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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Wedding And Betrothal Rings



Author: Bertha Slovacek

( Article orginally published September 1942 )

Wedding and betrothal rings - the pledges of love - have always appealed to our imaginations, emotions and yearnings. Long ago, our ancestors accepted the ring as an emblem of eternity and a symbol indicative of steadfast devotion - an interpretation quite contrary to Samuel Johnson's brusque definition of "a circular instrument placed upon the noses of hogs and the fingers of women to restrain them and bring them into subjection."

It was the ancient Egyptian who established the custom of placing a ring on the finger of his wife, as a sign that he had confidence in her ability to care for his house. The Greek and Roman bridegroom often gave a ring to the bride's father-a practice that was probably a survival of primitive bride purchase. In the second century B. C., the Roman bride was presented with a gold ring. But this she wore only in public. Such a ring was much too precious to wear while tending to household duties; and so the groom gave the bride a second ring - for use in the home - which was usually made of iron and had little knobs in the form of a key. Of course, these "key" rings were weak and could open only those locks requiring very little force to turn, but their significance, in that the wearer had the right to seal up the giver's possessions, was strong.

Probably the most imposing ring of all time was that used at the Hebrew wedding. This curious ring was shaped like the roof of a Jewish temple, and was so large and clumsy that it could not be worn in the ordinary manner. Many times it was the property of the synagogue and was borrowed for the event, for it was needed during only a portion of the ritual and was then removed. It has even been said that these huge, elaborate rings were used to hold myrtle branches at weddings.

It was not until about 860 that the Christians used the ring in marriage ceremonies, and then it was not the plain circlet that we now use, but a highly decorated device, engraved with symbolical figures of doves, lyres and even of two linked hands. Such a "Heathenish" gadget was not given a hearty reception by the Church, and for a long time its use was discouraged, though never completely abandoned.

The 13th century brought a considerable simplification in wedding and betrothal rings, and its spiritual aspect was very aptly expressed by Bishop Durant when he dubbed it a "symbol of the union of hearts." In England and Ireland, the people believed so strongly in the necessity for a ring that if a groom were too poor to buy one, he rented one for the occasion. Sometimes, also, a ring was given conditionally, as is shown by the unique, antiquated German formula: "I give you this ring as a sign of the marriage which has been promised between us providing your father gives with you a marriage portion of 1000 reichsthalers."

We cannot be sure exactly how the custom of placing the marriage or betrothal ring on the third finger of the left hand arose. It may be ascribed to the belief of the ancients' that a special vein or nerve ran directly from this finger to the heart. Then, too, it was said that this particular combination was most suitable for finery, as the left hand was used less than the right and the third finger would better protect the ring from injuries, inasmuch as it could not be "extended but in company with some other finger." Still another explanation centers about the idea of the left hand denoting subjection of wife to husband. In the Christian Church service, the priest touched three consecutive fingers, saying, "In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," and placed the ring on the last finger touched.

Wedding rings were often worn on thumbs during the reign of George I of England, even though placed on the third finger during the ceremony. Again, Louisa of Prussia wore hers on the little finger of the right hand, while an old Russian custom bid the bridegroom to wear his ring on the forefinger.

Probably the smallest wedding ring of which we have record was that given the daughter of Henry VIII, Princess Mary, by the proxy of the Dauphin of France, son of King Francis I. The ring was tiny of necessity - not because of the daintiness of the Princess' hand, but because she was but two years old. It was essential that the Dauphin have a proxy - he had been born but seven months before the bridal ceremonies were celebrated. Thus, amid great pomp and splendor, the Lilliputian golden ring, fitted with a costly diamond, was slipped unto the baby bride's finger.

Another historic ring was that supposedly given to Martin Luther by his wife in commemoration of their marriage. After being severely censored by the Roman Catholics for committing himself to this marriage, Luther is said to have remarked that he married "to please himself, to tease the Pope and to spite the Devil." The ring, set with a ruby, bears the image of the crucifixion.

Perhaps the most popular ring of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries was the Posy or Motto ring. The early models were impressed in French or Latin on the outside, but later rings were engraved on the inside, and in English. The mottoes were frequently of a religious quality, such as "I have obtained whom God ordained," and "'Tis God above doth seal our love." Often, however, they were less devotional as "Without my love, I backward move," or "My heart and I" A rather peculiar Posy ring was the emblematic circlet given by Bishop Cokes to his wife. It was engraved with a hand, a heart, a mitre and a death's head, and the inscription read:

"These three I give to thee,
Till the fourth set me free."

The Gimmel ring, originated in France, was initially a symbol of friendship and affection; later, however, it graduated to the position of a token of love. This "joint tenancy" ring was, in reality, a double ring, and the twin hoops were united much like the links of a chain. The two sections were constituted so that each had one flat and one convex side, and when the two flat surfaces were brought together, one ring was formed. Often, a hand formed a part of each circlet, and when these hands were clasped, the separate rings were held in place. When the lover put his finger through one hoop and his sweetheart put hers through the other, they were truly symbolically "yoked together."

Oftentimes, different varieties of stones were used to spell out sentimental words, as:

L apis lazuli O pal
V erde antique E merald
M arcasite E merald

Other times, a group of seemingly meaningless letters actually were the interlocking of two names, the one reading to the left, the other to the right.

In recent times, an artistically combined wedding ring of gold and iron has come to the front. By the blending of these two metals, the ring becomes a symbol of the union of strength and beauty. The "Latitude and Longitude" rings are also novel and of interest. A slender band on the ring shows a degree of latitude traced with longitudes. A small star is engraved at the spot where the lovers became engaged and a double star appears at the place where they were married.

Thus have wedding and betrothal rings stood the test of time - the most exacting of all critics. And it is no wonder! As Shakespeare wrote: "My ring I hold dear as my finger; 'tis part of it."

History Of Wedding Rings At Wikipedia
History Of Wedding Rings


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