Wedding Rings - origins, and traditions

Wedding rings date back much further than you probably imagine. Primitive man would capture a woman and encircle her wrists and ankles with chains to prevent her from escaping. Yet another ancient practice involved circling her body with a rope, which would both keep her from evil sprits and bind her to him. Even in seventeenth-century BC Egypt, wedding rings had a supernatural significance, linked by their never-ending band with eternal love. Ironically, the early Christian Church initially rejected wedding rings as relics of a Pagan time, but gradually adopted the practice.

celtic wedding ring

Many believe the origin of wedding rings as we now know them is that it was the outcome of the ancient Egyptian custom of placing a piece of ring-money (used before coins were introduced) on the bride’s finger to indicate that she was endowed with her husband’s wealth. This symbolism is retained in the modern marriage service.

In Roman times betrothal and nuptial rings were used as seals and symbols of ownership and wealth. Once, only highly ranked senators could wear gold rings, bearing seals of state. Others were allowed only rings of iron and some of these were keys to access storerooms. On marriage, the responsibility for the keys to a man's storeroom were given over to his bride and so came about the custom of giving a wedding ring or Pronumbum (later a token gold ring) and with it 'all his worldly goods'. It was not presented to the bride during the actual ceremony, however, but after she had been lifted over the threshold of her new home. The presentation of the key denoted the confidence placed in her by her husband and was a token that henceforth she should share all that he possessed.

 

In England the early records tell of wedding rings made of iron, steel, silver, copper, brass, leather and rush. The easy availability of rushes, the belief by simple maidens in the legally binding nature of a ring placed on the ‘wedding’ finger and the cunning of lusty young men combined to bring forth an official warning from the Church in the person of Richard Poore, bishop of Salisbury. He published a constitution in 1217 forbidding such wicked young men from having their way with trusting virgins by plating a ring of rush and saying “why not, we’re married.” “Let no man,” thundered the bishop, “put a ring or rush, or of any other material, upon the hands of young girls, by way of mock celebration, for the purpose of easily seducing them, that, while believing he is only pertaining a jest, he may not in reality find himself bound irrevocably to the connubial yoke.”

If the young man had placed the ring on the girl’s finger in the presence of witnesses and had publicly declared that he was taking her for his wife, then the law and the church could regard the marriage as binding!

Following England's civil war, the Puritans preached against the use of a wedding ring because of it's 'Heathenish origin' and prohibited its use during weddings. The ring was too obviously a piece of jewellery and therefore an object of Satan. Indeed one Puritan minister referred to it as being “a Relique of Popery and a Diabolical Circle for the Devil to Dance and, to this day, the giving of a ring is still quite optional in a civil marriage.

Another aspect of the wedding ring given much attention by our ancestors was its fit, which had to be perfect. The exactness of the fit on the finger for which the ring had been fashioned represented the nicety and perfect harmony with which a married couple should fit one another in temper, taste and mental capacity. As the circle was a symbol of wholeness and endless continuity, so the wedding ring as a plain circle came to be symbolic of endless love and the marriage bond; the gold of which it was made represented purity and noble and durable affection.

Why the third finger of the left hand should have received the particular honour of being selected both in pagan and Christian times has been variously interpreted.

One rather quaint theory, which possibly goes back to the Egyptians, is the belief that a delicate vein, (the aptly named ‘vena amoris’) runs from that finger to the heart; another is that the left hand represents submission and the right hand domination – clear messages there! A popular magazine writer ascribed another reason that the third finger has long been considered sacred and hence has been consecrated to wear the wedding ring.

However, the belief that the wedding ring has always been worn upon the fourth finger of the left hand is mistaken. During the fifteenth century in certain provinces in Europe, the wedding ring was placed on the fourth finger of the bride’s right hand. In Peter Heylyn’s ‘History of the Reformation’(1661) he says “that the man should put the wedding ring on the fourth finger of the left hand, and not on the right hand as has been continued for many hundreds of years.” Certainly some fashionable ladies in the 16th and 17th centuries took to wearing wedding rings on their thumbs!

 

It was not until the time of the Reformation in England that the custom of wearing a wedding band on the left hand became the norm and still, in Greece and other places, the right hand was considered the hand of power, authority and independence whilst the left was the hand of subjection and dependence and the more fitting place for the wife to wear her symbol of subjugation to her husband; so it was ordered in The English Book of Common Prayer that the ring be placed on the fourth finger of the woman's left hand.

In the past few years it has become common for the bride and groom both to exchange rings, although 10 to 20% of men (presumably the more traditional ones) still do not sport wedding rings.

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