The Medieval Rosary

Aelflaed of the Weald (India Ollerenshaw), 1998.

Rosaries are strings of beads used to keep track of a number of prayers. They have been used in all religions, world-wide, for centuries. In Christian Europe, as the accessories of the clergy, they are mentioned as early as the 11th century. However, during the fourteenth century it became common for lay men and women to carry beads, and by the end of the medieval period they were probably the most common item of jewellery across all classes, and in some places a person was not considered respectable - or Christian - unless their rosary was visible.

A modern rosary consists of 150 small beads, known as 'aves' because they are used to count recitations of the Ave Maria, divided into fifteen 'decades', separated by ten larger beads, called 'paternosters' as they are used for counting the Pater noster prayer. The beads are strung in a loop, with three large beads and a crucifix on the end.

Unlike modern rosaries, medieval beads had no set form. The number and arrangement of the beads was a matter of choice and local custom. The earlier rosaries tend to be straight strings, as can be seen in van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage. They often have tassels at either end, and can be spotted in many medieval portraits and illustrations, once you know what you are looking at. The chaplet, or looped string, became popular later, although the straight string never went entirely out of fashion.

Sometimes a string is made of only one type of bead, aves or paternosters. Beads can be of clay, wood, precious and semi-precious stones, metals, glass, bone or ivory, amber, coral, pearls, even seeds and nuts. Beads may be carved or enamelled with religious scenes. The aves tend to be plain, while the paternosters can be very elaborate. Miniature acorns, shells, shoes, daisies, hearts, crosses, bells, pilgrim badges, amulets and reliquaries are often part of a rosary. The beads are most often round, but could be of any shape. They are strung on cotton, linen, silk or wool, often red in colour to signify the blood of Christ. Tassels are very popular.

The longest and most complex rosaries are the latest, dating from the late 15th and 16th centuries. At different periods, it was considered pious to carry only the simplest of rosaries, regardless of rank, while at other times the magnificence of your beads reflected directly upon the consequence of your person. Rosaries are worn most particularly when going to make your devotions, but as a fashion accessory they can be seen at any time of day, looped over hand, arm or belt. In the late 15th century it was fashionable to wear your beads as a necklace.

To make the best use of your rosary, and for the salve of your soul, learn the appropriate prayers in Latin:

Ave Maria, gratia plena, dominus tecum. Benedicta tua in mulieribus. Et benedictus frustus ventris tui Jesus Christus. Amen.

Pater noster qui es in coelis sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua sicut in coela et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie. Et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos demittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in temptationem. Sed libera nos a malo. Amen.

Bennet, E., 'Late Medieval Rosaries', Tournaments Illuminated 99, Summer, A.S. XXVI, pp. 13 - 16.

Erikson, J., 'The Universal Bead', New York, W. W. Norton and Co., 1969, pp. 78 - 81.

Williams, E., 'The Rose-Garden Game, in The Symbolic Background to the European Prayer-Beads', London, Victor Gollancz, 1969.

Copyright India Ollerenshaw 1998. Free use for non-profit.

This article was originally used as documentation in a principality arts and sciences competition, and later was published in issue 7 of Cockatrice.

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