Following on from my discussion last week about wedding anniversaries, in my dad’s next column, which was 20th January 1979, he mentions a letter he received from a reader in Ripon who asked why we wear rings as a sign of marriage.
According to Dad, it’s a tradition going back to the ancient Egyptians, and the 2nd century Greek historian, Appian of Alexandria, is supposed to have described a vein that ran down the finger directly to the heart called the ‘vena amoris’ or ‘vein of love’. Wearing a ring on that finger meant that a couple’s romantic feelings for each other were bound by the never-ending circle of the ring and therefore could not escape through the end of the finger.
Having done some research myself, I’m unsure whether Appian actually did write about that vein, or just the practice of wearing rings, but there is no doubt that Henry Swinburne, a 17th century York-born ecclesiastical lawyer, did.
In his work ‘A Treatise of Spousals, or Matrimonial Contracts’, published in 1686 (after his death), he wrote: “The finger on which the wedding ring is to be worn is the fourth finger of the left hand, next unto the little finger, because by the received opinion of the learned in ripping up and anatomising men’s bodies, there is a vein of blood, called vena amoris, which passeth from that finger to the heart.”
Unfortunately, despite how romantic and fitting it all sounds (apart from the ‘ripping’ and ‘anatomising’ bits), Swinburne and his learned colleagues were talking utter claptrap. There is no such vein, and all the veins in our hands are pretty much the same, with no unique heart-bound one.
What is interesting though, is that he says the ring should be worn on the left hand. Swinburne was a staunch Anglican, and in 1593 began to work for the Dean of York Minster. This was a mere 50 years or so after the Reformation where Anglicism became the state religion and Catholics were ruthlessly persecuted.
The Church of England established its ‘Book of Common Prayer’ in which it stated that a wedding ring had to be worn on the left hand. They wanted to obliterate anything associated with Catholics and up until then, in most other religions throughout Europe including Catholicism, wedding bands had been worn on the right hand.
So if you were caught with your ring on the wrong finger in England, you would be identified as a Catholic, accused of treason and possibly executed.
That bit was of particular interest to me because I was married to a Dutchman for almost 20 years and had always wondered why in the Netherlands they wore wedding rings on the right hand. So now I know!
Possibly the most common precious metal associated with rings would be gold, although it is less popular these days. In ancient times, wedding rings could be made of string, leather or even bone. Metal grew in popularity in Roman times, with iron being the most usual, while gold and silver were reserved only for the very rich.
In the Middle Ages, those who couldn’t afford a ring could hire one from the local priest, or slightly wealthier families would have a ‘family’ ring that was brought out just for the marriage ceremony. Sometimes the local community would rally round to find a ring to be used for the service, or the couple would wear rings made from dried grass or other common materials until they had saved up enough to buy a real one, which could be a long time after the actual wedding.
There were a number of superstitions associated with a wedding ring, such as its loss or removal was either bad luck, or a portent for a marriage break-up (which wasn’t very helpful if you had to borrow a ring for your nuptials). And did you know that a gold wedding ring taken from a dead woman’s body had the power to cure a stye in one’s eye, if rubbed upon the injury? (Just to clarify, I’m not advocating pinching rings from corpses to treat eye infections, so please don’t try it.)
Today it seems the glitzier and more expensive a ring, the better, with a proliferation of diamonds, coloured jewels and any number of precious metals, all fashioned into a dizzying array of intricate shapes.
I wonder if the plain gold band will ever become fashionable again?
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