by Henry Schilb
You know them by heart. You can hear them coming. Four notes, with six geese a-leading the way. Only four notes, but you can’t wait to belt them out. And then it happens:
“Five go-old rings!”
Those gold rings you love to sing about have been around since at least the eighteenth century, when the lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball” were printed in a little book called Mirth without Mischief (Fig. 1). 
No music was printed with the lyrics in Mirth without Mischief, but the words are roughly the same as you remember them, possibly representing the oldest printed evidence of the carol. The earliest known version of many different versions to come, it differs from the carol as we usually hear it today only in the order of the gifts from the ninth through the twelfth days. Partridge? Check. And two turtle doves, three French hens, and so on up to the usual seven swans a-swimming and eight maids a-milking, but then there follow nine drummers drumming instead of nine ladies dancing, ten pipers piping instead of ten lords a-leaping, eleven dancing ladies (probably preferable to the usual eleven pipers piping), and no fewer than twelve lords a-leaping instead of twelve drummers drumming. That’s just a lot of leaping lords, I must say! You’ll also notice that the birds on the fourth day were called “colly birds” back then, not “calling birds.” “Colly” just meant black like coal, so what we have is a flock of blackbirds. But all five gold rings were there already. Wait…is it “gold rings” or “golden rings”? I’ve heard it both ways, sometimes simultaneously. When exactly did “five gooooo-ooooold rings” become “five golll-dennn rings”? The version in Mirth without Mischief is clear about my true love’s having given me “gold” rings, not “golden” rings. It really doesn’t matter, I suppose, but the word “golden” does seem to devalue the gift. I mean, if the rings are only “golden” and not actual gold, then why do I want forty of them? Perhaps it’s just that even two notes per syllable is too much melisma for some carolers, so they need the extra syllable to sing.
Maybe I ought to get to the point. Typically, in this space, someone from the Index of Medieval Art will explore a topic relating to iconography, some theme or scene rendered in one or more media, perhaps a subject relevant to the season. This time, however, I want to look at a category of object. Yes, I’m going to show you five gold rings, each one cataloged in the Index of Medieval Art database. Of course, if you’ve ever done the math, you’ll be aware that my true love intends to send me not just five gold rings but a total of forty by the time Epiphany rolls around on the sixth of January. I always imagine the narrator of the carol wearing them all at once, or as many as possible, like Liberace or Ringo Starr. Presumably, when Ringo sings this carol, Barbara Bach is the “true love” in question. I wonder, has she ever given Ringo five gold rings, or would that be a bit “coals to Newcastle”? Er, Liverpool?
Really, we should be grateful that the familiar version of the carol includes inanimate objects on the fifth day. According to one reported version of the lyrics, instead of gold rings, you could have had “five hares running” to deal with (forty total, and…well, they’re hares, so, you know).  In that version, your true love also gives you four ducks quacking on the fourth day. But that version isn’t really a song. It’s a game of forfeits—in which each player takes a turn reciting the whole list and adding to it—a game that seems to be the origin of the structure of the lyrics of the carol. And there’s another theory regarding how the fifth day wasn’t always about jewelry. It’s possible that our gold rings are a corruption of “goldspinks,” a Scottish word for goldfinches. I suppose that would make more sense, given all the other birds my true love is sending me.
But I still prefer the familiar version of the carol that emerged in 1909, when Frederic Austin published his arrangement. And the “five gold rings” part that’s so fun to belt out? It was Austin who composed those two famous bars and added them to his arrangement of the traditional melody, which was copyrighted by the publisher! It was also Austin who added the word “On” to the beginning of each verse. Interestingly, for the twelfth day, Austin doubled down on the melisma, so the final verse calls for the word “gold” to be sung with a flourish of four notes rather than the two usually sung today.
OK, but what about those five gold rings I promised to show you? Whenever I hear “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the rings I picture in my head are simple bands of gold, like the one Bilbo stole from Gollum in those Peter Jackson movies. But a gold ring can also be delicate openwork like this example at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Fig. 2, Index of Medieval Art system number 144086).
On this early Byzantine ring, we find two birds (shall we imagine that they’re turtle doves?) flanking a vase among a scrolling grapevine. The crafting of this ring combined several methods. The birds, vase, and leaves appear to have been cut from a sheet of gold. The vine is filigree, delicate work created with gold wire. The bunches of grapes were created by granulation, a technique in which tiny spheres of metal are fused together.
As intricate as the openwork may be, this ring is still only a circle, a hoop without a bezel. The bezel is the “top” part of the ring that’s displayed on the back of the hand. A bezel can be flat, raised, incised, or filled with a gem. There is even such a thing as a reversible bezel. The ring in figures 3a and 3b (Index of Medieval Art System number 60117), possibly from Syria and now at the Benaki Museum in Athens, has a swivel bezel with an image of Thekla of Iconium flanked by crosses and animals (probably lions) on the obverse (Fig. 3a). On the reverse is an archangel holding a cross-staff and a globe (probably, though it’s hard to make out) (Fig. 3b).
If you were to inspect the edge of the bezel, you would find a Greek letter inscribed on each of the six sides not connected to the hoop. The characters ͵ϚΡΛ on three sides of the bezel are numerals, possibly giving the year 6130 of the Alexandrian Era (638/9 CE), or possibly having an apotropaic significance, while the other three letters—ΧΜΓ—are probably an abbreviation of Χριστὸν Μαρία γεννᾷ (Mary gives birth to Christ) or possibly something like Χριστός Μιχαήλ Γαβριήλ (Christ, Michael, Gabriel).
Although the space on any ring is limited, not every inscription on every ring is a cipher. For example, in the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University Bloomington, there is a Roman marriage-ring with a very straightforward message (Fig. 4, Index of Medieval Art system number 143736). Below clasped hands in relief are the raised letters of the Greek word ΟΜΟΝΟΙΑ (ὁμόνοια, meaning concord, harmony, or like-mindedness).
The image and inscription were possibly created with a stamp or by working a small sheet of gold into a die. The tiny relief was then applied to the gold band. The image is simple, and the significance of the word ὁμόνοια is quite clear.
The same word appears on the bezel of a somewhat later marriage-ring from the Eastern Mediterranean and now at the British Museum (Fig. 5a, Index of Medieval Art system number 62961). The inscription and all the images on this ring, on both the hoop and the bezel, are rendered in niello, a metalwork technique in which a black alloy is used to highlight an engraved or incised image. On the bezel we find the inscription OMONV/A (ὁμόνυα, a variant spelling of ὁμόνοια), but instead of clasped hands above the inscription, we see the Virgin Mary and Christ crowning the couple getting married, so the ring bears a representation of the person who wore it! Above this scene is a star. Yes, there’s a star…on a gold ring…so that makes it a gold ring star. Get it? You see, it’s funny because “gold ring star” sounds sort of like “Ringo Starr,” but inside out…. No? Never mind.
There are two more stars on this ring. Among the scenes from the life of Christ around the octagonal hoop, and on either side of the Baptism, there are stars in two scenes pertinent to this discussion of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi (Fig. 5b).
Finally, the fifth gold ring that I want to show you is one of our Featured Works of Art for December 2021 (Fig. 6, Index of Medieval Art system number 200054). This Byzantine ring has been dated to ca. 900, but that date has been questioned. There are niello crosses on the hoop, and on the bezel is a figure in enamel identified by name in niello as St. Nicholas. The image conforms to a familiar type, so we can recognize this figure as Nicholas of Myra. Yes, Virginia, he’s that St. Nicholas.
And so, let St. Nicholas bring this story to a close. It remains only for me, on behalf of all the Index family, to wish you a joyous new year. May 2022 treat you like Ringo Starr…with peace and love.
 Mirth without Mischief (London: Printed by J. Davenport, George’s Court, for C. Sheppard, No. 8, Aylesbury Street, Clerkenwell, [1780 or 1800?]), 5–16.
 Thomas Hughes, “The Ashen Fagot,” in Household Friends for Every Season, ed. James Thomas Fields (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), 34.
 Hugh Keyte, Andrew Parrott, and Clifford Bartlett, eds., The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 229.
 Frederic Austin, arr., The Twelve Days of Christmas (Traditional Song) (London: Novello, 1909).
 The copyright notice is at the bottom of page 2 of the sheet music, and the “five gold rings” motif composed by Austin first appears on page 4. Austin, The Twelve Days of Christmas, 2, 4. See also Keyte, Parrott, and Bartlett, The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols, 229.
 Austin, The Twelve Days of Christmas, 11.
 Ioli Kalavrezou et al., Byzantine Women and Their World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 249, no. 141.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “filigree,” accessed 14 December 2021, https://www.britannica.com/art/filigree.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “granulation,” accessed 14 December 2021, https://www.britannica.com/art/granulation.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “ring,” accessed 14 December 2021, https://www.britannica.com/art/ring-jewelry#ref291658.
 Robin Cormack and Maria Vassilaki, eds., Byzantium, 330–1453 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2008), 416, no. 149.
 For interpretations of the inscription, see especially Manolis Hadzidakis, “Anneau byzantin du Musée Benaki,” Byzantinisch-neugriechische Jahrbücher 17 (1939–1943): 175–81; Electra Georgoula, ed., Greek Jewellery from the Benaki Museum Collections (Athens: Benaki Museum, Adam Editions, 1999), 316–17, no. 117; and Cormack and Vassilaki, Byzantium, 330–1453, 416, no. 149.
 Kalavrezou, Byzantine Women and Their World, 222, no. 121.
 For a description of these techniques, see Wolf Rudolf, A Golden Legacy: Ancient Jewelry from the Burton Y. Berry Collection at the Indiana University Art Museum (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 6.
 Cormack and Vassilaki, Byzantium, 330–1453, 416, no. 150.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “niello,” accessed 14 December 2021, https://www.britannica.com/art/niello.
 Benaki Museum, “Collections & Archives > Byzantine Art,” accessed 14 December 2021, https://www.benaki.org/index.php?option=com_collectionitems&view=collectionitem&id=107623&Itemid=540&lang=en.
 Well, sort of. Readers curious about the journey of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Manhattan will want to track down a copy of Charles W. Jones, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). Although it’s a fairly old book now, and it was a bit flawed to begin with, it remains nonetheless an engrossing read, a good story well told.