How do you know someone is engaged to be married?
Today, we showcase engagement by wearing a ring on the fourth finger of our left hand. It’s a practice that is nearly as old as Western civilization – dating all the way back to the 300s, when Roman author Aulus Gellius wrote in Attic Nights that rings were worn on the fourth finger of the left hand because this finger contained the vein that led straight to the heart.
This 1,500-year-old ring was also used to show that a girl was going to be married. It was worn by Betta, and given to her by a warrior named Dromacius. And it tells us a lot about this couple, who lived in Merovingian Gaul (a region covering what is now France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands). Dromacius is shown holding a spear, a sign that he was a free man, not a slave. At each shoulder are a conjoined pair of profiled birds’ heads, probably some kind of motif, though we’re not sure what it means. The ring itself weighs 24 grams, which cost as much as buying a cow – indicating that Dromacius was of the middle or lower class.
Like today, this ring was symbolic – it showed a binding marriage contract. Unlike today, Betta’s consent was not important. Her parents negotiated the marriage. Once a betrothal was declared, Betta was given the ring by her betrothed, and the deal was sealed with a kiss. She may have been very young: one source tells of Rusticula, who was only 5-years-old when she was kidnapped and betrothed. Most girls were likely betrothed by the age of 12, though we’re not sure when marriage actually occurred.
This didn’t mean women like Betta would be totally powerless. As a wife, Betta played an active part in promoting the interests of her family and kin, and instilling in her children a loyalty to their maternal relatives. In so doing, Betta could exercise some political and social control on her family, including mobilizing them to defend the family’s honor and land in times of war.
This ring reminds us that today, like Betta, many girls are still not free to choose who they marry. In developing countries, 1 in every 3 girls is married before the age of 18, and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15. Most are poor like Betta – and the risk that they will die young (due to violence, pregnancy, or disease) is very high. It’s a risk over 1,500 years in the making.
Girl Museum Inc.
This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls’ history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.