The Vein of Love and the Ring Finger May 15, 2015Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval , trackback
A beautifully realised graphic history of the engagment ring by Vashi led to thoughts about why, in the Western World, the wedding ring is worn on the ring finger, the third finger of the left hand counting from the index. The answer most authorities give, from nineteenth-century reference works, to modern wedding miscellanies, to early modern church texts is ‘the heart’. So in Henry Swinburne, A Treaty of Spousals (published posthumously in 1686 but written in the 1620s) Swinburne claims ‘by the received opinion of the learned and experienced in Ripping up and anatomizing men’s Bodies, there is a vein of Blood which passeth from that fourth finger unto the Heart, called Vena Amoris, Love’s Vein. And so the wearing of the Ring on that finger signifieth that the love should not be vain or fained.’
Swinburne, a lawyer incidentally not a surgeon, was by no means the first authority to pronounce on Love’s Vein. Several late medieval English missals, for instance, had opined that the ring was placed on the ring finger, ‘there to remain quia in illo digito est qaedam vena procedens usque ad cor [because in that finger is a vein that leads to the heart]’. John of Salisbury talks about a nerve from the heart to the ring finger in the twelfth century. Hincmar of Rheims notes that bishops are to place the ring of office on this finger in the ninth century, though gives us no reason: he also confusingly insists on the right hand. The idea was, in any case, much more ancient than the Middle Ages, to whom it had been handed down by Isidore of Seville, the influential seventh-century encyclopediast: ‘Men’ wrote Isidore ‘have begun to wear a ring on their fourth finger [suggesting a recent development in Spain?] starting from the thumb, since there is vein here which links it to the heart – something which the ancients thought worth noting and honouring’ (‘Anulos hominess primum gestare coeperunt quarto a police digito, quod eo uena quedam ad cor usque pertingat, quod notandam orandamque aliquot insigni ueteres putauerunt’ 19, 32).
Two Roman works strongly suggest that the notion of the ring finger (and not just for weddings) dated back to the ancient Mediterranean and more specifically to Egypt. In the fifth century, at the very end of the western Empire, Macrobius, who may have been resident in Egypt, talks of: ‘a certain nerve that arises in the heart runs forward all the way to the finger next to the pinky on the left hand and ends there, entangled with all the other nerves of that finger. For that reason the ancients decided to surround that finger with a ring, as though with a crown’ (nervum quendam de corde natum priorsum pergere usque ad digitum manus sinistrae minimo proximum, et illic desinere implicatum ceteris eiusdem digiti nervis; et ideo visum veteribus ut ille digitus anulo tamquam corona circumdaretur.)
Apion, a first-century (AD) Egyptian writer had, meanwhile, also apparently written on the ring finger, though we have only a summary of the now lost passage in Aulus Gellius, a second-century Roman: with dissection ‘it was found that a very fine nerve proceeded from that finger [the ring finger] alone of which we have spoken, and made its way to the human heart; that it, therefore, seemed quite reasonable that this finger in particular should be honoured with such an ornament [a ring], since it seems to be joined, and as it were united, with that supreme organ, the heart’ (repertum est nervum quendam tenuissimum ab eo uno digito, de quo diximus, ad cor hominis pergere ac pervenire; propterea non inscitum visum esse eum potissimum digitum tali honore decorandum, qui continens et quasi conexus esse cum principatu cordis videretur.) Macrobius does not give any information that cannot be found in Aulus save for one point. The ring fingers of statues of Egyptian gods were apparently anointed with perfume in the temples. Had he got this directly from Apion? Or perhaps he had another source: the ring finger was also known as ‘the medicinal finger’ and appears in this role in other Roman texts and even some Egyptian papyri. Both writers, meanwhile, were slavish in recognizing (as some other Romans and many Greeks) the priority of Egypt in human knowledge.
So much for the origins of the custom. What about the science? Well, the first thing to say is that while medieval and early modern texts talk about a vein (with the exception of John of Salisbury), both our Roman sources use the word nervus or ‘nerve’ (or, in some contexts, muscle). The idea is the same then, but the vehicle by which the finger is connected to the heart changes. Of course, no nerve connects the heart to any finger: perhaps Aulus mistranslated Apion here (note the reference to a ‘tangle’ in Macrobius which sounds more like veins)? But beneath the little and ring finger there is the vena salvatella which leads heartwards. Stretch out your left hand and that finger is, in fact, the closest to your heart. A lot is written about the ‘nonsense’ of the Egyptian ‘science’ of the ring finger: but in anatomical terms a vein from the ring finger to the heart adds up well enough, albeit via other joined veins. There is also a more practical consideration for putting rings there. The ring finger is the most restricted of our fingers: it cannot easily move independently of the little and middle finger. The ring finger on the left hand is (at least for those of us who are right-handed) perhaps the least used finger of all: a ring placed on the ring finger is less likely to bruise or otherwise get in the way.
Other thoughts or evidence for rings fingers: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
31 May 2015: Nathaniel notes in relation to the different hands ‘Many years ago (actually decades now) I worked with some Russians. They thought it was strange that Americans wore wedding rings on the left hand. Russians wear theirs on the right.’ Thanks, Nathaniel!