Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/November 1887/About the Wedding-Ring
OF all the ornaments with which vanity, superstition, and affection have decorated the human form, few have more curious bits of history than the finger-ring. From the earliest times the ring has been a favorite ornament, and the reasons for this general preference shown for it over other articles of jewelry are numerous and cogent. Ornaments whose place is on some portion of the apparel, or in the hair, must be laid aside with the clothing or head-dress; are thus easily lost and often not at once missed. Pins, brooches, buckles, clasps, buttons, all sooner or later become defective in some part, and are liable to escape from an owner unconscious of the defect in the mechanism. The links of a necklace in time become worn, and the article is taken off to be mended; the spring or other fastening of a bracelet is easily broken, and the bracelet vanishes. With regard to ornaments fastened to parts of the savage body, mutilation is necessary, the ear must be bored, the nose be pierced, the cheeks or lips be slit, and, even after these surgical operations are completed, the articles used for adornment are generally inconvenient, and sometimes, by their weight or construction, are extremely painful.
In striking contrast with decorations worn on the clothing, in the hair, round the neck and arms, or pendent from the ears, lips, and nose, is the finger-ring, the model of convenience. It is seldom lost, for it need not be taken off; requires no preparatory mutilation of the body, is not painful, is always in view, a perpetual reminder, either of the giver, or of the purpose for which it is worn.
The popularity of the ring must, therefore, be in large measure due to its convenience, and that this good quality was early learned may be inferred from the Hebrew tradition, which attributes the invention of this ornament to Tubal-Cain, the "instructor of every artificer in brass and iron." The barbaric lover, in choosing a token for his mistress, was doubtless actuated, like the lover of to-day, by the wish to be kept in remembrance, and the proverbial saying, "Out of sight, out of mind," being as true in savage as in civilized times, he sought for a memento which should be always in view, never laid aside, not in danger of being lost—which, in short, should become a part of herself, mutely reminding her of him, and presenting a silent remonstrance when her affections went astray. For the purposes of a love-gift, he could find nothing more suitable than the ring. And when the agonies of courtship finally settled into the steady troubles of matrimony, it was not remarkable that this token of affection should remain on the finger of the bride, or be removed, to be succeeded by another of a similar kind.
The uses of the finger-ring have been many and diverse. Originally purely for ornament, it became a signet for kings and a warrant for their messengers; to civil officers it was once an emblem of office, and to ecclesiastics an indispensable portion of the episcopal costume. It was once worn, by physicians to prevent contagion, and by patients to cure disease; the timorous wore it as a charm against evil spirits, and the ambitious clung to it as a talisman, giving the wearer success over his enemies. But as a love-token, and a symbol of marriage, the use of the ring is so general, and of so long standing, as to dwarf into insignificance its employment in all other directions.
At what period it came into play as a recognized factor in the marriage ceremony, it is impossible to say. The Hebrews used it in very early ages, and probably borrowed the custom from the Egyptians, among whom the wedding-ring was known—a circle, in the language of hieroglyphics, being the symbol of eternity, and the embodiment of the circle readily symbolizing the hypothetical duration of wedded love. The Greeks used wedding-rings, so did the Romans, both putting them on the forefinger — by-the-way, a practice followed by the mediæval painters, many of whom represent the Virgin's ring on her forefinger. In the East, where the popular estimate of woman is low, the use of the wedding-ring has not been common, though occasionally the favorite wife of an Oriental monarch would receive from her master a ring as a mark of his favor. The conclusion, therefore, is safe that, with increase of respect for the institution of marriage, come also increased respect for and use of the ring as a token of the alliance.
During a part of the middle ages, this respect showed itself in a peculiar way, custom demanding that the wedding-ring should cost as much as the bridegroom could afford to pay; and there are records in Germany and France, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, of many large investments made in this direction by grooms eager to conciliate their brides and be in the fashion. The revulsion made the ring what we now have, a plain gold circlet; though, by a compromise, the engagement-ring may be as costly as fancy dictates or means permit.
The materials of which wedding-rings have been composed are as diverse as the nations which have used the ring. The British Museum has rings of bone and of hard wood, found in the Swiss lakes; on one of the bone rings is traced a heart, giving antiquaries reason to believe that the ring was a pledge of affection, if not a wedding-ring. The same museum has rings from all parts of the earth—of bone, ivory, copper, brass, lead, tin, iron, silver, gold, and some of a composite of several of these metals. One ivory ring, from an Egyptian tomb, bears two clasped hands; an iron ring, having the design of a hand closing over a heart, once graced the hand of a Roman matron; while the inscriptions on many others make it certain that they were wedding-rings.
The use of many different materials in the construction of these wedding-rings does not indicate capricious changes of fashion, for it should be remembered that museums and collections of antiquities comprise specimens of many ages and of widely-separated lands, but there is no doubt that fashion has sometimes had an influence in determining the style and material of the ring. For instance: during the latter part of the sixteenth century a fashion for some time prevailed in France of making the wedding-ring consist of several links fastened together in such a way as to seem but one. Sometimes there were three, two links having graven hands and the third a heart, the union of the three in the proper position clasping the hands over the heart. During the palmy days of astrology, there was quite a fashion in Germany of wedding-rings engraved with astronomical and astrological characters, the horoscopes of both the contracting parties being sometimes indicated in the setting of the ring. That being also the golden age of the quack doctor, wedding-rings were often made with a cavity to contain medical preparations or charms to preserve or restore health or avert evil. After the Crusades had set Europe in a flame, a practice became common in France, Germany, and England, of wearing rings the setting of which was a tiny fragment of wood from the true cross, and many of these rings are still preserved in the cabinets and museums of Europe. Ass-hoof rings were, in the seventeenth century, very popular among the Spanish peasants as a cure for epilepsy; and such a ring, made, it was said, from the hoof of the ass which carried Christ into Jerusalem, was used in a wedding in a country church near Madrid in 1881!
But when the ring was not plain, precious stones of some kind constituted the settings; and when the selection of the stone was in question, the dominance of fashion was absolute. In the fourteenth century, a fanciful Italian writer on the mystic arts set forth the vir tues of the various gems, indicating also the month in which it was proper to wear particular stones in order to secure the best result. The idea took, and for some time it was the fashion in several Italian cities to have the precious stone of the ring determined by the month in which the bride was born. If in January, the stone was a garnet, believed to have the power of winning the wearer friends wherever she went. If in February, her ring was set with an amethyst, which not only promoted in her the quality of sincerity, but protected her from poison and from slanderous tongues. The blood-stone was for March, making her wise, and enabling her with patience to bear domestic cares; the diamond for April, keeping her heart innocent and pure so long as she wore the gem. An emerald for May made her a happy wife; while an agate, for June, gave her health and protection from fairies and ghosts. If born in July, the stone was a ruby, which tended to keep her free from jealousy of her husband; while in August, the sardonyx made her happy in the maternal relation. In September, a sapphire was the proper stone, it preventing quarrels between the wedded pair; in October, a carbuncle was chosen, to promote her love of home. The November-born bride wore a topaz, it having the gift of making her truthful and obedient to her husband; while in December the turquoise insured her faithfulness. Among the German country-folk, the last-named stone is to the present day used as a setting for the betrothal-ring, and, so long as it retains its color, is believed to indicate the constancy of the wearer.
From Italy this fanciful notion spread to France, and French bridegrooms would sometimes insure themselves against a bad matrimonial bargain, and, as far as they could, guarantee to their brides a variety of good qualities, by presenting twelve rings, one for each month, with occasionally one or two extra as special charms. However, this extravagance in the number of rings used at weddings is not a solitary instance, for the use of several rings at the marriage ceremony has often been known. Four rings placed on her hand at her marriage could not keep Mary Stuart faithful to Darnley; and the annals of European courts record many instances similar, both as to the rings and to the result. The Greek Church uses two rings, one of gold, the other of silver; while in some districts of Spain and Portugal, three rings are placed, one at a time, on the fingers of the bride, as the words, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," are pronounced.
Fashion has also determined, not only the style of the wedding-ring, but the finger on which it is to be worn; and so capriciously has custom varied, that the symbol of matrimony has traveled from the thumb to the fourth finger, where it now reposes. In the time of Elizabeth, it was customary, both in England and on the Continent, for ladies to wear rings on the thumb, and several of her rings now shown in the British Museum, from their size, must have been thumb- rings. That the practice of wearing thumb-rings extended to the case of married ladies and their wedding-rings, is amply attested, not only by allusions in contemporary literature, but by the portraits of matrons of that age, a great many, where the hands are shown, displaying the wedding-ring on the left thumb. In the time of Charles II, the ring seems to have found lodgment on the forefinger, sometimes on the middle finger, occasionally on the third finger also, and, by the time George I came to the throne, the third finger was recognized as the proper place for it, not universally, however, for William Jones in his treatise on rings, declares that even then the thumb was the favorite place for the wedding-ring, and gives instances of the ring being made of large size, and, although placed on the third finger at the ceremony, immediately afterward removed to the thumb.
An English work on etiquette, published in 1732, says it is for the bride to choose on which finger the wedding-ring shall be placed. It further states that some prefer the thumb, since it is the strongest and most important member of the hand; others, the index-finger, because at its base lies the mount of Jupiter, indicating the noble aspirations; others, the middle finger, because it is the longest of the four; and others, again, the fourth finger, because a "vein proceeds from it to the heart."
The "British Apollo," however, decides the proper place of the ring to be the fourth finger, not because it is nearer the heart than the others, but because on it the ring is less liable to injury. The same authority prefers the left hand to the right. The right hand is the emblem of authority, the left of submission, and the position of the ring on the left hand of the bride indicates her subjection to her husband. A curious exception to the rule placing the ring on the left hand is, however, seen in the usage of the Greek Church, which puts the rings on the right hand.
As the symbol of matrimony, it is not strange that many of the superstitious fancies which have arisen in connection with the wedding should cluster about the ring. Dreaming on a bit of wedding-cake is common among American young ladies; but they should be informed that, for the dreaming to be properly done, the piece of cake thus brought into service should be passed through the wedding-ring, for so it is done in Yorkshire, Wales, and Brittany, in which localities the custom has been observed from time immemorial. The Russian peasantry not only invest the cake with wonderful qualities by touching it with the two rings used in the ceremony, but deem that water in which the rings have been dipped has certain curious beneficial properties.
In many country districts of Great Britain it is believed that a marriage is not binding on either party unless a ring is used; hence, curtain-rings, the church-key, and other substitutes, including a ring cut from a finger of the bride's glove, have been mentioned as devices to meet an emergency, when a ring of the proper kind could not be procured in time. In parts of Ireland, however, there is a current belief that a ring of gold must be used, and jewelers in the country-towns not infrequently hire gold rings to peasants, to be returned after the ceremony.
Blessing the ring gives it no small share of sanctity, and old missals contain explicit directions as to the manner in which this ceremony must be carried out. In the church-service as performed in the villages of England, the ring is frequently placed in the missal, the practice being, no doubt, a relic of the blessing once thought indispensable. The German peasant-women continue to wear the wedding-ring of the first husband, even after a second marriage, and a recent book of German travels mentions a peasant wearing, at one time, the wedding-rings of four "late lamenteds." An instance is known of a woman of German birth, who, after the death of her husband in a Western State, had the misfortune to lose her ring. She at once bought another, had it blessed, and wore it instead of the former, deeming it unlucky to be without a wedding-ring. Among the same class of people, stealing a wedding-ring is thought to bring evil on the thief, while breaking the emblem of marriage is a sure sign of speedy death to one or both of the contracting parties.