Manners, Customs, and Observances:
Their Origin and Significance
by Leopold Wagner
The chapter on courtship and marriage is a must-read.
On the Nuptial Kiss at the Altar:
174. The Nuptial Kiss at the Altar is all that remains to us of an ancient ceremony which always preceded the actual Marriage Service by a longer or shorter period, according to circumstances. This was the Espousals, or Solemn Betrothal. Generally speaking, the gift of a betrothal ring by the bridegroom-elect to the bride-elect was considered sufficiently binding; but in an age when it was the custom to invite the blessing of the Church upon all the more serious transactions of life, public espousals were, taking the population all round, matters of everyday occurrence. Besides, it often happened that a love-sick swain was not sufficiently endowed with this world's goods to give his future wife anything more substantial than an espousal kiss. When this was the case, he naturally wished all his acquaintance to bear witness to the fact that the young lady was solemnly engaged to him, and that he meant to carry out his intention of marrying her at the earliest opportunity. It was this espousal kiss, before witnesses, which marked the difference between a sentimental compact, and one of a purely mundane character. The mere joining of hands following words of promise sufficed to ratify all ordinary bargains; but when the contractors joined lips as well as hands, they breathed into each other the breath of life, and their spiritual union was complete. Yet the kiss and joining of hands was only part of the espousal ceremony. Like the modern Jews, the betrothed pair went through a ceremonial which differed only from the actual Marriage Service in that their mutual promises therein were expressed in the future tense instead of in the present. In conclusion, they pledged each other in a cup of wine, as do the Jews and the Russians at the present day. This pledging each other in wine, it should be observed, is nothing more than a survival of the once universal custom of parties drinking together in ratification of a bargain.
And on wedding rings:
177. The origin of the Wedding Ring must be sought among the ancient Egyptians, who regarded the bracelet as the symbol of marriage, because, being round, it was endless. Egyptian wives wore no other ornaments than a pair of bracelets. Among the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and other nations of antiquity, the bracelet had the like signification. The Jewish women, we read, were so fond of these ornaments that they wore them on their ankles as well as on their arms. Hence the allusion in Isaiahto "the jingling ornaments on the feet of the haughty daughters of Jerusalem." To this day married women in the East are addicted to wearing bracelets so massive as to greatly oppress the wearer. This, like the long finger-nails of the Chinese, is looked upon as indicative of high birth, inasmuch as they are thereby rendered incapable of personal exertion. On the overthrow of the Persian empire by the Greeks, they, being a highly imaginative people, and observing that most of the leaders of the vanquished host wore bracelets on their wrists as ornaments of distinction, invested their brides-elect with a miniature bracelet, to be worn on the medicated finger (see 178); and themselves bestowed bracelets upon their heroes and generals as rewards of valour. By this means the original symbolism of the bracelet was in part destroyed; but a deeper significance attached itself to the plain gold band upon the finger, which was supposed to have a direct communication with the heart. The Romans, who copied nearly everything from the Greeks, also rewarded their military heroes with bracelets as badges of honour. Like the Greeks, too, they bestowed a plain gold ring upon their brides-elect, in strict accordance with a time-honoured custom amongst themselves of delivering a ring as an earnest upon the conclusion of a bargain. In the course of the marriage ceremony, however, the betrothal ring was exchanged for the bridegroom's signet, the emblem of investiture and authority (see 28), to show that the newlymade wife was fully admitted into her husband's confidence, that he endowed her with equal rights with himself over his property. Though at first the marriage ring was a signet, it eventually gave place to a plain one of iron, called a ronubum, symbolical of the lasting character of the contract. It was not until after they had seen the wedding ring come into general use among the Roman conquerors of the East that the Jews adopted it in their own marriage rite. Wedding rings did not obtain in the Christian Marriage Service until the ninth century. The Anglo-Saxons established the custom of wearing plain gold rings, and these have been worn by married women ever since. There is no rubric on the subject; a ring is all the Church stipulates for. Consequently, we sometimes hear of a bride being married with the ring of the church-door key, in the absence of the more desirable article.
178. The custom of wearing the Wedding Ring on the fourth Finger of the Left Hand had unquestionably a pagan origin. Both the Greeks and the Romans called the fourth left-hand finger the Medicated Finger, and used it to stir up mixtures and potions, out of the belief that it contained a vein which communicated directly with the heart, and therefore nothing noxious could come in contact with it without giving instant warning to that vital organ. When the ring supplanted the bracelet as the symbol of matrimony (see 177), the deep sentimentality of the Greeks dictated that it should be worn on the medicated finger. The fallacy of the connection between that finger and the heart was in more modern times completely exploded, but after such long usage the so-called medicated finger still continued to be the annular. Some attempts were indeed made to improve matters by shifting the ring on to the corresponding finger of the right hand, as was, and is, the custom of bishops and cardinals (see 28); yet it was not long before the improvers reverted to the old order. To commence with, the left hand was found to be more suitable, because less used, as the depository of such ornaments than the right. With regard to the finger, our forefathers knew very well that the fourth finger was used much more sparingly than any of the others, so a ring placed on that finger would be little liable to be bruised or damaged; for whereas the other fingers can be put out singly to their full length, the fourth, or ring fihger, cannot be extended in this way except in company with the rest.