Sunday, 30 July 2017

Why Wedding Rings?

Roman silver wedding ring. Ca. 2nd-4th century A.D.

From "The Pilot", 1966, comes this, an interesting historical ramble.

Some Church Customs Explained
By S.G. Thicknesse

Why Wedding Rings?

SAMUEL JOHNSON'S dictionary defines a ring as `a circular instrument placed upon the noses of hogs and the fingers of women to restrain them and bring them into subjection'.

Moreover, none of the laws of the realm or of the Church enjoins the wearing of a wedding ring by a married woman or man, or by anybody else. If the Puritans had had their way in the seventeenth century the wedding ring, along with other `symbols of superstition', would have been dropped even from the marriage service, where indeed it had not had, as centuries go, a very long or a very certain place.

For the use of a ring, historically, belongs to betrothal not to marriage; and was not general for betrothal until the second century A.D. in the Roman Empire. Before and long after that, the wearing of rings was more closely tied up with social standing (especially in the case of gold rings) and with magic and taboo.

A gold ring on the hand of a sower was believed to promise a golden harvest (there are still echoes of this in Bavaria); a cow milked through a ring could be freed from having her milk stolen by witches; a ring was a mark among primitive tribes of initiation into a new life; a ring holds the spirit from escaping and prevents the entrance of demons.

Partly, perhaps, because of such associations, rings were not worn among conservative Christians in the time of Tertullian (d. A.D. 220) and it was not until the eleventh century that there was any form for the blessing of rings.

In the pre-Reformation Sarum use there is this prayer: `Bless, O Lord, this ring which we hallow in thy holy Name, that whosoever she be that shall wear it may be steadfast in thy peace, and abide in thy will, and live, increase, and grow old in thy love, and that the length of her days be multiplied'.

In the eleventh century it was still the ring of betrothal, which was customarily given either with money endowment by the bridegroom to the bride, or was itself a token of dowry, gold rings being themselves acceptable currency during many centuries.

Yet if the betrothed were poor, St. Augustine had ruled that no priest should hesitate to pronounce a blessing if he were asked to, `for the offering is a matter of decorum, not of necessity'.

In early centuries the marriage followed some time after the betrothal, and was, like the betrothal, equally valid in the eyes of the Church (until the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century), whether it was performed before civil or religious authority.

Marriage was originally the festival of the veiling of the bride, of her being given to the bridegroom by her family, of the crowning of bride and bridegroom, and of the taking of the bride to her husband's house. It was only gradually that betrothal and marriage became merged in a formal church service and the ring became attached in the general view to marriage.

In the Anglican service there is still a vestige of the ancient distinction: the first part of the service, with the giving of the ring, takes place in the body of the church, and the concluding prayers and benediction at the altar.

In the Anglican, as in the old Sarum, form, the ring is placed by the bridegroom on the fourth finger of the bride's left hand. Only the Sarum words, however, echo the pre-Christian reason. After directing that the bridegroom put the ring on the thumb of the bride saying, `In the Name of the Father (on the first finger) and of the Son (on the second finger) and of the Holy Ghost (on the third finger),' the rubric continued, `and there let him leave it, because in that finger there is a certain vein which reaches to the heart '

As long ago as the fourth century A.D. the Roman Macronius, a pagan, heard this piece of information from an Egyptian doctor.

But if the ring was put on the fourth finger of a woman's hand at the betrothal which gradually became confused into the marriage service, it was by no means always kept on that finger afterwards, even in England, if it continued to be worn at all. In the time of George I, for example, wedding rings were commonly worn on the thumb.

In various centuries they have been worn on the index or little finger, as pictures and portraits show; in northern Germany they are worn by men and women on the right hand. They are still not generally worn among peasant peoples; in some cases, as sometimes in Ireland, they are simply borrowed for the wedding.

Nor have wedding rings always been of gold. But in whatever metal they have been made - in iron, in silver, or in gold - the general custom has always been that they should be plain. This may well go back behind Fuller's seventeenth-century gloss in The Holly and Profane States - `marriage with a diamond ring foreboded evil, because the interruption of the circle augured that the reciprocal regard of the spouse might not be perpetual' - to the ancient magic, when knotted things were spell-bound and unbroken circles wholesome.

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