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Wedding Ring Customs and Finger-Ring Lore

In the ancient ritual of marriage the ring was placed by the husband on the top of the thumb of the left hand, with the words, ‘In the name of the Father;’ he then removed it to the forefinger, saying, ‘and of the Son,’ then to the middle finger, adding, ‘and of the Holy Ghost ;’ finally he left it on the fourth finger, with the closing word ‘Amen.’

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The English ‘ Book of Common Prayer ‘ orders that the ring should be placed on the fourth finger of the woman’s left hand. The spousal manuals of York and Salisbury assign this practical reason for the selection of this finger : ‘quia in illo digito est quaedam vena procedens usque ad cor.’ (because a vein that goes to the heart is present there) Other reasons than its connection with the heart are assigned by Macrobius. The author of the ‘ Vulgar Errors ‘ had entirely overthrown this anatomical fiction.

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On the subject of ring-fingers, a ‘Polyglot Dictionary’ by John Minshew (1625) says: ‘Vetus versiculus singulis digitis Annulum tribuens, Miles, Mercator, Stultus, Maritus, Amator. Pollici adscribitur Militi, seu Doctori ; Mercatorum, a pollice secundum ; Stultorum, tertium ; Nuptorum vel Studiosorum, quartinum ; Amatorum, uitimum.’ (An old poem assigns a ring to individual fingers: Soldier, Merchant, Fool, Husband, Lover. The thumb is given the Soldier’s or the Doctor’s ring, the finger second from the thumb has the Merchants’ ring, the third one has the ring of Fools, the fourth finger has the Husbands’ or Students’ ring, the last one has the ring of Lovers)

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Amongst the Hebrews, the finger of God denoted his power, and it was the forefingers of the gods of Greece and Italy which wore the ring, the emblem of divine supremacy. Why the ring is worn on the left hand is said to signify the subjection of the wife to the husband ; the right hand signifies power, independence, authority, the left dependence or subjection.

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‘Rings in modern times,’ remarks Madame de Barrera, have been made in some countries Love’s telegraph. If a gentleman wants a wife, he wears a ring on the first finger of the left hand ; if he be engaged, he wears it on the second finger ; if married, on the third ; and on the fourth if he never intends to be married. When a lady is not engaged she wears a hoop or diamond on her first finger if engaged, on her second ; if married, on the third ; and on the fourth, if she intends to die a maid. As no rules are given for widows, it is presumed that the ornamenting of the right hand, and the little finger of the left, is exclusively their prerogative.’

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The Greek Church directs that the ring be put on the right hand, and such may have been the practice in England, since Rastell, in his counter-challenge to Bishop Jewell, notes it as a novelty of the Reformation that the man should put the wedding-ring on the fourth finger in the left hand of the woman, and not in the right hand as hath been many hundreds of years continued.’

See also:

Promise Rings: History and Meaning