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 had esteemed the diamond for espousal rings, because of 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 the ages of twelve and thirteen. The women thought that bracelets of hair, which were given to the husband, were charms of certain efficacy in love.
Near the Loch of Stennis, in the Orkneys, are two large circles that are 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 in 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 of 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.