Rings are the most numerous survival of all medieval jewellery. The Victoria and Albert Museum has an impressive collection, with signet rings, bejeweled rings, rings shaped like lions, rings as broaches, and rings as love letters. Rings represented a whole range of relationships. They were given at betrothals and marriages, but also as less formal declarations of love, friendship, or political allegiance. With so many rings surviving, at first glance there might not seem anything particularly remarkable about this specific object. Yet my research has shown this ring is far from typical – from the material used to the message engraved both literally and metaphorically on the object, this ring tells a unique and intriguing story.
The ring in question was made in France around the fifteenth century. It consists of a gold hoop and an onyx cameo held in a scalloped setting. The cameo is of a female bust in profile. She wears an elaborately wrapped headdress which ties under her chin, executed in great detail, and a frankly quite low-cut dress. The onyx itself is layered in black and white, the white layer providing the bust and the black the contrasting background. Inside the hoop is an inscription, written in French in Gothic blackletter script which reads, ‘dung + seul + regart + vous + doibt + suffire’, or ‘You must be satisfied with just one glance’. Rings engraved with inscriptions such as this were known as posies, from the word for poetry, and were given as love tokens in the late medieval period.
Whilst the use of gold to make rings was typical among the wealthy in this period, the use of onyx was far less common. The difficulty in obtaining it, the extensive skill required to work it, and consequently the cost of acquiring such a finely worked stone are all possible reasons why onyx might have been coveted for a piece of jewellery, but indeed also why it was rarely used. Shell was far cheaper and far easier to carve than onyx, and was thus more common, but this cannot be the only reason why onyx was neglected. We can gain further insight into contemporary thoughts about onyx by looking at medieval lapidaries – texts which describe the virtues and symbolic significance of precious stones, as well as their magical and medicinal qualities. From these texts we can see that some unusual ideas about onyx were circulating in this period. Marbode of Rennes in his eleventh-century text, De Lapidibus, claimed onyx was capable of forming spirits in sleep and causing nightmares – ‘Called by the Onyx round the sleeper stand | Black dreams, and phantoms rise, a grisly band’. Marbode also cautioned that, suspended around the neck or, significantly, bound to the finger, the wearer will be ‘plagued with strife and with evil frays’. Similarly Albertus Magnus, writing in the thirteenth century, warned that onyx ‘induces sorrow and fear’, whilst Ibn al-Baitar, an Islamic scientist, born in Malaga, Spain, at the end of the twelfth century, wrote that onyx brought sorrow, bad dreams, and discord.
What was the function of such a ring? As well as being worn simply as a fashionable status piece, rings often marked special occasions or poignant moments in a person’s life, and they therefore held great emotional and personal value alongside their financial worth. Rings were given to mark betrothals or marriage, but it seems unlikely that this ring was given in this capacity. Whilst precious gems were fashionable in wedding rings, onyx does not appear to have been used. Certain gems had associated beliefs that made them particularly suitable for marriage rings. Rubies were believed to promote health, combat lust, and reconcile discord, whilst sapphires were said to encourage marital chastity. Yet the beliefs that surrounded onyx hardly suited marriage. Moreover, the inscription would be an unusual choice for a marriage. Posies were common on love rings, and the most popular messages, such as ‘amor vincit omnia’ (love conquers all), ‘mon cuer avez’ (you have my heart’) or ‘sans departier’ (without being parted), could all have been intended for marriage rings. Yet the inscription on this ring is much more unusual and somewhat flirtatious. ‘Dung seul regart vous doibt suffire’ (you must be satisfied with just one glance), would be wholly inappropriate when marriage was largely defined by consummation and the conception of children.
It is still possible this ring was a love token, but for a love that could not be acted upon. The flirtatious posy hidden within the hoop of the ring, the portrait of a scantily clad young woman, and the melancholic associations of onyx all suggest it could have marked such a relationship. Exchanges of love tokens without the formality of a betrothal were not unusual. A major theme in medieval ideal of courtly love, thought to have originated from the romantic poetry of the Troubadours of southern France from the late eleventh century, was the giving of gifts between knights and ladies as love tokens. Andreas Capellanus, who wrote the twelfth-century text De Amore, advised that, ‘a lady can accept from her love whatever small gift may be useful in the care of her person, or may look charming, or may remind her of her lover’. It was not just men who gave gifts. In the twelfth century Marie de France explained the gift giving process in her Lais Eliduc. ‘If you love him […] send him a girdle, a ribbon or a ring, for this will please him. If he receives it gladly […] then you will be sure of his love.’
The idea of ‘looking’ as a way of satisfying love with ‘just one glance’ is also interesting. In The Medieval Art of Love, Michael Camille emphasised the power of the eye in medieval conceptions of love and passion. Looking, Camille argued, was ‘an act charged with danger as well as pleasure.’ There was a strong belief that ‘looking’ was responsible for stimulating desire – Andreas Capellanus went as far as arguing that blind people were incapable of feeling this kind of love. The message of the ring could be interpreted as warning against these kinds of amorous looks. However, the erotic nature of the low-cut dress the woman wears makes it unlikely the ring was intended as a token of a pure or chaste love. Décolleté styles such as this, perhaps made popular by the Charles VII of France’s mistress, Agnės Sorel, were an overt display of fecundity and beauty, not chastity. Moreover, that there was a belief that an image could be used as a substitution for the woman, enabling love to continue despite a separation, is also possible – in Guillaume de Machaut’s poem, Le Livre du Voir-Dit, the protagonist conducts a love affair with the image of his fifteen year old betrothed who sends him her portrait. A gift or love token to a lover but not a betrothed, the ring was perhaps a means of both representing and enabling an amorous relationship.
Overall, this ring is a complex piece of jewellery, layered with meaning. Beliefs about precious stones, the fashion for posies, and the proliferation of an idealized and highly codified view of courtly love, in which the giving of love tokens was a prominent feature, all helped mould the shape this ring took, and the message it holds. Whilst we cannot know for certain if the ring ever fulfilled its intended function, it can help us understand the social, cultural, and ritualistic contexts surrounding love and gift giving in the late medieval period.
 Nicholas Penny, The Materials of Sculpture (London: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 18.
 Marbode of Rennes, De Lapidibus, p. 47.
 Albertus Magnus, Book of Minerals, p. 109.
 Joan Evans, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922), pp. 40-41.
 Quoted in Michael Camille, The Medieval Art of Love (London: Lawrence King, 1998), p. 51.
 The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glynn S Burgess and Keith Busby (London: Penguin Classics, 1986), p. 115.
 Camille, The Medieval Art of Love, p. 28-29.
 Ibid., p. 27.
 Angela McShane, ‘Revealing Mary’, History Today, 54 (2004), 40-6.
 Guillaume de Machaut, Le Livre du Voit-Dit, trans. R. Barton Palmer (London: Garland, 1998).
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sophie Cope –
Sophie did her BA in History at the University of Cambridge where she specialized in early modern material culture. She is particularly interested in how the passing of time is expressed in materials. Her MA dissertation at the V&A/RCA uses dated objects to explore ideas of time, memory, and materiality in early modern England.
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