The exchanging of rings is an integral part of the wedding ceremony and one of the most important parts of the big day, but where does this tradition come from and why do we wear them?
The first factual evidence we have of the giving of a ring upon marriage dates back at least 5,000 years to Ancient Egypt where the rings were made from braided reeds. In many ancient cultures a circle was the symbol for eternity so the ring represented the immortal nature of the marriage bond. Unfortunately using plant matter meant that the rings quickly degraded so more durable materials such as leather and bone soon replaced them. In the Roman Empire iron was a common choice although wealthier people used gold; the ring was an important part of the marriage contract between families. It was worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, still the traditional ring finger, because it was believed that a vein known as the ‘Vena Amoris’ ran directly from this finger to the heart. Although disproved by science this romantic notion is still often cited as a reason for wearing the wedding ring in this position.
The tradition of giving a ring became absorbed into the Christian marriage ceremony during the Middle Ages and, despite Church opposition, the rings became progressively more ornate and decorative. Over the centuries more precious metals were used and designs increased in complexity with valuable materials acting as a demonstration of wealth. Gemstones were often added to the designs, special messages engraved on the bands and detailed scroll-work and patterns carved into gold or silver. Since rings were not commonly given for engagements the wedding ring was made as beautiful as possible.
Opinions differ as to why the ring is worn on the fourth finger of the left hand. The Vena Amoris theory mentioned earlier is popular, but some more practical reasons have also been suggested, such as wearing the ring on the left hand because, since most people are right-handed, it takes less wear. During the Christian marriage ceremony, the priest traditionally touched each finger as he said, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, before placing the ring on the fourth finger. Some sources suggest that politics had a role; in the Catholic Church, the ring was worn on the fourth finger of the right hand. Following the Reformation, the new Anglican Church wanted to differentiate themselves from Catholicism, and one way in which they could do this was by declaring that wedding bands should be worn on the left hand. Over the next 500 years it gradually became the cultural norm for most people in the West to wear their wedding ring on the left hand, although in some cultures the right hand or an alternative finger is still the choice.
Throughout most of history only the bride would be given a wedding ring. It was often more of a symbol of ownership than a romantic gesture! It is only really in the twentieth century that it became commonplace for the groom to also wear a ring. During the Second World War soldiers who were away fighting overseas for extended periods chose to wear a ring as a comforting reminder of their loving wives and families back home. In the following decades jewellery for men became more fashionable and the idea of wearing a wedding band eventually stuck. It is now so expected that both the bride and groom will have a wedding ring that when Prince William chose not to it made the news!
Wartime economising was also one of the reasons why plain bands became more popular. Additionally, more simple designs enabled people to wear their ring all the time, and as women were increasingly receiving engagement rings with diamonds and coloured gemstones the wedding ring did not need to be so ornate.
Nowadays the range of options available for a wedding ring is enormous. The precious metals such as gold and platinum are still the most common choice, but alternatives like titanium are increasing in popularity. A seemingly endless array of patterns and finishes are available, with or without diamonds or other gemstones.
We have certainly come a long way since the braided reeds of the Ancient Egyptians, but the meaning remains very much the same...