How much of a role did romance have in marriage? Are the rings an example of love and affection, or were they merely part of a marriage custom? If these rings held less symbolism on love than on commitment or ownership, why were they decorated and inscribed with such detail? Can it be inferred that if rings were given as tokens of love and affection, then romance existed for Renaissance men and women? By examining the object with written documentation, these questions spark new inquiry into the social ideologies behind love and marriage in the Renaissance.
A gentleman holds out a ring set with a large gem to a lady. From an English Psalter approx. C1310-1325. (Scarisbrick, p.40)
The custom of bestowing a ring upon a betrothed bride has a long and evolved history. Historians date early wedding rituals involving rings to ancient antiquity. As tradition developed, church ceremonies began to center on the ring. George Kunz explains that the ring was placed on the fourth finger because it was thought that a vein in this finger led straight to the heart. (Kunz, p.194)
A Gimmel Ring with Inscription (Scarisbrick, p.5)
From the mid-sixteenth to the close of the eighteenth century, it became customary to inscribe wedding or betrothal rings. Gimmel, fede, and plain gold rings, have been discovered with inscriptions of affection and love. Some examples are: "A loving wife, a happy life"; "Be trew in hart"; "Forget not he who loveth thee"; and "I fancy none but you alone". (Dalton, pp.174-188) Sentiments such as these can provide historians with primary evidence that romance and affection may have played a part in the marriage and betrothal process in the Renaissance.
Romances of the Middle Ages asserted notions of lust, love, and affection between men and women. In Chretien de Troyes Yvain, a knight stays away too long from his lady and looses her love. She sends a servant to tell him he has lost her.
Not only did Yvain go mad from the departure of his love, but this story also indicates that a ring was a symbol of betrothal in the medieval period. It was an object that could represent love, or the loss of love, when taken away.
Marriage of Francis to Poverty, By a follower of Giotto (Meiss, fig. 102)
Pictoral images reveal that Renaissance artists included the ceremony of the ring in illustrations of marriage. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber asserts that the gesture, the finger, and the ring were to figure from about 1300 onwards in a wealth of representations of marriage. (Zuber, p.201)
From the early Renaissance literature, historians note a change in the concept of love. By the sixteenth and seventeenth century, N.H. Keeble asserts that "mutual love" became the heart of marriage. (Keeble, ed., p.116) She writes that the romantic love which Medieval literature found so hard to accommodate within marriage (courtly love poetry), was now an essential ingredient of it. This is demonstrated in A Preparative to Marriage (1591), where Henry Smith asserts that the union of marriage is honourable.
Can we then combine this knowledge and assume that from the existance of betrothal and wedding rings, portraits, and through primary texts on romance, that the ring represented romantic ideologies that existed in the Renaissance? Has an analysis of an artifact like a ring added to the exploration of this period in history? Have we been able to ask more interesting and unique questions of the society through material culture? Please see my section on Historiography to exaime some of the interdisciplinary methodologies and relevant studies involving artifact analysis and Renaissance social history.