The Mediaeval Rosary

The Fifteen Mysteries that we know today

One of our first posts on Catholicism Pure and Simple introduced us to the Holy Rosary. This much loved devotion is always associated with St. Dominic – and rightly so. It was Alan of Rupe who started the first Rosary Confraternity in the 15th century thus launching the Dominicans as the greatest missionaries of the Rosary with a special thought for each Hail Mary bead. This became known as the ‘new Rosary’. This devotion spread rapidly throughout Christendom. But let us look at the ‘old Rosary’.

Many historians trace the Rosary as we know it today to 9th century Ireland. The 150 Psalms of David where the most important part of the monastic prayer (and still are), chanted day after day as part of the Divine Office. The settlements that grew up around such religious houses were reliant on the monks in many ways, not just for their spiritual welfare, but for many of their temporal needs also. Illiteracy was widespread in Ireland (outside the monastic life), but attendance at the canonical hours with the monks was common. The Psalms were too long to be memorised, and it was suggested that instead of the Psalms they might like to pray 150 Our Fathers in place. This simple suggestion was the first step in the development of one of the most popular prayer forms.

In order to keep count of their 150 Our Fathers, a small leather pouch which held 150 pebbles or small stones were kept. These would be removed one at a time as each prayer was said. When this became cumbersome they advanced to pieces of rope with either 50 or 150 knots, and this developed into strings with 50 pieces of wood attached. In other parts of Europe clergy and lay people started to recite, as a repetitive prayer, the Angelic Salutation which makes up most of the first part of our Hail Mary. St. Peter Damian

(d.1072) was the first to mention this prayer form, but whilst some were reciting the fifty Angelic Salutations, others favoured fifty Our Fathers!

In the 13th century another prayer form, which would eventually give the Rosary its Mysteries began to develop. The 150 Psalms of David had long been considered to be veiled prophesies about  the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and by deep meditation (and skilful interpretation) theologians began to compose ‘Psalters of Our Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ’, based on the interpretations of the 150 Psalms.

Soon ‘Psalters’ devoted to 150 praises of Our Blessed Lady were composed, and when a psalter of Marian praises numbered 50 instead of 150 it became known as a ‘rosarium’ – or bouquet.

In the 13th century there were four distinct ‘psalters’ in use; the 150 Our Fathers, the 150 Angelic Salutations, the 150 praises of Jesus and the 150 praises of Our Blessed Lady. In a period of history when unity was held in great esteem it would be inevitable that these four prayer forms should eventually be combined.

The progress towards this came in about 1365A.D. when Henry of Kalker (at that time the Visitator of the Carthusian Order) grouped the 150 Angelic Salutations into decades and put an Our Father between each decade. This combined the Our Father and the Hail Mary for the first time. In about 1409 another Carthusian, Dominic the Prussian, wrote a book which attached a psalter of fifty thoughts about the lives of Our Blessed Lord and Our Blessed Lady to a Rosary of 50 Hail Mary’s. This was the first time that there had been a special thought for each Hail Mary bead. Through evolution this became groups of ten with an Our Father in between. There were many variations on this form between 1425 and 1470, but these were gradual.

I will not go into the story of Our Blessed Lady and St. Dominic (important though it is) – that is for another time, but through these early Dominicans, this prayer form – 150 Hail Mary’s with a small meditation for each bead, spread rapidly throughout Christendom.

The 15th century was a time of great change and this much loved  mediaeval Rosary form was gradually abandoned as the Christian world moved out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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4 Responses to The Mediaeval Rosary

  1. toadspittle says:

    Wonderful illustration. Could we know more about it?


  2. The Raven says:

    It looks as though the original is in the Met, and is possibly attributed to van der Weyden.


  3. Pingback: The Mediaeval Rosary « Joyful Papist

  4. toadspittle says:

    Raven, thanks.
    How curious. I put Van der Weyden’s ‘Deposition’ on my blog two days ago. This looks as good, possibly.
    Almost worth going back to N.Y. to see. But not quite.


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