The Wedding Ring: History and Superstitions

THE WEDDING RING

Wedding rings have been worn in all ages; but no information respecting their origin can be discovered. It is known they were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans; but their use was then at the ceremony of betrothal, and not marriage. Pope Nicholas, writing of the ninth century, says that the Christians first presented the woman with espousal gifts, including a ring, which was placed on her finger; the dowry was then agreed on ; and afterwards came the nuptial service. These rings of the Romans were made of various metals, as iron, brass, copper, and old; and while betrothal and marriage were distinct, the rings were ornamented; but when formal betrothal became obsolete, the marriage ring took a plain shape, as at present.

The ancients wore the betrothal ring, as now, on the next least finger of the left hand. Many reasons are assigned for this, as the erroneous idea that a vein or nerve went direct to the heart, and therefore the outward sign of matrimony should be placed in connection with the seat of life: the left hand is a sign of inferiority or subjection: the left hand is less employed than the right, and the finger next least the best protected. At one time, it was the custom to place the wedding ring on the right hand of the bride. The Anglo-Saxon bridegroom at the betrothal gave a wed or pledge, and a ring was placed on the maiden’s right hand, where it remained till marriage, and was then transferred to the left.

During the times of George I. and II. the wedding ring, though placed upon the usual finger at the time of marriage, was sometimes worn on the thumb, in which position it is often seen on the portraits of the titled ladies in those days. It is now absolutely necessary to use a ring at the English marriage service. The placing of the ring on the book is a remnant of the ancient custom of blessing the ring by sprinkling holy water in the form of a cross. This is still done by the Roman Catholic priest. The Puritans attempted the abolition of the ring. The Quakers don’t use a ring at the service because of its heathenish origin; but many wear them afterwards. The Swiss Protestants do not use a ring either at the service or afterwards.

Rings have not necessarily been made of gold, in order to be used in the English service. They may be of any metal or size. At Worcester, some years ago, a registrar was threatened with proceedings for not compelling the use of a gold ring. At Colchester, at the beginning of this century, the church key took the place of the ring; and this has been the case elsewhere. A story is told of a couple going to church and requesting the use of the church key. The clerk, not thinking it lawful, fetched a curtain ring, which was used at the ceremony. The Duke of Hamilton was married at Mayfair with a bed curtain ring. Notes and Queries of October 1860 relates the cutting of a leather ring from the gloves of the bridegroom and the use of it at the service. An Indian clergyman stopped a wedding because the ring contained a diamond; and in Ireland all rings except plain gold ones are rigidly forbidden.

One of the earliest forms of rings was the gemel or gimmal ring. It was a twin or double ring composed of two or more interlaced links, when the two flat sides were in contact, the links formed one ring. Mottoes and devices were often engraved on the inner or flat side. At the time of betrothal, it was customary for the man to put his finger through one hoop, and the woman through the other. They were thus symbolically yoked together. The links were then broken, and the two kept a link until the marriage. Some gimmal rings with three links were made for the purpose of a witness keeping the middle one. There is a gimmal containing nine links still in existence. A old one given by Edward Seymour to Lady Katharine Grey had five links and a poesy of his own composition.

The Exeter Garland, written in 1750, contains:

A ring of pure gold she from her finger took,

And just in the middle the same then she broke;

Quoth she: ‘As a token of love, you this take;

And this is a pledge I will keep for your sake.’

Wedding rings, also, were not always worn plain, the common emblem being clasped hands or hearts. Two silver-gilt rings were used for the marriage of Martin Luther and Catherine von Borga. Luther’s ring is still in Saxony, and bears the following: ‘D. Martino Luthero, Catherine v. Borga, 13 Junii 1525.’ The other is in Paris, and has a figure of Christ upon the cross, and the Latin inscription as above. On the ring given by Henry VIII. to Anne of Cleves was inscribed, ‘God send me well to kepe,’ in allusion to the fate of Anne Boleyn. Lady Cathcart, on her fourth marriage in 1713, had the following: ‘If I survive, I will have five.’ Dr John Thomas, Bishop of Lincoln, 1753, had a similar inscription.

Many superstitions attach to the wedding ring, probably arising from the Roman Catholic custom of its receiving the blessing of the priest before putting it on. In Ireland, the rubbing of the ring on a wart or sore was sure to cure it; also, the belief still remains that by pricking a wart with a gooseberry-bush thorn through a wedding ring it will gradually disappear. In Somersetshire they say that a sty on the eyelid may be removed by the rubbing of the ring. The Romans believed a peculiar virtue lay in the ring finger, and they stirred their medicines with it. Another superstition is that if a wife lose her ring, she will also lose her husband’s love; and if she breaks it, the husband will shortly die. Many married women would not remove their rings, for fear of the death of their partners. As old saying is, ‘As your wedding ring wears, your cares will wear away.’

Chambers’s Journal, 6 February 1892: p. 95-6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  To be Relentlessly Informative, the more common spelling of the rings pictured is “gimmel,” from the Latin gemellus or twin. And Frau Doktor Luther came to her marriage as Katharina von Bora, rather than a member of some cadet branch of the Borgias.

Let us have a few more wedding ring superstitions:

In Northumberland, the young girls prepare for the May feast the May syllabub, made of warm milk from the cow, sweet cake and wine. Into this a wedding ring is dropped, for which the girls fish with a ladle. Whoever gets it will be married first. Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences, Cora Linn Morrison, Daniels, Charles McClellan Stevens, 1904: p. 1541

A Wedding Ring Superstition.

A Yorkshire lady told me that, having lost her wedding ring from her finger, she had been told by the wise people of the place that she must on no account permit her husband to buy her a new one, but that her nearest male relatives must pay for the fresh ring and give it her. Notes and Queries 1 July 1882: p. 9

It is regarded as most unlucky is the wedding ring slips off the finger of the newly married wife either through accident or carelessness; another superstition is that when the wedding ring has worn so thin as to break in two, the woman or the husband will die, that the wedding ring and married life wear away pari passu. [“with even step.”] Perhaps, we have here an answer to the often-asked question of modern days, ‘Why do ladies encumber themselves with such heavy wedding rings?’ Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, William Gregory Wood-Martin, 1902: p. 45

And, finally

HE FORGOT THE WEDDING-RING

A story has come to light regarding a former Earl of Crawford, Colin by name, who married a relative of the Prince of Orange. The lady, Mauritia de Nassau, was a very beautiful woman, and having fallen in love with the then-Earl of Crawford a marriage was arranged. But when the wedding day arrived and the bridal party were assembled at the church no bridegroom was forthcoming. A messenger was despatched in hot haste to fetch the missing earl, who was found at his house enjoying a late breakfast, attired in dressing gown and slippers, completely oblivious to the fact that it was his wedding day. Hurriedly dressing, the earl rushed off to the church, and the service began. In the middle of the ceremony he discovered he had forgotten the ring. This want being hastily supplied by one of the guests the marriage proceeded.

At the end of the ceremony the bride, glancing at her hand, saw to her unutterable horror that the ring with which she had been wedded was a mourning ring with skull and cross-bones on it.

“I shall be dead within a year!” she shrieked, and fainted dead away. Her words came true, and the earl himself had a most unlucky life.  North Otago Times, 31 July 1909, Page 2

Other wedding superstitions may be found in this previous post on bridal superstitions, as well as this one on bridesmaids’ superstitions, and royal wedding superstitions.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

1 thought on “The Wedding Ring: History and Superstitions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s