Friday, November 6, 2015

Rosary Tales: Emergence, Development and Controversy

by Deborah Bogen

Perhaps the first thing non-Catholics have to learn about the development of the rosary in the middle ages is that the focus of inquiry is not the physical object (i.e., the often gorgeous string of beads that serves as a counting tool) but rather the prayer cycle itself which is prayed and meditated upon by both clergy and laypeople. The prayer cycle appears to have emerged in the early13th century and has, ever after, been the subject of interpretation, change and even heated debate.

The second thing is that we cannot be definitive about its history: there are multiple and often opposing views and records on nearly every aspect of the rosary. Among the sometimes confusing sources are historical references, long-standing myth, connections to the imagery of courtly love and earlier traditions (with their own pantheon of gods) and, of course, the wide range of local culture, geographical constraints and even village customs that come in to play.

In short, there is not now, and never has been, only one rosary. But given the intense focus on religion and especially the afterlife in the middle ages there is still much we can learn about the rosary’s development and practice that will enrich our writing about medieval life.

What follows are jigsaw puzzle pieces, each with a history, a basis in teaching and a religious justification as well as a place in the culture of the church. I hope it will be possible to arrange them in a fashion that allows a larger and richer picture to emerge.

1.) Relying on that dubious source, “according to tradition,” the rosary was first given to St. Dominic by the Blessed Virgin Mary in the year 1214. In fact, aside from stories passed down and later promoted by the church there is no documentation linking Dominic to the rosary. Better documented is the fact that the rosary’s importance was later boosted by Alain de la Roche (who claimed he received a vision from Jesus encouraging the reinstatement of the rosary as a form of prayer.) de la Roche (also known as St. Alan of the Rock) promoted the rosary as a devotional exercise and encouraged the establishment of rosary confraternities.

2.) The tradition of using knotted string or strings of beads to keep track of prayer recitations is an ancient one and can be found in Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist cultures, among others. Scholars assume Christians brought these beads back to Europe when they returned from the Crusades, but some beads were already in use (e.g., Lady Godiva of Coventry who died in 1041 and bequeathed a set of gems threaded on a cord that she had used to recite her prayers.) The beads that can be documented pre-date the use of the Hail Mary and were used to recite paternosters and other prayers. In addition to helping the devout keep track of prayers the physical rosaries were an opportunity for some religious persons to own and wear beautiful objects that might have otherwise been counted as vain or worldly.

3.) There is some controversy about the power and precedent of the Our Father versus the Hail Mary in the development of the rosary. Some church sources claim that the ultimate source for the rosary as a prayer form is the Book of Psalms, part of the Jewish heritage of the Christian Church. The psalms were replaced by praying the Our Father at intervals. Other sources say the Ave Maria took precedence but in either case antiphons (in the form of short verses) connecting the lives of Mary and Jesus to the psalms were devised as part of the recitation. Eventually the psalms fell away and the antiphons remained providing direction for meditation on a specific aspect of the life of Mary or of Jesus.

4.) One Church reference, Dominican Father Frederick M. Jelly, writes that in the early 15th century the devotion was 50 Hail Marys linked to 50 phrases about Jesus and Mary. “This is the origin of the word rosary since the 50 points of meditation was called a rosarium (rose garden.) Rosary came to refer to the recitation of 50 Hail Marys.

5. The Ave Prayer (Hail Mary Full of Grace) was an early core of the rosary. Anecdotes from the twelfth and thirteenth century tell of pious individuals who recited the Ave Maria in chains of 50, 60, 100 or 150 repetitions, believing that upon hearing these words the Holy Virgin would experience delight recalling the joy of the Incarnation. The faithful might also experience bliss. There exists a report (circa 1200) of a matron who, upon reciting 50 Hail Marys experienced a taste of wonderful sweetness in her mouth.

6.) As the prayer developed, various methods for meditation were introduced. One was the recitation of rhymed quatrains to help with memorization and provide focus for meditation. These meditations would be interspersed with Hail Marys. Since the meditations were based on the stations of Christ’s life they were considered particularly good for the layperson (who was supposed to be incapable of higher-order imageless contemplation.) Thus the rosary was dispersed freely and even actively to the laity. The prayers were recited in the vernacular so they could be recited quietly by laypersons even during a service at which the priests used Latin.

7.) Social brotherhoods called confraternities were established for various purposes throughout Europe during the middle ages. Women were not admitted to most of these, but the confraternity of the rosary welcomed women into its ranks. Members of the rosary confraternity could participate as a group in processions (for which indulgences were granted) and worship at rosary altars in chapels in their mother tongue. This was worship outside the official liturgy and was also associated with the granting of indulgences for recitation of the rosary – that is, a member could pray his or her way out of certain punishments for sin, e.g., by shortening time spent in purgatory. In addition a member could also enroll dead family members in order to help pray them out of purgatory. This practice opened the rosary to criticism, as it was claimed the interest of participants was not really in praising Mary or Jesus, but rather in obtaining personal gain through early release from purgatorial suffering.

8.) Despite criticisms the rosary was an enormous success and part of that success was due to the methods by which it was popularized. Broadsides and pamphlets provided testimony to the miraculous effects of saying the prayer. One broadsheet (c.1530) says: “Whoever wants to be of the family of Mother Mary let him enroll himself in the brotherhood of the rosary, for I tell you, she will protect him from the pain of hell. Indeed she can free him from it eternally.”

A further attraction of the confraternity of the rosary was its lack of class distinction. People of all stations could enroll. Those of you who study these times can imagine how radical that would be. Analysis of the rolls of one confraternity shows its members to include monks, nuns, artisans, children and six lepers.

9.) Another aspect of the rosary’s popularity was that literacy was not required. “How-to” books were block-printed and the most successful of these were entirely pictorial. Just as the murals painted inside cathedrals instructed the illiterate in the life of Christ and in the pleasures of heaven and the pain of hell, picture books detailing an aspect of Jesus’s life told the non-reading devout what to meditate on at various points in the recitation of the rosary prayers. There were at least three picture texts designed for this purpose and distributed before 1490 (and in regions as distant from one another as Ulm, Barcelona and Florence.) These had the further advantage that they could be “read” in any language as you needed neither Latin or a particular vernacular to understand them.

10.) Perhaps one of the most entertaining disputes regarding the rosary involves Dominic of Prussia and Alain de la Roche. Dominic called the prayer cycle a “rosary” but Alain adamantly opposed this label and insisted on calling it a “psalter.” He states clearly that his objection is based on the profane associations attached to the rose – claiming it has “vain and worldly connotations.” The rose had long been associated with Roman spring festivals and Aphrodite. Further “rose gardens” were part of other folktales as “love gardens.” Finally there was the “obscene” usage of “rose garden” and “rose-bush” to refer female genitalia. However strong de la Roche’s argument, the masses adopted rosary with enthusiasm. There is Christian iconography to support their choice (e.g.,“Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming” ) but we will never know definitively why Dominic’s terminology won out. In his promotional material for the rosary he writes “We live as though we were in Mary’s rose garden, all of us who occupy ourselves with the roses.”

11.) The rosary devotion became inextricably bound to the string of prayer beads that came to represent it. These were made from diverse materials, pebbles, precious stones, bones, glass, horn, coral, mussel shell, amber and even polished brown coal. A flourishing rosary trade developed and as early as 1277 makers of “paternosters” are recorded in London (even today Paternoster Row and Ave Maria Lane can be found.) I was surprised to learn that the creation of rosaries was a trade Jews participated in.

12.) Rosaries were an acceptable adornment for the devout, and were often so beautiful that ostentation had to be curbed. Fifteenth century Nuremburg passed an ordinance that “no unmarried woman shall any longer wear a Pater Noster (meaning rosary) which is valued at more than twenty Rhenish guelders.” There were other regulations governing just how they could be worn (around the neck, on the arm but not down the back where they might touch the buttocks.) These often beautiful strings could also be displayed in the home, and were something that could be cherished and passed from generation to generation. This may have been especially important for converts to Christianity as the display of rosaries, religious pictures and, of course, the cross was considered by the Inquisition to be “further evidence” of true Christian devotion.

13) The beads were also thought by some to have the power of an amulet to ward off evil. In 1496 one author wrote:
If you will keep the devil’s wiles at bay
Then you should have this chain and wear it.
If you would not fall prey to the devil’s tricks,
Never let it leave your side.
For if you wear it on your arm,
It will protect you from sin and harm.
It was also believed that if you kept the rosary near a picture of the Virgin the beads gained strength. Rosary manuals even describe cures of illness and insanity effected by placing the beads around the neck of an afflicted person.

14.) Mary as a loving, helpful figure may have contributed to the popularity of the rosary. Over time the church worked to make changes to the rosary to shift its focus to a more “Christo-logical” one. For those who have studied Marianism and the Church’s response to religious devotion outside official channels this will not come as a surprise.

This is a highly incomplete account of facts about the rosary that relies heavily on sources I will list below. I am most indebted to Anne Winston-Allen’s wonderful book, Stories of the Rose. I recommend this as a most fascinating and insightful read.

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Deborah Bogen is the author of two historical novels, The Witch of Leper Cove and The Hounds of God. About Witch Justkindlebooks writes: “The Witch of Leper Cove transports readers to a small river-bend hamlet in thirteenth-century England. Here, three recently orphaned siblings are getting by one day at a time, and soon have to fight against injustice. This is an enchanting, atmospheric and heart-rending book that richly examines true strength and courage in life. Highly recommended!”
Available through Amazon: The Witch of Leper Cove and The Hounds of God.


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