies and gentlemen; poesy (love poem) rings, poison and compartment rings, betrothal and promise and wedding and engagement rings. Each finger, thumb, knuckles too, could carry rings.
Narrowing the search to rings that signified love, betrothal and marriage still leaves a wide array of historical rings. Papyrus illustrations indicate that ancient Egyptians exchanged rings woven of reeds to fix marriage vows, and there are gold rings and scarab rings found in Egyptian tombs, though their purpose is not always clear. The Egyptians contributed something important, it is believed, to the long tradition of wedding rings—the wearing of the ring on the third finger of the left hand, which is most often the position, though in some cultures it is worn on the right hand. Ancient physicians believed that a major vein ran through that finger directly to the heart, and the connection of the feelings of the heart and the feelings of love, along with the symbolism of the endless circle of life and love and the sun and moon, all were
In Biblical times, a ring was considered to be an important symbol of the covenant of marriage, and the Greeks may have carried on the tradition of the third finger, left hand. Certainly ornate rings were much in evidence in Greek and related cultures – Phoenician, Minoan, Mycenaean as well as Hellenistic – they created and wore many styles including scarabs, seals, and intaglio designs in gold, silver, bronze, iron, brass, copper, stone, ivory with and without gems like quartz, agate, jasper, and countless semi-precious stones. Whether they preferred them for marriage is not exactly clear, but Romans regarded rings and marriage as a perfect match.
The Romans wore rings to show their wealth, loyalty, social status as well as love and personal loyalties. They were among the first to set diamonds in rings—the Egyptians had done so even earlier—and they also favored sapphires, emeralds, garnets, rubies, pearls, amber set in silver, gold and bronze. Rings were widely used in Roman marriages, and worn on the left hand, using that Egyptian rule of the vein connecting finger and heart.
Among the Celts, rings were more popular around the neck as torcs of gold, bronze or
silver – and warriors wore finger rings as a symbol of martial and household loyalty. But women would not be left out, and very early on, finger rings were believed by the Irish to bring luck and legality to a marriage. The Scots wore rings, too, with the added tradition of passing hands through curiously circular holes in stones as a means of making a significant pledge. The Vikings were fond of pretty, sturdy rings in twists of silver – and trade routes brought more exotic ring styles from the eastern part of the world back to northern European societies.
Anglo-Saxon women wore rings on the middle finger of the right hand, not knowing about the Egyptian theory of the vein straight to the heart …Anglo-Saxon designs were intricate and exquisitely crafted, and often beautiful twists of silver or gold.
Medieval rings were often intricately detailed and abundantly set with gems, with sapphires considered the most precious of stones, though a full range of stones, including diamonds, appeared too. Diamonds became quite popular in medieval Italy, where women wore stunning betrothal rings of silver or gold, often in elaborately inlaid minutely carved niello designs or set with precious stones. Exquisitely crafted jeweled and carved rings were worn by men and women in medieval England, France,
the Low Countries, Germany, Scandanavia … anywhere there were fingers, there were rings. Circlets worn on knuckles is often seen in medieval portraits of both men and women – a clear indication that a lady, for example, was highborn and did only delicate work with her hands, so that she could wear the pretty things in a somewhat precarious manner.
Medieval women often received rings to mark betrothal ceremonies and marriages. Carvings and painted images depict marriages and betrothals with the touching of hands as a ring is passed from groom to bride before the officiant.
Gimmel or gemmel rings were given as betrothal rings in medieval England and France particularly; these were puzzle rings, hinged links that originated in the Middle East. Gimmel rings fitted beautifully together—but should the wife remove her ring for a tryst, and be unable to put it back on properly, the husband would know something was up.
In the Renaissance and Tudor eras, poesy rings were especially popular among lovers and betrothed couples, with engraved phrases and verses expressing love and commitment, such as “mon coeur” or “united in love” or “vous et non ultra” or “all I refuse and thee I chuse.” Shakespeare mentioned commonly used poesy rings in Hamlet – “Is this a prologue, or the poesy of a ring?” Poesy rings were wildly popular in Renaissance and Tudor times, and continued into the 17th and 18th centuries, and today are very available in reproductions.
The Book of Common Prayer in the 16th century declared that a wedding ring was required, and had to be worn on the ring finger of the left hand – marriages were simply not legal without them, and the rings had to be blessed. Because of the contacts and trade with the New World, gold and silver became more widely available in the 16th century, and the craft of jewelry making, silversmithing and goldsmithing boomed. Rings were beautiful, elaborate things studded with costly jewels. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I owned hundreds of rings among countless other jewelry pieces, and there were barely enough fingers to wear the favorites. Rings appear in portraits on every finger and knuckle.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, rings with engraved phrases were still popular, and the concept of an engagement ring, a spinoff of a betrothal or promise ring, emerged. After the Marriage Act of 1753, when marriage required a license or the reading and publishing of Banns, promise rings became even more popular during the waiting period. Rings for “engaged” girls were generally sweet, sentimental, delicate twists of gold or silver set with pretty little gemstones (rarely diamond, these were more often modest gemstones or pearl) and wedding rings – plain precious metal bands – were not only expected but required for a Church of England wedding, when a substitute ring might have to be found—a church key, for example, or a curtain ring would do in a pinch.
Now sizeable diamond engagement rings – and elaborately staged proposals – are an established trend, to whatever extent the couple can manage. I’ve seen some whopping, gorgeous (or gaudy) rings lately, and heard of some lovely (or over-the-top) proposals.
My own ring is an antique, a diamond set in rose gold and white gold filigree, which I inherited from my French great-grandmother. The stone sits upright in 19th c. fashion, and I wear a narrow gold band of tiny diamonds with it. The rings mean the world to me – my marriage, and also a connection to my great-grandmother, a very special lady. I wear them on the third finger of my left hand – where there isn’t actually a vein that runs to the heart, but there may as well be.
What’s your favorite ring, marriage or otherwise? Do you prefer antique or contemporary designs?