History of the wearing of rings
Rings.—I. IN GENERAL.—Although the surviving ancient rings, proved by their devices, provenance, etc., to be of Christian origin, are fairly numerous (See Fortnum in "Arch. Journ.", XXVI, 141, and XXVIII, 275), we cannot in most cases identify them with any liturgical use. Christians no doubt, just like other people, wore rings in accordance with their station in life, for rings are mentioned without reprobation in the New Testament (Luke, xv, 22, and James, ii, 2): Moreover, St. Clement of Alexandria (Pied., III, c. xi) says that a man might lawfully wear a ring on his little finger, and that it should bear some religious emblem—a dove, or a fish, or an anchor though, on the other hand, Tertullian, St. Cyprian, and the Apostolic Constitutions (I, iii) protest against the ostentation of Christians in decking themselves with rings and gems. In any case the Acts of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas (c. xxi), about the beginning of the third century, inform us of how the martyr Saturus took a ring from the finger of Pudens, a soldier who was looking on, and gave it back to him as a keepsake, covered with his own blood.
Knowing, as we do, that in the pagan days of Rome every flamen Dialis (i. e., a priest specially consecrated to the worship of Jupiter) had, like the senators, the privilege of wearing a gold ring, it would not be surprising to find evidence in the fourth century that rings were worn by Christian bishops. But the various passages that have been appealed to, to prove this, are either not authentic or else are inconclusive. St. Augustine indeed speaks of his sealing a letter with a ring (Ep. ccxvii, in P.L., XXXIII, 227), but on the other hand his contemporary Possidius expressly states that Augustine himself wore no ring (P.L., XXXII, 53), whence we are led to conclude that the possession of a signet does not prove the use of a ring as part of the episcopal insignia. However, in a Decree of Pope Bonif ace IV (A.D. 610) we hear of monks raised to the episcopal dignity as anulo pontificali subarrhatis, while at the Fourth Council of Toledo, in 633, we are told that if a bishop has been deposed from his office, and is afterwards reinstated, he is to receive back stole, ring, and crosier (orarium, anulum et baculum). St. Isidore of Seville at about the same period couples the ring with the crosier and declares that the former is conferred as "an emblem of the pontifical dignity or of the sealing of secrets" (P.L., LXXXIII, 783). From this time forth it may be assumed that the ring was strictly speaking an episcopal ornament conferred in the rite of consecration, and that it was commonly regarded as emblematic of the betrothal of the bishop to his Church. In the eighth and ninth centuries in MSS. of the Gregorian Sacramentary and in a few early Pontificals (e.g., that attributed to Archbishop Egbert of York) we meet with various formulae for the delivery of the ring. The Gregorian form, which survives in substance to the present day, runs in these terms: "Receive the ring, that is to say the seal of faith, whereby thou, being thyself adorned with spotless faith, mayst keep unsullied the troth which thou hast pledged to the spouse of God, His holy Church."
These two ideas—namely of the seal, indicative of discretion, and of conjugal fidelity—dominate the symbolism attaching to the ring in nearly all its liturgical uses. The latter idea was pressed so far in the case of bishops that we find ecclesiastical decrees enacting that "a bishop deserting the Church to which he was consecrated and transferring himself to another is to be held guilty of adultery and is to be visited with the same penalties as a man who, forsaking his own wife, goes to live with another woman" (Du Saussay, "Panoplia episcopalis", 250). It was perhaps this idea of espousals which helped to establish the rule, of which we hear already in the ninth century, that the episcopal ring was to be placed on the fourth finger (i.e., that next the little finger) of the right hand. As the pontifical ring had to be worn on occasion over the glove, it is a common thing to find medieval specimens large in size and proportionately heavy in execution. The inconvenience of the looseness thus resulting was often met by placing another smaller ring just above it as a keeper (see Lacy, "Exeter Pontifical", 3). As the pictures of the medieval and Renaissance periods show, it was formerly quite usual for bishops to wear other rings along with the episcopal ring; indeed the existing "Caeremoniale episcoporum" (Bk. II, viii, nn. 10-11) assumes that this is still likely to be the case. Custom prescribes that a layman or a cleric of inferior grade on being presented to a bishop should kiss his hand, that is to say his episcopal ring, but it is a popular misapprehension to suppose that any indulgence is attached to the act. Episcopal rings, both at an earlier and later period, were sometimes used as receptacles for relics. St. Hugh of Lincoln had such a ring which must have been of considerable capacity. (On investiture by ring and staff see The Conflict of Investitures.)
Besides bishops, many other ecclesiastics are privileged to wear rings. The pope of course is the first of bishops, but he does not habitually wear the signet ring distinctive of the papacy and known as "the Ring of the Fisherman" (see below in this article), but usually a simple cameo, while his more magnificent pontifical rings are reserved for solemn ecclesiastical functions. Cardinals also wear rings independently of their grade in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The ring belonging to the cardinalitial dignity is conferred by the pope himself in the consistory in which the new cardinal is named to a particular "title". It is of small value and is set with a sapphire, while it bears on the inner side of the bezel the arms of the pope conferring it. In practice the cardinal is not required to wear habitually the ring thus presented, and he commonly prefers to use one of his own. The privilege of wearing a ring has belonged to cardinal-priests since the time of Innocent III or earlier (see Sagmuller, "Thatigkeit and Stellung der Cardinale", 163). Abbots in the earlier Middle Ages were permitted to wear rings only by special privilege. A letter of Peter of Blois in the twelfth century (P.L., CCVII, 283) shows that at that date the wearing of a ring by an abbot was apt to be looked upon as a piece of ostentation, but in the later Pontificals the blessing and delivery of a ring formed part of the ordinary ritual for the consecration of an abbot, and this is still the case at the present day. On the other hand, there is no such ceremony indicated in the blessing of an abbess, though certain abbesses have received, or assumed, the privilege of wearing a ring of office. The ring is also regularly worn by certain other minor prelates, for example prothonotaries, but the privilege cannot be said to belong to canons as such (B. de Montault, "Le costume, etc.", I, 170) without special indult. In any case such rings cannot ordinarily be worn by these minor prelates during the celebration of Mass. The same restriction, it need hardly be said, applies to the ring which is conferred as part of the insignia of the doctorate either of theology or of canon law.
The plain rings worn by certain orders of nuns and conferred upon them in the course of their solemn profession, according to the ritual provided in the Roman Pontifical, appear to find some justification in ancient tradition. St. Ambrose (P.L., XVII, 701, 735) speaks as though it were a received custom for virgins consecrated to God to wear a ring in memory of their betrothal to their heavenly Spouse. This delivery of a ring to professed nuns is also mentioned by several medieval Pontificals, from the twelfth century onwards. Wedding rings, or more strictly, rings given in the betrothal ceremony, seem to have been tolerated among Christians under the Roman Empire from a quite early period. The use of such rings was of course of older date than Christianity, and there is not much to suggest that the giving of the ring was at first incorporated in any ritual or invested with any precise religious significance. But it is highly probable that, if the acceptance and the wearing of a betrothal ring was tolerated among Christians, such rings would have been adorned with Christian emblems. Certain extant specimens, more particularly a gold ring found near Arles, belonging apparently to the fourth or fifth century, and bearing the inscription, Tecla vivat Deo cum marito seo [suo], may almost certainly be assumed to be Christian espousal rings. In the coronation ceremony, also, it has long been the custom to deliver both to the sovereign and to the queen consort a ring previously blessed. Perhaps the earliest example of the use of such a ring is in the case of Judith, the step-mother of Alfred the Great. It is however in this instance a little difficult to determine whether the ring was bestowed upon the queen in virtue of her dignity as queen consort or of her nuptials to Ethelwulf.
Rings have also occasionally been used for other religious purposes. At an early date the small keys which contained filings from the chains of St. Peter seem to have been welded to a band of metal and worn upon the finger as reliquaries. In more modern times rings have been constructed with ten small knobs or protuberances, and used for saying the rosary.
II. THE RING OF THE FISHERMAN.—The earliest mention of the Fisherman's ring worn by the popes is in a letter of Clement IV written in 1265 to his nephew, Peter Grossi. The writer states that popes were then accustomed to seal their private letters with "the seal of the Fisherman", whereas public documents, he adds, were distinguished by the leaden "bulls" attached (see Bulls and Briefs). From the fifteenth century, however, the Fisherman's ring has been used to seal the class of papal official documents known as Briefs. The Fisherman's ring is placed by the cardinal camerlengo on the finger of a newly elected pope. It is made of gold, with a representation of St. Peter in a boat, fishing, and the name of the reigning pope around it.
MAURICE M. HASSETT