Medieval Rings

les Enluminures

PRESENTATION

This site presents rings offered for sale by Les Enluminures. It includes a wide range of rings from the Ancient, Early Christian and Byzantine, Early Medieval, Gothic, and Renaissance and Baroque periods. There is also a section on later rings.  Photographs and full descriptions are available on the site. Visitors can search by type of ring, by stone, and by price range. Rings are frequently updated. Links guide users to research tools. Many of the rings are wearable. Every ring transmits a magical story of the past, centuries or even millennia old.

Sandra Hindman holds a PhD in medieval art history and is author of numerous books and articles on medieval manuscripts and medieval rings. She also has a diploma from the GIA.

INTRODUCTION

Decorative finger-rings are known already in the Ancient world as early as 2,500 B.C., discovered in tombs in Ur in the Near East. Today, the fashion for finger-rings endures, drawing on many traditions that date back at least to the Middle Ages. The magical allure of finger-rings is surrounded by a lore developed over more than four millennia.

Precious and everyday materials have long been used to craft finger-rings of gold, silver, bronze, glass, and carved stones like carnelian or lapis lazuli. But the most valuable finger-rings are made of gold. In the Ancient world the functional signet ring, inscribing the name or sign of the owner, developed alongside purely ornamental examples. The ritual ring, of religious and magical power or civic and state significance, survives as another type of finger-ring from Antiquity.

The evolution of the history of finger-rings in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is extraordinarily rich. People at all levels of society wore rings and for many different reasons. It was common to wear more than one ring at a time on any finger of the hand, and to wear them sometimes over gloves. Whereas some rings now appear unusually small or exceptionally large to us, medieval paintings and sculpture of the period reveal they were worn on the upper joint of the finger as well as on the thumb, on chains around the neck, and even on cords suspended from hats.

Our selection of finger-rings groups examples from western Europe and Byzantium that range in dates from c. 300 A.D. to post-c. 1650 A.D in different categories: Ancient, Early Christian and Byzantine, Early Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, and later. From this chronological classification evolves a construction of the history of the art of rings following the lines of other more monumental media. Rings fulfilled many of the same functions throughout these different periods. From Antiquity through the Renaissance rings were exchanged by friends and lovers and sealed engagements and marriages; these rings are often inscribed with posies or black letter sayings. They were used as expressions of religious beliefs or, sometimes, to engage in acts of popular devotion. Rings made statements about social status, secured family ties, or served as legal authentication during an era of anonymity; these are nominative and signet rings. Rings provided a fertile field for craftsmen to exercise their virtuosity in forging, soldering, chasing, engraving, carving, and polishing. Quite simply they were also worn as fashion accessories.

Every ring tells a story of the past. Most of them can easily be worn today, their magical allure intact.

The intimacy of rings

Often we notice only the outward appearance of things. Attracted by the sculptural forms and sparkling colors of rings, we willfully overlook their central and most significant feature, that is, the void. Indeed, the ring could even be thought of as the theatricality conferred on a circular empty space.

The relationship between owner and ring can be associated with this idea of a confined and intimate world. Possessing at the same time the ring and the finger it encircles, the owner has no need of someone else's regard or even of a mirror to admire what he or she wears. The ring is tied to the idea of completeness, which probably explains the oft-recounted burning desire to possess it. Different stories in literature from that of Gyges in Plato's Rebublic (Bk. II, 359) to Aladin in The Thousand and One Nights focus on the idea that the person who possesses a ring has “everything.” The ring signifies this “all,” this “totality.” In Herodotus (Bk. III, 40-43), the story of Polycrates who decides to give up what he values most--his ring--confirms this notion.

It is especially interesting that the technical vocabulary used for rings bears on some of these same concepts. Both in French and in English, many of the same words serve to designate certain parts of the ring and of the human body. Thus, in both instances, we refer to the body (Fr: corps ), the head (Fr: tête ), the shoulders (Fr: épaules), the shank (Fr: pied), and the size (Fr: taille). The informed reader, especially one well-versed in more vulgar slang expressions, will recognize explicitly sexual allusions among other French terms for parts of the ring (e.g., jonc , tige or “shaft,” panier , chaton or “pussy,” corbeille ). The vocabulary of rings borrows indiscriminately from both male and female sexual parts. Certain English words common in ring terminology have, like their French counterparts, similarly crude sexual connotations, e.g., box, head, shaft, etc.

The fact that it is a ring that is offered or exchanged during engagement and marriage ceremonies, that is, in contracts that engage the body is significant, and confirms the idea that there is a correspondence between the ring and the body. In a fairy tale by Charles Perrault entitled Donkey Skin , the ring becomes a metaphor for the body of the beautiful princess whose finger it will eventually fit. In courtly literature, the ring no longer stands in for the body in its entirety, but represents a precious part of it. For example, in a poem by Guillaume VI de Poitiers (1071-1127), the lover declares “she gives me a great gift, her love and her ring.” The same comparison is used in an erotic fable, L'anneau d'Hans Carvel, by La Fontaine (1621-1695) ….

Indeed, the relation between sexuality and jewelry is unmistakably established in the English and French languages alike by the familiar expression, the “family jewels” ( les bijoux de famille ) referring to the male genitalia. Similar metaphors exist in English; in Victorian times the word pearl was equated with clitoris (cf. Content, The Pearl and the Dragon , 1999, p. 29).

 

Dr. Reine Hadjadj
Independent Scholar, France
[translation by Sandra Hindman]

 

Further reading, Reine Hadjadj, Les bagues d'époque mérovingienne en Gaule du nord , 2 vols., thèse, Université Paris I—Pantheon-Sorbonne, 2004.