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(About) The Finest Collection of Medieval Rings Rings in the medieval period span the entire range of human symbolic meaning. They were treasure handed out by kings after victory in war. They were the tokens of pure devotion between lovers. They were an individual’s seal of personal authority. They were disposable currency to be chopped up for makeweight. The flexibility of what your ring means to you, and how you incorporate it into your medieval-inspired roleplay outfit or faithful re-enactment, is its hidden strength. Our medieval rings for sale, made by master jewellers and artisans, are so good you’ll find yourself wearing them every day.
With This Ring I Thee Wed Rings were associated with the act of marriage long before the medieval period, with the tradition of exchanging marital rings stretching back into the Classical past. Ancient Egyptians were likely the first to exchange rings in bethrothal, making simple rings from twisted reeds or flax – Egyptologists associate this gesture with the mythology and symbolic culture that associates the ring with the concept of eternity: it is from Dynastic Egypt that we get the concept of the circular ‘ourobouros’: a snake eating its own tail. The tradition of wedding rings spread to Egypt’s Greek neighbours, and thence to Rome, where wedding rings were first made from iron, copper and gold. The association of rings, wealth and the giving of dowries show that marriage was becoming a means of securing and advancing political power, as well as an expression of love.
Don’t Fede Away Wedding rings in the medieval period were made a wide variety of styles, each with their own meaning. A ring style that remains a popular template for modern medieval style rings is the fede ring. Fede rings, from the Italian fedes from the Latin fides, ‘faith’ or ‘loyalty’, became popular in the 3rd or 4th century, and remained popular in the early-medieval period: they feature designs incorporating two hands clasped together, and symbolise union and friendship. This early late-Roman example is likely the kind that would have been given in marriage ceremonies during the early-medieval period. This can be interpreted in several different ways. In the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon north and west of Europe, women in the early-medieval period were (by comparison with the more strongly Romanised areas of Europe) comparatively empowered: for example, the continental Salic Laws which mandated that fathers disinherit their daughters from property and power in their own right did not apply. Thus many women were property owners in their own right. Early-Medieval Irish law known as Brehon Law is thought of particularly egalitarian, even though Irish society was still a patriarchal warrior-society; divorce was a legal possibility for women, and there were different forms of marriage which took account of the property of independently wealthy women. Might the fede ring have symbolised marriage between equals? Or did it merely represent union between families, sealed by individuals who had little choice in the matter? That is a question which you can answer with your inclusion of a fede ring into your medieval roleplay costume or re-enactment outfit!
Rings of Power Studying the jewelry of a society is a fascinating way to understand the ways in which they think about themselves and the social relationships that they live within. Medieval rings exist close to the heart of medieval honor culture, often embodying the bonds between feudal lords and those pledged to serve them.
Feudalism Feudal society was concerned above all with order and hierarchy. A rarely-sung verse of Cecil Frances Alexander’s 1887 hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, although it was written a while after the end of the medieval period, sums up the organising concept of medieval feudalism: “The rich man in his castle, / The poor man at his gate, / God made them, high and lowly, / And ordered their estate.” Since all earthly power derived from the divinely ordained monarch, lords were given the ‘right’ to rule over and derive income from their lands in return for military and political service to the monarch. In their turn, peasants were given the ‘right’ to live on their lord’s land and be governed, in return for service and taxes. This differed in specifics in various places and times – for example, Carolinian lords in the 800s CE did not ‘own’ their own lands and were merely ‘enfeoffed’ with land that formally belonged to the King, whereas later English lords in the 14th- and 15th-centuries held lands in their own right and therefore had a greater degree of political independence – but in the general set of feudal relationships characterised the whole of the medieval period. We can see the evolution of the giving and receiving of rings from the mists of the Dark Ages, into a key part of High Medieval courtly ritual.
Early Medieval Rings: Spoils of War and Ring Swords The reason that the Dark Ages are dark is because of the lack of written sources that shed illumination onto the kind of society – but there are a few shafts of light that can give us an idea of the use of medieval rings. Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature associates rings with the idea that a king was the one to distribute treasure to his followers in exchange for loyalty. The Anglo-Saxon collection of instructional poetry known as Maxims II advises that “Cyning sceal on healle / beagas dælan”, ‘a king must share out rings in the hall’, and the Old English poem Beowulf, set in 6th-century Scandinavia and transcribed some time around 1000 CE, refers to kings with allusions as ‘giver of treasure’, and ‘distributor of rings’. It isn’t a leap to imagine how the practise of handing out the spoils of war gradually evolved into the feudal practise of endowing faithful lords with land – and how rings, as signifiers of value, became symbolically associated with this process. Dating from the same period is a unique type of sword known as the ‘ring sword’. These were early-medieval swords which incorporate a ring into the hilt. Some of these were clearly wearable rings that had likely been once worn (or at very least would have been wearable before attachment), and then welded or riveted onto a loop, such as this 6th-century Anglo-Saxon ring sword – note the distinctly different colour metal between the ring and the hilt. However, we gradually see the abstraction away from a moveable, wearable medieval ring, to the symbolic representation of a ring-like shape in the hilt – such as this wholly ornamental, immovable ring-shape pommel from around 700 CE at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. Perhaps we are seeing in real time the change in understanding of the role of medieval rings: from treasure given out to reward loyalty in war, to a token of loyalty kept close to one’s side, finally to the symbolic representation of the oath itself in the form of an abstracted medieval ring shape.
Signet Rings When building your own fantasy LARP impression or re-enactment outfit, a signet ring would be a fantastic choice, either signifying nobility and officialdom, or upward aspiration and burgeoning wealth. Signet rings are thought of generally as men’s medieval rings, but many powerful women had their own signets – Isabella of Castile and Eleanor of Aquitaine to pick but two!
Seals Through The Ages Seals and signets have a long history, stretching all the way back to ancient Mesapotamia, where carved ivory cylinders were used by individuals of high-status to impress wet clay with an identifying mark. Sealing official documents with wax or other substances was an invention from the Classical world, and this wax would be pressed with an imprint, like an official signature. These would have originally been sealed with a blob of lead, a practise retained by the Papacy for their ‘Papal bulls’ throughout the medieval period to the modern day (from bullae meaning a ‘blob’). We see sealed regal documents in the historical record from the 11th-century CE onward, with even commoners adopting the use of simple sealing wax and stamps by the 14th-century. King Edward II of England decreed that all of the official documents of the Crown would henceforth bear his personal signet – was this a response to the public fashion for signet rings, or perhaps even an attempt to forestall forgery?
Medieval Heraldry and Signets Carved rings had been used to carry the seals of high-status individuals for thousands of years, with examples found in ancient Egypt and Byzantium, and so with the generalising of the use of sealing, so many people adopted their own signet rings for stamping their sealed documents. These were often made from intaglio gems, with agate, carnelian, and sardonyx prized for not binding with the sticky beeswax-resin mixture used in the medieval period. With the rise of heraldry as a means of personal identification in the 12th-century, signets were often inscribed with a personal coat-of-arms – wealthy commoners would often invent their own symbols. However, the highly personal nature of the signet ring meant that they were frequently destroyed after the death of the individual; it’d be like having your PIN number just lying around! This has meant that most of the surviving medieval rings which bear signets are noble heraldic signets, handed down through aristocratic families.
Fantasy Rings No analysis of medieval rings would be complete without mentioning The Lord of the Rings. JRR Tolkien wove the early-medieval Anglo-Saxon ring culture we examined earlier into his grand mythology, where the Dark Lord Sauron incorporated his evil into the rings he gave to the Elves, Dwarves and Men, and created in secret a master-ring to bring about their downfall. It is likely he also took inspiration from Norse mythology, in which Andvaranaut (‘Andvari’s Gift’) is a magic ring which bestows the wearer with the ability to discover gold – but it was cursed by its maker, and it drives the Dwarf Fafnir insane with jealousy, causing him to murder his brother for his share of their gold and to transform into a jealous dragon. Interestingly, it is likely that Tolkien took the very name of his literary cycle from the Old English poem Beowulf, in which the titular character is called the ‘lord of the rings’, reflecting his role as the distributor of treasure – a trope which Tolkien masterfully subverted.
(History) Viking Rings Vikings appear to have frequently worn arm-rings and neck-rings – large twisted or plain rings made from iron, copper or silver – but we have also found large numbers of delicate finger-rings, particularly in the graves of Norse men and women in the Late Viking Age from 1000 CE onward. Their distribution seems to bear little distinction between genders; hence our Viking ring designs make excellent medieval rings for men. All of the Viking ring types, large and small, are frequently penannular: this means that they were made as an incomplete circle, like this beautiful Anglo-Scandinavian penannular ring, made from twisted silver.. There is much debate in academic circles as to why this style is so common – penannular rings are difficult to manufacture, but they may have merely been a matter of taste. However, penannular rings are easy to bend into shape to fit a new wearer, it might indicate that Viking rings were passed from hand to hand in foreign trade. These finger-rings have found their way into hoards of the Viking trade-by-weight silver currency, known as ‘hacksilver’, such as this ring found in the Cuerdale Hoard. Might it be that at least some Viking rings were made with this use partly in mind, designed to be a beautiful adornment with a dual purpose of trade? Some of our medieval rings for sale take inspiration from Viking art. Stunning examples of this have been found, such as on the Runestones on mainland Sweden which record the Vikings in their own words, or the spectacularly well-preserved Oseberg Ship with its abstracted intertwined animalistic plait work. The 12th-century Urnes Stave Church on the fjords of Norway is also a famous source of inspiration for jewellers making medieval-style rings, the widespread style of Viking art that it represented being named the ‘Urnes style’ – it has spawned countless modern replications and interpretations from the 19th-century to the present day.