Rediscovering the Ancient Beads: The History of the Rosary

Do you have a rosary dangling from your car rear-view mirror?  Do you, perhaps, have a collection of rosaries in a basket at home?  Many Catholics, sadly, own rosary beads, but never use them for prayer.  One of the obstacles of praying the rosary is not knowing where this prayer came from.  It is true that this may not be a major obstacle, but the more we know about something, the more we can come to love it.  The rosary, like all good ol’ customs, has a very rich and diverse history.

The use of beads in prayer not is strictly a “Catholic thing”. I know this may surprise some of you. Many world religions use beads to assist them in their prayers. For example, Buddhists use prayer beads on which they repeat a mantra while meditating. A mantra is a syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of “creating transformation”.   Interestingly, when we think about the mysteries of the rosary, we are doing relatively similar things. We repeat a group of words. These words have the power to transform us. What is the difference then? Why should we, as faithful Catholics, preserve the rosary?  Simply put: because it is part of our Catholic heritage.

The Early Church

Let’s start in the early centuries of the Church. Praying with a counting device has been recorded as far back as the desert Fathers, in the first few centuries AD. The desert Fathers would use pebbles in their prayer. As they completed one prayer, they would move one pebble. Why use pebbles, though, instead of fingers? There is one simple reason: pebbles are easier to keep track of than fingers. Ever started to count something with your fingers, only to be distracted by the need to swat a mosquito? When counting on our fingers, we can often get caught up in other thoughts or activities, and lose count. By moving a physical object, for instance a stone or bead, we are free to focus more effectively on the prayer. But let us return to the early Church once again. It is around this time that we find Catholic graves engraved with an abacus-like counting tool. Many scholars believe that this was an instrument used in prayer. It is not until the 6th century that we see prayer beads on gravestones of Catholics. Mind you, this is not a rosary, yet. The rosary had a very lengthy development. This is only a pre-cursor to what we know today as the rosary.

The Middle Ages

Let us continue to our walk through history with a look at the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were a time of great turmoil, but also of great devotion among Catholics. Great saints, such as St. Dominic and St. Francis, were raised up during this time. When we think about the rosary, we realize that the Middle ages were a crucial period. It was in this time that the words, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” became popular. Notice that this is the first portion of the Hail Mary as we know it today! To this Scriptural foundation, the Dominicans added the name of Jesus. This was in order to combat a terrible evil of the time. You see, during the middle ages, the appalling practice of swearing and cursing had become fashionable. The Dominicans hoped that, by calling on the Most Holy Name of Jesus, they would make reparation for the vulgar language of the time. Does this sound like our own era? There is so much vileness in our culture. The Dominicans of the Middle Ages saw a great need for the Name of Jesus to be inserted into this prayer. The Name of Jesus is the most powerful name we can call upon. This is especially true in times of darkness and evil. I encourage you to think of this whenever you pray the Hail Mary. The name of Jesus is the most effective name we have to call upon. In fact, His very name is a prayer. Jesus means “God saves”. By calling on His name, we are crying out for God to save us! How beautiful!

St. Dominic

There is yet another Dominican connection to the rosary. According to pious legend, our Blessed Mother appeared to St. Dominic, and gave the rosary to him. The Church has never officially confirmed or denied this. This is partially due to the fact that the rosarydocuments containing this miracle were lost or destroyed. It is known, however, that St. Dominic combined meditation and a pattern of prayer. The rosary also combines meditation and a pattern of prayer. All of the elements of the rosary, as we know them today, were in place. The belief in this miraculous gift of the rosary is further strengthened by a remarkable incident. In St. Dominic’s time, there was a heresy known as Albigensianism. After years of failure to combat this heresy, St. Dominic and his band of preachers finally abolished it. How? Well, this marvel is attributed to the Mother of God, especially under the title of Queen of the Rosary. But this miracle of the rosary is still happening today! The heresy of Albigensianism, which held many false notions, is no longer around! You will not find anyone who calls him or herself an Albigensian in the full and true sense. I regret that I do not have time to go into the doctrinal and moral principles of this heresy, but I encourage you to look it up online.

13th-20th Centuries

Let’s look a little more closely at the 13th Century. It is in this time that the mysteries of the rosary first begin to take shape. The Cistercians compiled a series of 15  joys of our Blessed Mother. They would meditate on one joy at a time, while reciting a Hail Mary. Interestingly, these 15  joys are very similar to the mysteries we have today! For example, the joys compiled by the Cistercians included the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation, and even the Assumption! This last mystery, the Assumption, was not made a dogma of our faith until 1950, and yet here it is! Once again we see that the rosary transcends time, and allows us to contemplate such beauty and truth!

Finally, let us travel to the 16th century. It was in the 16th century that the rosary took the form and shape which it has to this day. That’s hundreds of years of tradition! But now we have to ask a question: why did it take so long to get to this point, and why is the rosary still around? The answer lies in one word: devotions. In the Catholic Church, we have a rich history of devotions. These prayers and objects grow out of the needs of the faithful in a given time period. Devotions are not liturgical prayers, but they are never in opposition to them. In fact, devotions often support and strengthen the official, liturgical prayers of the Church. Taking a look through history again, we see that in the early centuries of the Church, many devotions focused on the veneration of the martyrs. Why? Because martyrdom was a reality. Every Christian daily faced the possibility of honoring Christ by his death. In the centuries leading up to the Middle Ages, the prayer of the Church focused on the 150 Psalms. Monks prayed these psalms, which they chanted from a Psalter. However, monasteries also had illiterate brothers called “lay brothers”. These consecrated men needed a substitute. They prayed 150 “Our Father’s” daily as a replacement for the Psalms. It was in the Middle Ages, when, as I have mentioned, the “Hail Mary” became a popular prayer. It was also then that devotion to Our Lady began to grow. At this time, many monasteries permitted their lay brothers to pray 150 “Aves” or Hail Mary’s as an alternative to the Psalms. Beads became popular to help the lay brothers in their prayers. These beads were grouped together by sets of 50, and were often called “Our Lady’s Psalter”. Lastly, when the Church was in need of a renewed sense of hope, Saint John Paul II composed the Luminous Mysteries for the rosary!  This prayer is ancient and yet new, in a sense!

Through history, we see how the beautiful devotion of the rosary has developed.  This knowledge can lead us to a greater love of this prayer, if we allow it to.  It took centuries of devotion to give you the privilege of holding a rosary in your hand.  Now, what are you going to do with your rosary?  Hang it from a mirror, or take it down occasionally and devoutly pray it?  The choice is yours.

Note:  If you struggle with the rosary, welcome to the club!  In my next article I will look at different ways of praying the rosary, so that this devotion can truly lead you to a greater love of God, through the heart of the Immaculate Mother.  Stay tuned!





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4 responses to “Rediscovering the Ancient Beads: The History of the Rosary

  1. Marc

    Have you read St Louis de Monfort’s Secret of the Rosary? There are some excellent stories in there on its power to convert souls.

  2. Great post! The Rosary is one of my favorite devotions. 🙂

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