The Origins Of Popular Superstitions And Customs  ~ Magick7






Courtship, prior to actual marriage, has been described as a biological preparation for nuptial union, in addition to being a social custom. Some of us would prefer to call it a mental preparation; for the fact that two people of opposite sex are drawn together is in itself some evidence of biological fitness. But the social element concerns us here, and the engagement ring seems to have had an interesting history. As an outward sign, rings have figured prominently in marriage and pre-marriage rites from a very remote antiquity; but an engaged couple in the old English period were accustomed to exchange rings; there was a gift from the man to the woman and the woman to the man; the ring being an outward bond of fidelity between the two. Prior to the exchange of rings, it was accounted sufficient if the contracting parties broke a piece of gold or silver (each keeping a half), and drank a glass of wine. This is seen in an old play called "The Vow Breaker" (1636), Act 1. Scene 1., where Young Bateman and Anne are speaking:--

"Ba. Now, Nan, here's none but thou and I; thy love
Emboldens me to speak, and cheerfully,
Here is a piece of gold; 'tis but a little one,
Yet big enough to try and scale a knot,
A jugall knot on earth, to which high Heaven
Now cries Amen: say thou so too, and then
When eyther of us breakes this sacred bond,
Let us be made strange spectacles to the world,
To heaven and earth.

"An. Amen, say I;
And let Heaven loth me when I falsifie."

Afterwards, on young Bateman's return from the wars, during whose absence Anne has been induced by her father to marry another person, Anne says, "I am married."

"Ba. I know thou art, to me, my fairest Nan:
Our vows were made to Heaven, and on earth
They must be ratifide: in part they are,
By giving of a pledge, a piece of gold:
Which when we broke, joyntly then we swore,
Alive or dead, for to enjoy each other,
And so we will, spight of thy father's frownes."

And afterwards, Act iii. Sc. 1, Anne, seeing the ghost of young Bateman, who had hanged himself for her sake, exclaims:

"It stares, beckons, points to the peece of gold
We brake between us: looke, looke there, here--there!"

Sometimes a piece of money was broken, a practice referred to in Gays's What d'ye call It?

"Yet, justices, permit us, ere we part,
To break this Ninepence as you've broke our heart."
"Filbert (breaking the ninepence)--As this divides, thus are we torn in twain."
"Kitty (joining the pieces)--And as this meets, thus may we meet again."

The actual interchange of rings is seen in Shakespeare's Twelth Night. The priest, who had been privy to all that had passed, is charged by Olivia to reveal the circumstances, which he does in the following lines:

"A contract of eternal Bond of Love,
Confirm'd by mutual joinder of your hands,
Attested by the holy close of lips,
Strengthen'd by interchangement of your Rings,
And all the ceremony of this Compact
Seal'd in my function, by my testimony."

As to why or when the man refused to wear an engagement ring, there does not appear to be any reliable information. Possibly the wearing of a marriage ring by the woman, and the masculine aversion to visible signs of bondage, may have had something to do with it; at any rate the cause must be sought in psychological sources rather than in anything purely social.