Bead and Book

As Eamon Duffy wrote in his recent book Marking the Hours, the late middle ages were an age of bead and book. It was not a choice of either/or. On the eve of the Reformation both Books of Hours and Paternoster beads were found at all levels of society. In wills prayer beads and books of hours usually passed together, often to a daughter. I think this has more to do with the types of things inherited by sons and daughters than being an inherent gender issue. Women inherited portable wealth (textiles, jewels, books, furniture), while men inherited land and such (buildings, ‘the business’, titles, most livestock etc).

Finding information about early prayer beads is not easy. This gap has been partially filled by Chris Laning’s Bedes Byddyng: Medieval Rosaries & Paternoster Beads published as issue 135 (2007, 81 pgs) of The Compleat Anachronist. It is available for $4.50 (free postage and handling in US) from here. You can read Chris Laning’s blog Paternosters here.

Laning covers a wide variety of topics: the evolution and spread of paternoster beads and the rosary, commerce and gift giving, origins and meaning of terminology of prayer beads, finding and evaluating the evidence of prayer beads, materials culture, and how to make paternosters and wear them. She also gives brief descriptions of variations of prayer beads used up to 1600, an appendix listing the Latin prayers, and another appendix giving step-by-step instructions to make a set of prayer beads.

Today we think of the Roman Catholic rosary as a pretty rigid set of prayers with a standardized rosary. This is the current product of a long evolutionary process. As Laning describes, everything about the rosary is a product of a several evolutionary steps. Prayer beads began as Pater Noster beads based on the Lord’s Prayer. The number of beads has varied considerably but eventually settled on 150 pater nosters reflecting the 150 psalms prayed on 50 beads, three times around. The ‘Marian psalter’ began as one of many variations that obviously eventually won.

One of the things I find fascinating that is the way prayer beads influenced the English language. The word “bead” comes from Old English ‘to bid’/’to pray’. This is fairly well known but what may be new is that English is the only language to name beads after praying. In German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, French or Swedish, the word for bead is derived from their words for pearl or grain. In other words, in the rest of Europe, their word for bead is derived from some similar size pre-existing object. Only in English is the word for all round objects strung on string named after prayer beads. It also seems odd that prayer beads are always referred to in the plural as sets or pairs of beads or rosaries (perhaps because one rosary is a the sum of many prayers?-big guess on my part perhaps some English major will fill me in). Paternoster has also become a by-word for objects strung in a string that lasts to this day from a string of lakes in a valley to a bucket-brigade type of elevator.

Prayer beads only began taking on the name rosary from 1386 as a metaphorical comparison between the practice and a wreath of roses or a rose garden. Early leaders in the development opposed the name as being too sensual. Initially the word rosary was also applied to other devotions as well.

Laning identified the three main objections to the rosary during the Reformation: 1) the rosary was deemed to be promising salvation by works rather than faith alone, 2) excessive devotion to the Virgin Mary and 3) not in the bible. [Sometime soon I’ll come back and address these for our times and the modern Anglican rosary.] Laning notes that rosaries continued to be used into at least the 1600s “when one seventeenth-century Puritan clergyman in south-west Wales…was reduced to imploring his congregation, if they insisted on using their rosaries, at least to use them ‘prayerfully and with thought’” (p. 16). Its a shame that Laning didn’t look at the legends of the Irish penal rosaries. The legend seems to be alive and well today but I don’t recall ever seeing much evidence.

Most of this work is dedicated to material culture of prayer beads and how to wear them. She discusses the materials beads and their accessories were made from, the guilds that produced them and the significant commerce in beads and components. The guilds specialized to the degree that by 1260 in Paris there were three specialized guilds: one for bone/horn workers, another for shell and coral workers and lastly for amber and jet workers. Jewelers or goldsmiths made paternosters of gold, silver and gems. Archaeologists could find this as a handy summary to identify prayer beads, particularly when components were shipped unassembled.

You should find everything you need to know to make an accurate replica of a medieval paternoster or rosary here. This would be a great project for the Jedi cum knights (or the ladies they fight for/over) at Kent U’s medieval days. Paternoster beads would also be a great teaching tool for medieval history or literature from the Age of Chaucer right through Shakespeare. I’ll leave you with the quote from The Vision of Piers Plowman (19:375-383) (c. 1375) that Chris Laning takes her title from:

“There was no Christian creature that any wits had… that didn’t help to increase the quantity of holiness; some by bedes bidding and some by pilgrimage, and others by private penance, and some by pennies dealing [almsgiving] …Cleanness of common [people] and clerks’ clean living made unity, holy church, in holiness stand.” (p. 74)


One thought on “Bead and Book

  1. Thank you for the glowing review!

    A “pair” of beads (meaning a string) simply means a complete set, using an older meaning of the term “pair.” You still hear very occasionally of “a pair of stairs” (also meaning the complete set, however many there are) and I’ve found a quote about someone having “a pair of cards” (meaning a complete deck) in his pocket, though I can’t locate that quote at the moment.

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