A Short History of the Rosary

The typical custom (not an iron law) has been to say five decades of the Rosary each day. Until Pope St. John Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries to the Rosary in 2002, there were fifteen decades totaling one hundred fifty beads. There are also one hundred fifty psalms in the book of Psalms. Those numbers are no coincidence. The earliest use of prayer beads in the Christian tradition was to count off the Psalms as they were recited in various monastic settings. As time progressed, some people preferred to simply repeat the Lord’s Prayer fifty times on a string of beads. In an act for which she is considerably less famous than her naked ride through Coventry to protest on behalf of the poor, the extremely devout Lady Godiva (c. 1075) left to a monastery “the circlet of precious stones which she had threaded on a cord in order that by fingering them one after another she might count her prayers exactly.” By the Middle Ages, such strings of beads were called “paternosters” (“Our Fathers”). By the twelfth century (before the birth of St. Dominic), the practice of reciting fifty or one hundred fifty Ave Marias (“Hail Marys”) was becoming more common. A contemporary biographer of St. Albert the Great (the man who taught St. Thomas Aquinas), tells us (c. 1280): “A hundred times a day he bent his knees, and fifty times he prostrated himself raising his body again by his fingers and toes, while he repeated at every genuflexion:  ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’.”

Two things are worth noting about this passage. First, this was the whole of the “Hail Mary” in St. Albert’s day. The second part of the prayer—“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death”—had not yet been added. Second, the fact that the prayer is recorded by the biographer (and not simply called the “Hail Mary”) suggests it was not yet well known.

This portion of the prayer is notably biblical. It consists of the two salutations given to Mary, one from Gabriel and the other from Elizabeth (Luke 1:28, 42). A few more centuries passed before the second portion of the prayer was added. It appears to have been the product of the Holy Spirit at work in the popular mind and shows up in various tongues beginning in the fourteenth century as a general appeal that Mary pray for sinners, particularly at the hour of death. By the early sixteenth century the “Hail Mary” assumes the form we know today. And, of course, as we have seen in Chapters 7 and 11, the second half of the “Hail Mary” (“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”) while not a direct biblical quote, is thoroughly rooted in Scripture as understood by apostolic tradition.

Since the “Hail Mary” took its final shape there have been two important further developments in the Rosary: the addition of the Fatima prayer (see the blog entry tomorrow for information on the Apparitions at Fatima), and Pope St. John Paul II’s promulgation of the Luminous Mysteries.


One Response

  1. I think there’s another noteworthy detail about St. Albert here. If I understand correctly, he was doing push-ups on fingers and toes as a prayer?

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