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"Use Virtue" A love message for a medieval Valentine by Nina Moeller

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posy ring close up


A ring is one of the major tokens of love - given at engagements, weddings or just as a gift - and has been regarded so for centuries. From the medieval era onwards special rings called posy rings were given to lovers and sometimes friends to express affection. They remained popular in England and France until the 17th century. They are usually engraved with a message of love inside a golden, or gilt,  band. The name posy (or posey) is from the word for poetry, or in French poésie. These messages are carved on the inside and remained concealed from onlookers, which also heightened the symbolism by the direct contact to the wearer’s skin. Frequently, these  inscriptions quote courtship stories or love poetry found in chapbooks. Chapbooks are small publications of eight to 24 pages of almanacs, poetry, and pamphlets. They were illustrated by romantic woodcuts and became popular after the rise of printing made them affordable. An extensive posy ring collection is held by the British Museum and rings feature such inscriptions as “A Frends Gyfte” (A friend’s gift)[1], “Y Love Thee”[2], and “Be True In Harte”[3].

The inscription on the posy ring pictured by Erewash Museum is inscribed with “VSE VIRTVE”, showing the old-fashioned interchangeable use of “u” as a “v”[4]. Deriving from Latin, this practice continued particularly in engraving since a “v” with its two straight lines is easier to craft than a curve. The message consequently reads “USE VIRTUE” a request by the giver for the wearer to remain loyal, true and chaste. The mentioning of virtue is not uncommon, appearing in the rings of the British Museum, for example, “Let Vertue still direct thy will”[5] and “For vertue’s sake my wife I take”[6]. This is romantic and religious request. The seven virtues - temperance, prudence, courage, justice, faith, hope and love (charity) – formed an important part of the notion of ideal behaviour and they are frequently portrayed as allegories, or symbolism, in art of the time. These virtues were especially attributed to Mary who in turn was used as a role model for women. Given the small size of our ring, combined with the quotation of virtue, it probably was given to a woman by her lover. The typography, or style of writing, suggests a date from the early 16th century.

This posy ring has been part of Erewash Museum's collection for around 10 years. It is one of Erewash's great treasures. Found in Friesland Farm, Sandiacre, by Mr. M. Beasley the 2000s, this ring was taken to the British Museum as part of the Treasure Trove act. It was purchased back on behalf of the people of Erewash and displayed it in our What Lies Beneath gallery. This ring probably dates from around 1500, which means it lay in the soil in Sandiacre for 500 years before it was found. Who dropped it in that field? Were they sad to lose it or did they throw it away? And who were the lovers who shared this ring as a sign of their future together? We'll probably never know. And wh o knows how many treasures are still out there waiting to be found. 

Happy Valentine day from Erewash Museum









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