Rosary Origins

– Father Johann Roten, S.M.

What is the Origin of the Rosary?

The complex history of the rosary deals normally with the following stages of development:

1. Repetition of the Hail Mary, in the twelfth century, related to the joys of Mary, first five (Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, Assumption) then seven, later fifteen (reflecting the twenty decades of the Psalter). We later find instances on celestial joys as opposed to joyful historical events in Mary's life.

2. For the next two centuries (thirteenth and fourteenth) a similar development regarding Mary's sorrows (five, later seven) takes place (from Franciscan and Servite influences).

3. In the fourteenth century the rosary also has the meaning of florilegium, a collection of pious thoughts or little poems about Mary. The stanzas (varying in number, 50, 150...) rhymed with Ave and were followed by the recitation of the Hail Mary.

4. The fifteenth century sees the appearance of the Carthusian and the Dominican rosary, both still prayed today. The Carthusian rosary (Dominic the Carthusian of Trier, Germany, ca. 1410) is a succession of 150 Hail Marys with appended references to the lives of Christ and Mary (for example: Annunciation...). The Dominican rosary (from Alain of Roche, Douai, ca. 1460) is structured in three groups of mysteries related to the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Christ. This latter rosary recitation became the most common, even the norm, since the end of the fifteenth century, not least thanks to the confraternities of the rosary (since 1475).

The Rosary Beads

The physical "rosary" is not a Christian invention. It was, and is, essentially a tallying device, known in Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. It has had the same function in Christianity since antiquity (pebbles, strings, chains).

1. Originally, this tallying device served to monitor penitential exercises. Penitents used strings or little cords with knots to count the number of "Our Fathers" to be recited. The name given to this tallying device was Paternoster or Pater. The Paternoster is older than the physical rosary but co-existed with the latter throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There existed a profession of Paternoster-Makers, specializing in the manufacture of Paternosters and Rosaries.

2. The transfer of the name rosary from the prayer form to the physical object took place at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Long before this occurred, the tallying devices, later called "rosary," were either simple cords or closed chains of various lengths, with or without subdivisions, and made of a variety of materials (wood, bone, coral, mother of pearl, pebbles, seeds, pits ...). Around the year 1500 we find two major types of "rosaries":

a) Prayer chains with fifty beads/pearls symbolizing the fifty Aves, clustered in five groups of ten, each of these groups separated from the next by a bigger/larger bead/pearl;

b) The so-called tenner, a short string or cord with ten beads and some additional Paternoster beads. Affixed to one end, there was a ring to slip the tenner from one finger to the other (5 x 10). The opposite end was decorated with a tassel, medal or special knot.

3. Special devotions, fashion and local customs brought forth a variety of forms. The short form of the "tenner" was usually reserved for men; it was the typical tallying device for monks as late as the eighteenth century. Women resorted to the longer version and adorned their prayer chain with miniature figurines, images, scented dried fruit and flowers, and also pearls and gems. Among the better known varieties there are the ring-rosaries, Bridget- rosaries (six groups of ten plus three pearls), the Psalter-rosaries (fifteen groups of ten), rosaries based on the five wounds of Christ with symbols of the wounds hooked into the rosary. Some rosaries were made by goldsmiths (Altotting, Germany, sixteenth century); others made with pits from apricots engraved with the portraits of civil rulers. Mass production started early (fifteenth/sixteenth century) and allowed for cheaper rosaries from wood, jet, bone, glass, pewter, lead and iron. The eighteenth c knows of filigree rosaries, the nineteenth century produced chainstitched rosaries. During these centuries beads for faith, hope and charity were added, and the Greek cross was replaced by the Latin cross. The Orthodox tradition knows the komposkoini (literally a rope with knots). Known since medieval times the komposkoini is used by monks and nuns for the recitation of the Jesus Prayer. The cord is attached to a cross and has from thirty-three (years of Jesus’ earthly existence) to fifty and up to three-hundred (number of genuflections) knots. Mary plays a central intercessory role in the longer formulas of the Jesus Prayer.

More Information

International Marian Research Institute

300 College Park 
Dayton, Ohio 45469