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The Wedding Ring

[Editor's Note:  A brief history of wedding rings from a mid Victorian perspective.  This article first appeared in Appleton's Journal of Popular Literature,  Science,  and Art in July of 1869.]
From a recent work,  by Edward J. Wood,  on  "The Wedding-Day in All Ages and Countries,"  we glean a few interesting facts in reference to the wedding-ring.  The use of the ring,  both in betrothal and marriage,  seems to be of very old date.  Among the ancient Hebrews the selection of a bride,  always made by the parents of the lover,  was followed by an espousal,  which was confirmed by oaths and accompanied by presents.  These gifts were probably the origin of the gift of the ring.

In the first meeting of the servant of Isaac and Rebekah,  he seeks her favor by the present of a massive earring and two bracelets.  After the consent of her parents,  there were more costly gifts  -  "jewels of silver,  and jewels of gold,  and raiment."  In later days,  it was the custom for the bridegroom to place a ring upon the finger of the intended bride.  It is not certain how early this custom began.  There is no mention in the Bible of betrothal finger-rings; but,  in Genesis xli. 42,  a ring is mentioned as a token of fidelity or friendship,  and,  in Luke xv. 22,  of adoption.

No reference to rings was made by the Talmudists,  and these is an opinion that they were not used in the Mosaic days,  but came in at a later period as an economical substitute for dowry-money.  The modern Jews still attach more moment to the breaking of glass,  not as a bond of union,  but a suggestion that the union is irrevocable,  as the damage to the crystal;  also as a suggestion of the frailty of life,  and a portent of the punishment of infidelity.

"Whatever may be the fact as to the use of marriage-rings in the Bible days," says the author,  "monkish legends relate that Joseph and Mary used one,  and moreover,  that it was of onyx or amethyst.  It was said to have been discovered in the year 996,  when it was given by a jeweller from Jerusalem to a lapidary of Clusium,  who had been sent to Rome by the wife of a marquis of Etruria,  to make purchases for her.  The jeweller told the lapidary of the preciousness of the relic;  but he despised it,  and kept it for several years among other articles of inferior value.  However,  a miracle revealed to him its genuineness;  and it was placed in a church,  where it worked many curative wonders.  In 1473,  it was deposited with some Franciscans at Clusium,  from whom it was stolen;  and ultimately it found its way to Perusia,  where a church was built for it,  and it still performed miracles;  but they were,  as Hone says,  trifling in comparison with its miraculous powers of multiplying itself.  It existed in different churchs in Europe at the same time,  and,  each ring being as genuine as the others,  it was paid the same honors by the devout."

In modern Greece there are two rings used - gold for the bridegroom,  and silver for the bride - which are frequently interchanged by the two in token of union and of domestic equality,  the higher value of the ring of the husband,  however,  still marking his superiority.

In the time of Pliny,  an iron ring was sent as a pledge to the intended bride.  These iron rings were set with adamants,  the hardness and durability of both iron and stone signifying the perpetuity of the contract.  Juvenal states that,  during the imperial period,  the man gave a gold ring in token of his fidelity to his betrothed,  and that she wore it as now,  on the finger next to the small one.  Tertullian speaks of them in his day.  Isidore says that women wore only this ring,  or not more than two,  at most.  Some nuptial rings were of brass,  and some of copper.  The plain circle was not the only form of wedding-ring,  as some were carved in devices,  such as a key,  to signify the domestic authority of the wife.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,  the Italians used betrothal-rings,  which were generally of silver,  inlaid with niello.  The bezel was oval or circular,  and the shoulders of the hoop formed sleeves from which issued hands that clasped.  The medieval Italians esteemed the diamond for espousal-rings,  from its supposed power of maintaining concord between husband and wife.

The Irish peasantry have a general impression that marriage without a gold ring is not legal.  In former days,  girls in the mountain-regions were often married at twelve and thirteen.  The women thought that bracelets of hair,  given to the husband,  were charms of certain efficacy in love.

Near the Loch of Stennis,  in the Orkneys,  are two large circles,  sacred to the sun and moon.  Only one hundred years ago,  a maiden,  who wished to be married,  performed alone the circuit of stones dedicated to the moon,  and the intended husband traversed the circle of the sun.  Then the pair met at the stone of Odin,  and,  joining their hands through the matrimonial ring or hole in the stone,  plighted their faith,  and became man and wife.  A divorce was more simple,  as the pair had only to go to church,  and go out at different doors.

Among the Anglo-Normans,  the ring was always worn on the middle finger of the right hand,  while in the latter part of the seventeenth century the wedding-ring was often worn on the thumb.  The Quakers reject the ring as a remnant of Pagan superstition,  and in the time of the Commonwealth the Puritans endeavored to abolish it for the same reason.

Although a ring is absolutely necessary in a Church-of-England marriage,  it may be of any metal,  and of any size.  Some years since,  a ring of brass was used at Worcester at a wedding before the registrar,  who was threatened with proceedings for not compelling a gold to be employed.  A story is told of two paupers,  who came to the church and requested to be married with the church-key,  as the parochial authorities had not furnished them with a ring.  The clerk,  feeling some delicacy about using the key,  fetched an old curtain ring from his own house,  and with that article the marriage was celebrated.  The church-key was used in lieu of a wedding-ring at a church near Colchester,  early in the present century;  and that was not a solitary instance within the past one hundred years in England.  The Duke of Hamilton was married at May Fair with a bed-curtain ring.  Notes and Queries for October,  1860 relates that a ring of leather,  cut transversely from a finger of the bridegroom's glove,  was used as a substitute for the wedding-ring on one occasion.  A clergyman unjustifiably stopped a wedding in India,  because the bridegroom offered a diamond ring instead of the kind generally in use.

In Iceland,  the betrothal and the marriage were both confirmed by money,  and the ring seemed little needed in evidence where value received for the maiden was supposed to be paid in cash.  It was used there,  however;  but could hardly be called a finger-ring,  being variously formed of bone,  jet,  stone,  gold and silver,  and sometimes it was so wide as to allow the palm of the hand to be passed through it.  In the solemnization of betrothal,  the bridegroom passed four fingers and his palm through one of these rings,  and in this manner he received the hand of his bride.

Wearing the ring on the fourth finger of the left hand is due to the belief of the ancients that a vein of that finger ran directly to the heart,  and that the nuptial sign was thus joined to the seat of life.  The fact that the soft metal is less worn or injured on the finger of that hand may have much to do with it.  It is said,  however,  that the ring originally worn among the Anglo-Normans on the right hand of the bride was changed to the left,  or inferior hand,   in token of subjection.  The particular finger is also said to be favored from an old custom of placing the ring on the first finger in the name of the Father,  on the second in the name of the Son,  and on the third in the name of the Holy Ghost.  This usage probably grew up at the time of the Arian controversy.

One of the earliest and prettiest forms of betrothing-rings was the gemmal ring,  once used by the Anglo-Saxons,  and probably derived from the French or Normans.  It was of two or three links,  fastened on a hinge,  and joining in one ring.  Sometimes,  when the two flat sides and the central ribbon joined,  there were male and females hands to clasp at the union.  A heart above these signified love,  fidelity,  union.  At betrothal,  the man and woman were often actually linked by a finger in each end of the three-hooped chain,  and then,  severing them,  each kept the part held,  and the witness the third,  until all became the property of the bride of marriage.  A gemmal ring of nine interlaced loops still exists.  These often had posy verses upon the flat inner surface.

Fictitious rings of rushes were once used in England to delude girls into a mock marriage.  A bishop of Salisbury,  in 1217,  put a stop to the sport by declaring the rush-ring contract legal.  An old writer says: "Well,  'twas a good worlde,  when such simplicitie was used,  sayes the old women of our time;  when a ring of a rush would tie as much love as a gimmon of golde."

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