By Yaĝé Enigmus
Many people are familiar with and participate in the western tradition of giving a bespoke engagement ring to a loved one when proposing to them. Engagement rings featuring gemstones may be common in western culture now, but they were not always as ubiquitous as they are today. This contemporary custom has roots that reach back far beyond the modern era to the age of antiquity; few people that have been given a custom engagement ring are aware of the long history behind them.
The first iteration of what might be known now as an “engagement ring” is thought to have arisen with the ancient Egyptians, who then exposed ancient Greeks to the practice. Believed to have adopted Egyptian behaviour, the ancient Greeks were known to give rings to their loved ones some time before marriage. The betrothal rings of the ancient Greeks were not exchanged between every pair of spouses and did not commonly feature gemstones. The ring-giving practices of the ancient Greeks went on to influence the ancient Romans, who developed a tradition of giving rings to their affianced partners which more closely resembles the engagement ring customs of today. It was common in ancient Rome for men to give a ring to a loved one prior to marriage as a token of their affection and honourable intentions. Come the 2nd century C.E., it was typical for a pair of rings to be given: a gold ring for public wear and an iron ring for home wear. Giving betrothal rings featuring gemstones was not a requirement in Rome, and in many cases these rings would display an image of clasped hands.
Although not standard in Rome, gemstone rings were still common gifts to give to a fianceé; gemstones that were popular among Romans included amethyst, sapphire, and aquamarine. The custom of wearing an engagement ring on the third full finger of the left hand is also considered by some historians to have originated in Rome during this time as a reflection of the Roman belief that the left ring finger held the “vena amoris” (literally “vein of love”), a vein that was considered to run directly from the ring finger to the heart. By the 3rd century C.E., the use of custom gemstone engagement rings had spread throughout large portions of Europe with the expansion of the Roman Empire.
During the 7th century C.E., the significance of engagement rings in Christian ceremony was strengthened by the Visigothic Code. The Visigothic Code-- or Lex Visigothorum-- was a set of laws first laid down by King Chindasuinth, ruler of the Visigothic kingdom, which once existed in an area that included what is now southwestern France and southeastern Spain. The purpose of the Visigothic Code was to create a unified legal code which combined elements of the Germanic laws native to the area with elements of ancient Roman law and ancient Catholic law. Within the Visigothic Code it is dictated that once a ring is “given or accepted as a pledge...the promise shall, under no circumstances, be broken”. This was perhaps the first time in history that engagement rings were required as a symbol of unbreakable commitment between the affianced, and may have been the first legal document in which they were ever mentioned. Evidence suggests that these practices were isolated to western Europe for some time, as a letter from Pope Nicholas I to Boris I of Bulgaria written in 860 C.E., in which the Pope answers questions about the distinctions between Western and Eastern Christian practices, includes a description of the ring-giving customs of betrothed Catholics.
The role of engagement rings in the Christian world further evolved with the introduction of the Banns of Marriage during the 13th century. This new practice was enacted by Pope Innocent III in 1215 at the Fourth Council of Lateran and involved the advanced announcement of new betrothals with the intention of preventing clandestine marriage from taking place. One provision of the Banns required that there be a mandatory waiting period between engagement and marriage. Now that couples were legally required to wait before marriage, this change in tradition only enhanced the importance of the engagement ring as a symbol of devotion.
In the next part of this series, learn about the history of custom engagement rings from the renaissance to the Gregorian era.
Here are more of our favourite engagement rings from the Skyjems catalog:
© 2020 Yaĝé Enigmus a.k.a. Kevin Back