Jewelry has always been a symbol of power, wealth and respect. The ring, the quintessential piece of ornamentation, has traditionally been the most renowned and universal item. Rings weren’t just luxury items; they represented rewards for great warriors. A formal monetary system hadn’t been adopted yet, and rings were the pay and reward for a job well done. One could tell a successful warrior by the number of rings worn, and they were signs of wealth. Rings were everything to the medieval community – currency, status symbols, and awards.
Rings and other jewelry could only be given away by the king or beaga brytta ("ring-giver"). Michael Delahoyde of Washington State University describes the function of a ring-giver and significance of the rings:
The king must be a generous "ring-giver," too -- that is, he must dish out the spoils of war to his thanes (his warriors) rather than hoard the treasures won in tribal warfare. These weapons and treasures were important, too. The craftsmanship is always elaborate and stories accrue about each ring. Although theoretically the thanes freely agreed to join a king, treasures and rewards were nevertheless vital for one's sense of self to be part of a tribe. The thane shouldn't survive the king, and the worst fate for these people was to be exiled or to outlast all one's fellow warriors. The sense of identity came from the warrior community. (Delahoyde)Rings were rewards as well as "security deposits" for the warriors in exchange for loyalty. A good king was measured against the amount of treasure he gave away to his thanes. These treasures had intrinsic value to the medieval warrior. The ring not only represented his good skills, but it exemplified his acceptance as an honorable member of the tribe.
The rewards given by the king included arm rings, neck rings, finger rings, bracelets, torques (an open neck ring) and other jewelry. All of these items had more than their material value: they represented acceptance, pride, bravery, appreciation, and gratitude. In Beowulf, Hrothgar rewards Beowulf and his fellow warriors after defeating Grendel. This episode is described:
The cup was borne to him and welcome offered in friendly words to him, and twisted gold courteously bestowed on him, two arm ornaments, a mail-shirt and rings, the largest of necklaces of those that I have head spoken of on earth. (Donaldson 22)A cup of mead is offered to Beowulf as a ceremonial acceptance and then he is rewarded with "arm ornaments" – arm rings (cuffs), rings, mail-shirt, and necklaces for his brave deed. Hrothgar gives away his treasure as thank you gifts and as a "guarantee" that their tribes will be at peace.
Rings and jewelry will never have the same meaning today as they did in Anglo-Saxon culture. The value of jewelry has been lost over time as cultural modernization has eliminated bartering, and cheap, mass-produced jewelry has been made available to all social classes. These sweeping changes have made it impossible today to understand fully what jewelry meant to medieval denizens. Without it, their society would have collapsed.