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OF all classes of medieval jewelry finger rings have been preserved in the greatest number. Among the various causes that have contributed to this result must be reckoned their very general use in former times, their comparatively small value, which often saved them from the melting-pot, and the fact that they were almost the only articles of value usually buried with the dead.
As regards the use and form of the finger ring during the Middle Ages, we find that it retains in the main its primitive symbolical character; being employed as an emblem rather than an ornament, to signify the investiture of office, the binding of the nuptial bond, and especially as a signet.
Though the occurrence of numerous rings without a seal or other mark proves their general acceptance as purely ornamental articles, so deeply was the spirit of the age imbued with leanings towards the mysterious and the occult, that nearly every ring is supposed to be endowed with some talismanic or satanic efficacy.
For convenience sake medieval rings may be separated into four main divisions: (i) ecclesiastical and devotional rings; (2) charm rings ; (3) love and marriage rings ; and (4) ornamental rings, including signets.
Rings have always been looked upon with favor by the Church; they were worn regularly by the higher clergy, and formed part of their ecclesiastical insignia. The British Museum possesses an important collection of gilt bronze finger rings of enormous size, each set with a foiled glass or crystal. Most of them bear on the hoop symbols of the four evangelists, the Ox, Lion, Angel, and Eagle, as well as the triple crown and crossed keys with the arms of various popes, and sometimes those of contemporary rulers, mostly of the fifteenth century.
These so-called papal rings, of which other examples, and duplicates, exist, are believed to have been presented or sent by popes or cardinals as emblems of investiture when conferring an office or dignity. A jeweled ring was always worn by a bishop, and was an essential part of his costume when pontificating. It was specially made for him, and usually went with him to the grave.
Hence it happens that many of these rings have survived, and are preserved both in museums—the collection in the Franks Bequest in the British Museum being the most extensive—and in the cathedrals where they have been found.
In the earliest times bishops usually wore engraved rings for use as signets, but they seem to have had a large jeweled one as well for ceremonial use. According to the instructions of Pope Innocent III in 1194, the episcopal ring was to be of solid gold set with a precious stone on which nothing was to be cut; hence the thirteenth-century rings are at times somewhat rudely fashioned, with the shape of the bezel adapted to the gem just as it was found, its surface merely being polished. Among the stones usually chosen for the purpose were the ruby indicating glory, the sapphire purity, the emerald tranquility and happiness, and crystal simplicity.
MEDIEVAL RINGS also worn, and on some rings an inscription is added to give a Christian name to the pagan figure; but others were merely regarded as ornaments without meaning, like one dating from the twelfth century in the Water-ton Collection, which bears a Roman cameo in plasma of a female head in high relief; or like the curious example found in the coffin of Seffrid, Bishop of Chichester in which is mounted a Gnostic intaglio.
The most usual form of ring, and one which seems to have been reserved chiefly for bishops, is of a pointed or stirrup shape. It is commonly found set with a small sapphire, more rarely with an emerald, and sometimes, as in William of Wykeham’s ring at New College, with a ruby (PI. XXIII, i). The fashion for this type appears to have lasted from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. The episcopal ring was formerly worn on the right hand, but is placed at the present day upon the annular finger—the third finger of the left hand. Not more than one episcopal ring is now worn, but on sepulchral effigies and early pictures bishops are represented with three or four rings on the right hand, not infrequently upon the second joint of the fingers, and also upon the thumb. They were generally worn over the gloves, the backs of which were ornamented in addition with a large jewel. These rings were often, therefore, of considerable size, so that when worn without a glove a guard-ring was necessary to prevent their falling off.’ Mitred abbots were allowed to wear the ring; by others it might be worn, but not during the celebration of the Mass.
The use of a ring was forbidden to the lower clergy. Among the rings to be classed under the heading of religious or devotional rings, the most important are the so-called iconography rings, that is, those which have on”Episcopal rings” the bezels, or on the shoulders, which are generally grooved or fluted, figures of the Virgin and Child, or of patron saints. They are nearly all of the same style of workmanship, and date almost exclusively from the fifteenth century. They are peculiar to England and Scotland. Several examples are preserved in the National Museum of Antiquities at Edinburgh, and others in the three great English ring collections.
Two exquisite English gold rings of this kind, dating from the first half of the fifteenth century, are in the British Museum. One, found at Coventry in 1802, is engraved with the five wounds of Christ, together with the legends describing them, and on the inside an inscription containing the names of the Three Kings of Cologne. The other ring was dug up at Godstow Priory, near Oxford, and is of small diameter, suited for a lady’s finger, but has a broad hoop engraved with sacred figures.
It appears to have been employed as a love ring, for within the hoop is an inscription. Another form of religious or devotional ring which was sometimes used in place of the ordinary rosary of beads was the decade ring. This was so called from its usually having at intervals round the hoop ten knobs which were used for repeating ten Aves, and a head or bezel for the Paternoster.
Finger rings, to an even greater extent than any other species of medieval jewelry, were designed to act as talismans or amulets; and they served, more than any other purpose, that of charms. Their virtue was imparted sometimes by the stone, and sometimes by the device, inscription, or magical letters engraved upon them. The mystic virtues attributed to stones as well as to engraved gems during the Middle Ages has been frequently alluded to.
Among the different stones (like the sapphire, for instance, the very word for which implies protection against drunkenness) carried in the bezel of the ring, which were supposed to make the wearer proof against evil influences, the most valued was the toad-stone. It was supposed to be found in the head of a toad, but is in reality the fossil palatal tooth of a species of fish—the ray. A toad-stone in a ring was said to indicate the presence of poison by perspiring and changing color.
Toad-stones were much sought after, and were highly prized, even in Shakespeare’s day. Sweet are the uses of adversity ; Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head. Ben Jonson alludes to the custom of wearing the stone in rings :— Were you enamored about his copper rings, His saffron jewel, with the toad-stone in it.
In addition to the stones already mentioned, greatly valued was the Turkey-stone or turquoise, as the ” Compassionate turquoise, which does tell By looking pale, the wearer is not well.” It was his turquoise ring which Shylock would not have lost ” for a wilderness of monkeys.” The use of charm rings seems to have been not uncommon in early times. It was one of the articles of impeachment against Hubert de Burgh, the great justice of Henry III, that whereas the King had in his treasury a ring which rendered the wearer invincible in battle, his minister furtively removed the same and bestowed it upon Llewellyn of Wales.
As charm rings, too, must be reckoned those which enclosed small relics. But rings so used seem for the most part to have been worn attached by a ribbon or chain to the neck, and not on the finger. Since such highly valued objects as charmed stones could only be obtained by a few, inscriptions often took their place.
Many of the devotional rings, with the names Jesus, Mary, and Joseph engraved on them, were used as a preservative against the plague ; but the most popular inscription was, as has been seen, the names of the Three Kings of the East, which were a powerful charm against peril by travel and sudden death. Such rings were worn against the cramp.
There were also carat rings of superstitious use, which bore charms in the form of inscriptions. Many other rings of this class have names and strange barbaric words and combinations utterly unintelligible. The wedding ring appears to be of Roman origin, and was usually given at the betrothal as a pledge of the engagement.
Two forms of these rings are the “gimmel” and the “posy” rings. Gimmel rings are composed of two hoops forming, when closed, one ring, and so constructed as to play when open one within the other. They are of two sorts: those which are either plain or set with precious stones, and those which have the device of the two right hands joined. Inscriptions or mottoes, as a rule in Norman-French, are to be found on rings of the fourteenth, and more frequently on those of the fifteenth century.
They were called ” chansons ” and also “reasons,” and later, posies. These love inscriptions, generally engraved on the outside of the ring (though placed inside in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) are for the most part the same as those found on the brooches of the time, inscriptions such as Je suis ici en lieu d’anii, and the like, being of frequent occurrence.
More rarely the motto is in English, as on the beautiful gold ring in the British Museum. New Year’s Day among the Romans was a time in which objects of jewelry were usually among the presents which it was the custom to exchange on that occasion.
In the Middle Ages also the advent of the New Year was celebrated by the bestowal of presents. Among these times jewelry was a prominent item, and on the rings of the period the inscription, £n bon an frequently occurs.
A very extensive group of medieval finger rings is formed by signets. These are marked with some device, such as an animal, a bird, a tree, or any other object, so that they could be easily recognized ; hence they were often given as credentials to a messenger.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries rings of silver, and occasionally of gold, occur, with a crest or coat-of-arms, or with devices in the form of initials, and certain arbitrary signs called merchants’ marks, which were used by merchants and others not entitled to armorial bearings.
Such rings were often worn on the thumb. Though armorial signets were worn in Italy as early as the fourteenth century, they were not common in England till the commencement of the sixteenth. Somewhat similar are certain devotional signet rings of silver or base metal, engraved with an initial— generally the letter I surmounted by a coronet.
The I is probably the initial of the Savior’s name, such rings being worn from a belief in the efficacy of holy names as preservatives from evil. In connection with the medieval use of ancient engraved stones, Upon the metal setting around these gems a legend in Latin was often engraved ; the most usual inscription being SIGILLUM SECRETI, SIGILLUM MEUM, followed by the name of the owner.
Rings which have the appearance of being purely ornamental were worn throughout the Middle Ages in considerable numbers both by men and women; yet at the same time it must ever be borne in mind that the stones set in them had probably in the eyes of the possessors a value quite independent of their use as ornaments. In the Gold Ornament Room of the British Museum is a collection of five English rings of silver of the twelfth century. They are of small intrinsic value, but of considerable interest as authenticated examples of ornamental rings of the period ; for with the exception of those found on the fingers of prelates, the date of early rings is sometimes difficult to determine.
The rings were dug up at Lark Hill, near Worcester, in 1854, together with upwards of two hundred pennies of Henry II. They probably date, therefore, from about the end of the century. The peculiarity of many of the richer ornamental rings of this period is the tendency to place the stone upon a high case or stalk, so that the bezel is raised considerably above the hand.
In the fifteenth century a large number of rings appear to have been habitually worn; and on the monument of Lady Stafford in Bromsgrove Church, Worcestershire (1450), every finger but the last one on the right hand is decorated with a ring. In many of the Flemish pictures of the same date we find ornamental rings set with table-cut or cabochon stones. The form of these is admirably represented in the portrait of a goldsmith, ascribed to Gerard David, in the Royal Gallery at Vienna. In his right hand he holds one ring, and in the left a short roll of parchment, on which are placed four more.
The rings are somewhat massive, and thicken towards the bezel, where they are mounted with table-cut stones within plain claw settings. In the same gallery is John van Eyck’s portrait, dated 1436, of John De Leeuw, jeweler to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. He holds between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand a gold ring set with a small cabochon stone.
This notice of medieval finger rings may be concluded by drawing attention to a picture which, in view of the jewelry of the Middle Ages, is one of the most fascinating of all the productions of the Flemish school.
Appropriately enough, the patron saint of goldsmiths is figured in his shop; and the picture thus affords us a singularly interesting and attractive representation of the interior of a jeweler’s shop in the middle of the fifteenth century with every detail of its glittering contents. St. Eloy or Eligius, whose figure, for all we know, may be the portrait of some well-known jeweler of the day, is seen seated at the goldsmith’s bench, beside which stand Dagobert, King of France, and St. Godeberta. He is employed in weighing the ring with which the King seeks to espouse the Virgin Saint; but instead, so the legend runs, of giving her the engagement ring, he slipped on her finger a ruby ring, mystically espousing her to Christ.
The King wears, pinned to the front of his black chaperon, a brooch or enseigne, set with a ruby surrounded by four pearls and having a pendent drop. Round his neck is a curb chain of alternate plain and beaded links, from which hangs a jewel formed of two lions head-dress, and is of embroidered gold sewn with pearls. The pendant of her neck-chain, hidden by the bodice, lies between the breasts.
Very carefully rendered is each item of the choice collection of objects that forms the goldsmith’s stock-in-trade, exhibited on a stall covered with white linen on the left hand of the goldsmith-saint. Below is a box of rings, some plain, some mounted, ranged along three rolls of parchment. Beside them lie large pearls and precious stones, and seed pearls sorted in a shell by themselves.
Behind, against the back, rest a branch of coral and oblong pieces of rock crystal and of opaque stone of porphyry-red. Above, on a piece of dark cloth, hang three splendid jewels—a pendant and two brooches, and next to them a pair of tooth-like pendants.
From the shelf on the top is suspended a string of red, amber, and pale blue rosary beads, and in the middle a girdle end of brown leather with buckle and mounts of gilded metal. The remainder of the collection, formed of various vessels, comprises a crystal cylinder set with gold and precious stones and a mounted coconut cup; and on the upper shelf a covered cup and a couple of tall flagons of silver parcel-gilt. This remarkable picture at once brings to mind that strangely interesting series of interiors afterwards produced by Quentin Matsys and Marinus van Romerswael, representing money-changers, bankers, or usurers busily engaged in counting up or weighing coins scattered before them on a table, upon which also sometimes lie a handsome ring or two, a richly jeweled pendant, or unset precious stones and pearls.
Bracelets were as little in vogue as earrings during the Middle Ages, and remarks made concerning the latter apply also to bracelets, in that they only appear as the lingering traces of Byzantine fashions which, until the commencement of the twelfth century, made themselves strongly felt throughout the whole of Europe.
In the National Museum at Munich is a gold armlet formed of two hinged halves covered with filigree and beaded ornament. Its outer rims are of twisted gold, and within are bands of fine plaited wire. It is adorned with bosses of filigree alternating with pyramidal projections. The origin of this fine ornament is unknown, but it probably dates from about the eleventh or twelfth century.
The National Museum of Buda-Pesth contains a pair of very similar armlets. In connection with these ornaments the persistence of tradition in goldsmith’s work is curiously seen, since armlets closely resembling the earlier examples are made and worn in Cairo at the present day. During the latter part of the Middle Ages it appears to have been a common practice for ladies to wear rosaries or chaplets of beads upon their wrists as bracelets.
With these exceptions, the long sleeves that were worn throughout the greater part of the Middle Ages did not favor the use of an ornament that demanded the bare skin as a foundation. Ornamental circlets round the upper arm, which are not infrequently met with in pictures, must be regarded as gold-embroidered edgings or bands.
It is true they were frequently set with pearls, stones, and decorations in gold, but as they were sewn upon the sleeves they have no actual claim to the name of armlets. Armlets or bracelets appear to have been worn to a certain extent towards the close of the fifteenth century, but to have been reserved chiefly for summer wear.
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