If a child were to ask its mother who wore the first wedding ring, and the mother were to pass the question on to the historian of social customs, the historian would have to confess not only that he did not know, but that it would be impossible to assign even an approximate date when such rings became a feature in social life. We know from Juvenal (Satire vi.) that the Romans used such rings; we know that the Greeks used them as far back as we can trace; they are found in Egyptian tombs; they appear to have been part of the customs of the earliest civilisations we can trace. It was this "Heathen" origin of the wedding ring which well nigh caused the abolition of it during the time of the Commonwealth.
The facetious author of Hudibras gives us the following chief reasons why the Puritans wished it to be set aside:--
"Others were for abolishing
That tool of matrimony, a ring,
With which the unsanctify'd bridegroom
Is marry'd only to a Thumb,
(As wise as ringing of a pig
That us'd to break up ground and dig)
The Bride to nothing but her will,
That nulls the After-Marriage still."
The ring is essentially emblematic, a point which is quaintly stated by Swinburne in his Treatise of Spousals. "The first inventor of the ring, as is reported [he cites Alberic de Rosa in suo Dictionar. v. Annulus], was one Prometheus. The workman which made it was Tubal-Cain: and Tubal-Cain, by the counsel of our first parent, Adam, gave it unto his Son to this end, that therewith he should espouse a Wife, like as Abraham delivered unto his servants bracelets and earrings of gold. The form of the Ring being circular, that is round and without end, importeth thus much, that their mutual love and hearty affection should roundly flow from the one to the other as in a Circle, and that continually and for ever."
History records variations in the use of certain fingers for wearing the ring. The Hereford, York, and Salisbury missals direct the ring to be placed on the thumb first of all; then on the second finger, the third, and afterwards the fourth, "where it is to remain." A writer in the British Apollo (1708) answers a question:--"Why is it that the person to be married is enjoyned to put a Ring upon the fourth finger of his spouse's left hand?" It is answered, "There is nothing more in this, than that the custom was handed down to the present age from the practice of our ancestors, who found the left hand more convenient for such ornaments than the right, in that it's ever less employed; for the same reason they chose the fourth finger, which is not only less used than either of the rest, but is more capable of preserving a Ring from bruises, having this one quality peculiar to itself, that it cannot be extended but in company with some other finger, whereas the rest may be singly stretched to their full length and straightness.
"Some of the ancients were of opinion, in this matter, that the ring was so worn because to that finger, and to that only, comes an artery from the heart; but the politer knowledge of our modern anatomists having clearly demonstrated the absurdity of that notion, we are rather inclined to believe the continuance of the custom owing to the reason above mentioned."
Bride-cakes originated with us by adoption from a Roman custom called confarreation, where marriage was solemnly concluded in the presence of ten witnesses, a cake of wheat or barley being eaten at the same time. Herrick in his Hesperides speaking to the bride says:--
"While some repeat
Your praise, and bless you, sprinkling you with wheat."
It is difficult to trace the changes which mark the history of bride-cakes; at one period as the bride left the church wheat was thrown upon her head; in a later period the wheat has disappeared altogether and we have bride-cakes, i.e. a supply of them at a single wedding--still later we can trace the one cake as we know it to-day in all its elaborateness. The custom of passing slices of cake through the wedding ring has gone out of fashion; although, we are told, maidens still puts such slices under their pillows and dream of their lovers.