The Medieval Rosary

The Rosary was brought to Europe by the Crusaders, and consists of a number of groups of beads. Strictly, the full rosary consisted of three Chaplets, each consisting of 5 Decades and 5 Paternosters.

Each decade consisted of a number of small Ave beads (these were used to count Ave Marias.) Although a decade usually consisted of about ten beads, there was variation through the middle ages from 8 to about 15 beads. The decade was preceded by a large Paternoster (for the Lord’s Prayer) bead, and sometimes followed by a Gloria bead (for Glorias) . In many cases, the Paternoster bead and Gloria bead are combined.

Attached to the Rosary was usually a crucifix, cross or a charm depicting a saint. This would be known as a Gaud

Since a full rosary would be very long (and expensive), most rosaries would consist of a straight Decade, with a Paternoster and a Gloria, and a Gaud. For the more visibly devout, a Chaplet would be used, with the beads arranged in a loop, starting and ending with a Paternoster, and the Gaud suspended from that point.

Artisans who made rosaries were known as Paternosterers, and would usually work near the main church or cathedral in the town or city. North of St. Paul’s in London were Paternoster Row and Ave Maria Lane. In France, the Paternosterers were grouped as specialists who made beads of: Bone and Horn; Coral and Mother of Pearl; and Amber and Jet. The cheapest Rosaries would consist of plain wood. bone and horn, the most expensive would be of semiprecious stone beads, silver and gold, often intricately carved or engraved. Although the rosaries were supposed to be religious pieces, increasing extravagance lead to conflict. In the late 13th Century Dominican and Augustinian monks were forbidden to wear rosaries with beads of coral, amber or semiprecious stones. In the latter part of the 15th Century, reforming churchmen preached against rosaries as well as mistresses as things to be renounced by the pious.

The rosary would be worn by both men and women. Men would generally hand them from their belts, sometimes directly attached, more often in a small "Relic Pouch" to protect them. Women would often wear them as bracelets or as a necklace, where they would be more visible.

Another variation of the Rosary is the Decade Ring or Rosary Ring. The ring would have ten projections as Aves around the shank, with the bezel being a Paternoster. The bezel would be engraved with a saint, or the monogram I.H.S. with a cross and three nails. These rings became more popular in the 16th Century as religious persecution grew, and are still popular in Spain.

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Background: 13th Century Medieval Illuminated English Manuscript.Page from a Bible from the workshop of William de Brailles who worked in Oxford 1230-1240 and who penned the Oxford Bible. Pages from the same Bible from the Blackburn collection have been on display at the Cleveland Museum.