Historical Rosary and Paternoster Beads
From at least as early as A.D. 1000, rosaries, paternosters or similar strings of prayer beads have been a common accessory carried by men and women, old and young.
Indeed, the small round objects we know in English as “beads” were named from this practice; the root of the English word bead is the same as for the word bid, and originally meant “to pray or request.”
The practice of counting prayers using a string of beads is very old. There are legends of St. Anthony in the desert counting his prayers with pebbles in the third century, and a string of beads is preserved in Belgium that is said to have been buried with the saintly Abbess Gertrude (d. 659). Other religions use prayer beads as well, but we cannot be certain whether Christians, Muslims and Hindus invented the idea independently or borrowed it from each other.
Among the early mentions of prayer beads in England is the will of Lady Godiva. She actually did exist (although her naked ride through Coventry is mythical) and died in about 1041. She left to the monastery she and her husband had founded, “a circlet of gems that she had threaded on a string, in order that by fingering them one by one as she recited her prayers, she might not fall short of the exact number.”
From paternoster to rosary
The first prayer medieval Christians recited on prayer beads was the “Our Father” (in Latin, Pater noster...) For those who could not read, reciting 150 paternosters was regarded as equivalent to reciting the 150 Psalms. The beads used for counting were called paternoster beads: usually a string of 10, 50 or 150 beads, with or without dividing markers.
As time went on, devout people began to create variations on this devotional practice, adding an Ave Maria (Hail Mary) or Gloria Patri after each paternoster, or simply saying 150 Aves as a “St. Mary’s Psalter.” Religious communities are recorded as praying “chaplets” of various sorts from at least the 13th century onward.
The Dominican Order claimed for many years that their founder, St. Dominic Guzman, was miraculously given the rosary in its modern form by the Virgin Mary in the 1200s. There is, however, no mention of the rosary in Dominic’s own writings, or in any of the writings about him, for at least 200 years after his death. The confusion seems to date as far back as the first printed rosary manuals in the late 1400s, but what led to the association of the rosary with St. Dominic is still not certain.
The first rosary guild or brotherhood was founded by Alanus de Rupe in Douai (then part of Flanders, now northern France) in 1470. A rather more famous one was founded by Jakob Sprenger in Köln (Cologne, Germany) in 1475, and the movement spread very quickly throughout Europe. Unlike many other religious guilds, rosary guilds cost nothing to join and did not require expensive annual dues. Women as well as men were admitted. The prayers were simple, and could be said at home or while working. You did not have to be able to read, nor did you have to purchase and use a special book, as many other devotions required.
Paternosters, and other devotions using beads or chaplets, also continued popular even after the invention of the rosary as we now know it. Before the English Reformation, for instance, King Henry VIII of England was given an elaborately carved boxwood paternoster by Cardinal Wolsey (which is on display at Chatsworth in England).
Chaplets — defined as non-rosary devotions using a particular form of bead string — are still very popular today, and many new chaplets have been invented over the years, such as the Chaplet of St. Michael and the Blessed Sacrament Chaplet.
The rosary devotion, too, has continued to evolve since it was formally fixed by Pope St. Pius V in 1569. The Franciscan Crown rosary, with seven decades for the seven joys of Mary, was invented in the 15th century. There are six-decade or Brigittine rosaries, and four-decade rosaries for the dead. In this century, the most notable development has been Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae in October 2002, which added five new mysteries for a new total of twenty.
While the rosary as a devotion or form of prayer is well chronicled, much less attention has been paid to the history of the actual beads, how and where they were made, arranged, strung, decorated, and sold.
Depending on your station in life and your purse, your medieval rosary or paternoster could be a string of simple knots on a cord, or a string of beads of wood, bone, glass, semiprecious stone such as agate or jet, amber, silver, pearls, or even gold, emeralds, or sapphires. In general, medieval rosary or paternoster beads were a kind of personal jewelry, and followed the style of other jewelry of the time. Coral beads were especially valuable and popular, as coral was thought to be a good-luck charm against the “evil eye.”
The Our Father beads or “gauds” dividing groups of ten simple beads are often larger or more precious than the others. Rosaries and religious jewelry in the Middle Ages were often exempt from taxes and laws restricting rich clothing, so wearing an extravagant rosary could be an excuse for showing off your wealth and good taste, as well as your piety (real or not).
A string of medieval paternoster or rosary beads can take many forms. Many have the familiar loop or circle form, but others are straight lines. The most common number of beads is 50 (with or without gauds or additional beads), but there are also strings of 10, 15, 20, 33, 63, 72 and of course 150. Paintings or historical drawings may show strange numbers of beads such as 39 or 16, and it is often hard to tell whether these represent different devotions, or whether it is merely the whim of the artist, who may not have been too concerned about the exact number.
Medieval beads may be round or oval, decorated or plain, and are usually smooth rather than faceted. Some less common types of rosary use flat discs or rings instead of beads. While today most rosary beads are joined by links of metal chain, originally most were loosely strung on silk thread or ribbon, like a necklace.
Not all of these early rosaries had a cross or crucifix. Rosaries could also end in a silk tassel, or in a religious medal or small figure of a saint. The “drop” of a modern rosary, the short string of five extra beads ending with the cross, makes its first appearance in the 15th or 16th century, but does not become really universal until the 18th or 19th century. For example, the gold filigree rosary carried by Mary Queen of Scots to her execution has no “drop,” but has an elaborate gold cross hanging directly from the circle of fifty beads.
We also find pomanders or scent containers hanging from rosaries, along with heart medallions, tiny purses, flasks of holy water, relics of saints, good-luck charms, and pieces of secular jewelry such as brooches and rings. The Prioress in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has a brooch with the words “Amor vincit omnia” (love conquers all) to attach her beads to her gown.
Rosaries and paternosters appear in many medieval and Renaissance paintings, often held in the hands, sometimes hanging in a wall. They are worn hanging from a belt, wrapped around the wrist as a bracelet, slung like a bandolier over one shoulder, or even as a necklace around the neck.
Many eminent preachers and saints have endorsed the rosary, used it themselves, and urged their followers to pray it frequently. The popularity of the rosary has endured and grown through the centuries, and today it is recognized by both Catholics and non-Catholics as an emblem of faith.
The rose & the rosary
To the best of my knowledge, it is a myth that rosary beads were ever (until quite recently) made of mashed-up rose petals. (I've been actively looking for earlier examples, and would be very interested to see any documentation of them earlier than the 20th century.)
Of course, once someone thought of it, a rosary made of roses must have seemed like a splendid and clever idea, but as far as I have found, rose-petal rosaries seem to date back only to about the 1920s.
By the way, being made of rose petals is NOT how the rosary got its name. The word "rosary" originally meant "rose garden" or "rose wreath," and it came to be applied to a devotion involving repetitions of the "Hail, Mary" due to a legend: bystanders — actually robbers! — saw a young monk reciting "Hail, Marys" in the road when he stopped to rest. As each one dropped from the monk's lips, it turned into a rose, which was gathered up by the Virgin Mary standing nearby (the monk evidently didn't see her, but the robbers did). The Virgin showed her pleasure at the gift of prayers by weaving the roses into a garland for her head.
(Since this is a legend, of course, the story adds that the robbers immediately repented and hastened to a priest to confess their sins!)
For further reading:
Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages by Anne Winston-Allen (1997, Pennsylvania State University Press, ISBN 0-2710-1631-0), is the most recent, professional and factual source on the subject (she has done the research and knows whereof she speaks). However she mentions the actual beads in only one sentence, and has two (count 'em, two) photos of historical rosaries: one loose, linear string of 50 boxwood disks on a silk ribbon (which look rather like faucet washers), and one bone rosary from the collection in the diocesan museum in Cologne that has the expected five decades in a loop, with a pendant of a cross below five identical beads.
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown (1992, Victoria & Albert Museum, ISBN 0-9481-0787-1) has an excellent chapter on Paternosters, with more information on the actual beads than any other source I've seen in English. This is a huge, lovely book that I wish I owned!
Most of the other citations I've seen that even mention the actual beads (including all the standard books on beads and their history) refer to just one book, Eithne Wilkins' The Rose-Garden Game: A Tradition of Beads and Flowers (1969, Herder & Herder, New York, no ISBN). The text is rather heavily into the "mystical East" and a lot of its historical statements are simply not referenced; I suspect that means that most of them are unsupported hand-waving. However it does have several pictures of actual rosaries (and rosary carvings and paintings), some in color. I consider this a reliable source only when it cites specific dates and documents.
Other than these three books, most of the relevant literature seems to be in German. I have a copy of 500 Jahre Rosenkranz: 1475 Köln 1975, an exhibition catalog with about 75 pictures and over 100 catalog descriptions. (Erzbischöfliches Diözesan-Museum Köln, J. P. Bachem KG, no ISBN; I found a copy for about $35 used on the Internet.)
Der Rosenkranz by Gislind M. Ritz (1962, Don Bosco Verlag, München, no ISBN) also has about 50 pictures, including some nice closeups (unfortunately, in both these books the photos are mostly black and white).
If you are interested in making or discussing historical rosaries and paternosters, you are welcome to join the Paternosters mailing list. You may also be interested in my Paternosters blog, where I publish short notes, new findings, and answers to frequently asked questions. A few recent posts are listed at the top of this page.