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Medieval Finger Rings

Finger rings were widely worn by women who could afford them during the entire medieval period, as well as before and afterwards.

Rings and the stones set in them were a more socially acceptable way to wear stones with protective properties like the amulets of pagan times. Many contemporary artworks in the high middle ages show women wearing many rings at once, often more than one on a finger and at each joint.

There were no limitations other than attempted Sumptuary Laws at that time as to how many rings could worn at one time.

Wedding rings
Rings have long been associated with marriage although many rings were purely ornamental. Ring bands could be thin or wider as the wearer desired. The plain wedding ring can be seen as early as the 11th century, where it was usually worn on the third finger of the left hand. During the 16th century, this changed to the opposite hand.

There seems to be no set protocol during the middle ages as to the width of a ring or whether it was for a man or a woman specifically.

The wider rings were more likely to have inscriptions on the outside or alternatively on the inside of the band. Rings were often inscribed with amorous mottos of love, hearts, or images of saints and animals. They might be worn singly or as a part of a set.

The ring at right is a French finger ring from the 1400's currently in the Museum of London. It is engraved on the outside and has a gemstone set in a claw setting.

In 1370, the Goldsmith's Company specified that only natural stones were to be set in gold and that fake stones were not. Real stones were also not to be set into base metals, and real stones must not be set with a tine backing to improve their colour.

Shown at right is a gilded ring with an undecorated band and pie crust setting and jade stone. It is dated to the 14th century from Piercebridge County, Durham in the UK and is part of the Gilbert Collection.

The ring at the top of the page is made from gold with a wolf's tooth set into the heart-shaped setting. The ring itself is ornate on the outside and inscribed on the inside. The ring is dated at 1250 and is from England although the inscription was not added until the 14th century.

The ring shown at left is of typical medieval style and dates from England in the 14th century. It has a gold ring with garnet. More elaborate claw settings were known and worn by the wealthy, but the bulk of rings from medieval finds reflect this style.

The stones set into rings often had special significance or were worn for their properties of protection. Hildegard von Bingham wrote in the 12th century, on the powers and benefits of gemstones, and recommends a sapphire worn in a ring to remove wrath from the heart of the wearer.

She cautions, though:

If this stone is placed in a ring of the purest gold, without tin, and there is nothing but gold under the stone, then a person may place the stone in his mouth as medicine, and it will not harm him. If anything but pure gold is in it, then it is of no use, and one should not place it in his mouth because the ring is harmful.

It is interesting to note that the stone must be set entirely in gold and have gold under it so that it does not rest permanently against the skin.

At right, is a delicate sapphire set in gold dating from the late 13th century from England. It is inscribed around the outside and due to it's small size, would have been worn by a young woman. The setting is solid at the back.

The ring at left is also probably one for a woman, being more delicate in style. It also is gold set with a sapphire and dates to the 14th century.

Lettering on rings
Medieval rings can often be dated by the inscriptions which they have, although some rings are older then the inscription on them, being added at a later date.

The style of lettering used is of great value when determining the age of a ring. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the text used was Lombardy. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Black Letter was predominant and the writing itself was in Norman French.

Occasionally, English was used, but was difficult to read, and became popular in the 16th century when Roman Capital was the preferred font.

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