Please see our How to Recite the Holy Rosary sheet in PDF format, and feel free to copy and distribute it freely. It's also available in Spanish.
"The Rosary", says the Roman Breviary , "is a certain form of prayer wherein we say fifteen decades or tens of Hail Marys with an Our Father between each ten, while at each of these fifteen decades we recall successively in pious meditation one of the mysteries of our Redemption." The same lesson for the Feast of the Holy Rosary informs us that when the Albigensian heresy was devastating the country of Toulouse, St. Dominic earnestly besought the help of Our Lady and was instructed by her, so tradition asserts, to preach the Rosary among the people as an antidote to heresy and sin. From that time forward this manner of prayer was "most wonderfully published abroad and developed [ promulgari augerique coepit ] by St. Dominic whom different Supreme Pontiffs have in various past ages of their apostolic letters declared to be the institutor and author of the same devotion." That many popes have so spoken is undoubtedly true, and amongst the rest we have a series of encyclicals, beginning in 1883, issued by Pope Leo XIII, which, while commending this devotion to the faithful in the most earnest terms, assumes the institution of the Rosary by St. Dominic to be a fact historically established. Of the remarkable fruits of this devotion and of the extraordinary favours which have been granted to the world, as is piously believed, through this means, something will be said under the headings F EAST OF THE ROSARY and C ONFRATERNITIES OF THE ROSARY . We will confine ourselves here to the controverted question of its history, a matter which both in the middle of the eighteenth century and again in recent years has attracted much attention.
Let us begin with certain facts which will not be contested. It is tolerably obvious that whenever any prayer has to be repeated a large number of times recourse is likely to be had to some mechanical apparatus less troublesome than counting upon the fingers. In almost all countries, then, we meet with something in the nature of prayer-counters or rosary beads. Even in ancient Nineveh a sculpture has been found thus described by Lavard in his "Monuments" (I, plate 7): "Two winged females standing before the sacred tree in the attitude of prayer ; they lift the extended right hand and hold in the left a garland or rosary." However this may be, it is certain that among the Mohammedans the Tasbih or bead-string, consisting of 33, 66, or 99 beads, and used for counting devotionally the names of Allah, has been in use for many centuries. Marco Polo, visiting the King of Malabar in the thirteenth century, found to his surprise that that monarch employed a rosary of 104 (? 108) precious stones to count his prayers. St. Francis Xavier and his companions were equally astonished to see that rosaries were universally familiar to the Buddhists of Japan. Among the monks of the Greek Church we hear of the kombologion , or komboschoinion , a cord with a hundred knots used to count genuflexions and signs of the cross. Similarly, beside the mummy of a Christian ascetic, Thaias, of the fourth century, recently disinterred at Antinöe in Egypt, was found a sort of cribbage-board with holes, which has generally been thought to be an apparatus for counting prayers, of which Palladius and other ancient authorities have left us an account. A certain Paul the Hermit, in the fourth century, had imposed upon himself the task of repeating three hundred prayers, according to a set form, every day. To do this, he gathered up three hundred pebbles and threw one away as each prayer was finished ( Palladius, Hist. Laus. , xx; Butler, II, 63). It is probable that other ascetics who also numbered their prayers by hundreds adopted some similar expedient. (Cf. "Vita S. Godrici", cviii.) Indeed when we find a papal privilege addressed to the monks of St. Apollinaris in Classe requiring them, in gratitude for the pope's benefactions, to say Kyrie eleison three hundred times twice a day (see the privilege of Hadrian I, A.D. 782, in Jaffe-Löwenfeld, n. 2437), one would infer that some counting apparatus must almost necessarily have been used for the purpose.
But there were other prayers to be counted more nearly connected with the Rosary than Kyrie eleisons. At an early date among the monastic orders the practice had established itself not only of offering Masses, but of saying vocal prayers as a suffrage for their deceased brethren. For this purpose the private recitation of the 150 psalms, or of 50 psalms, the third part, was constantly enjoined. Already in A. D. 800 we learn from the compact between St. Gall and Reichenau ("Mon. Germ. Hist.: Confrat.", Piper, 140) that for each deceased brother all the priests should say one Mass and also fifty psalms. A charter in Kemble (Cod. Dipl., I, 290) prescribes that each monk is to sing two fifties ( twa fiftig ) for the souls of certain benefactors, while each priest is to sing two Masses and each deacon to read two Passions. But as time went on, and the conversi , or lay brothers, most of them quite illiterate, became distinct from the choir monks, it was felt that they also should be required to substitute some simple form of prayer in place of the psalms to which their more educated brethren were bound by rule. Thus we read in the "Ancient Customs of Cluny", collected by Udalrio in 1096, that when the death of any brother at a distance was announced, every priest was to offer Mass, and every non-priest was either to say fifty psalms or to repeat fifty times the Paternoster ("quicunque sacerdos est cantet missam pro eo, et qui non est sacerdos quinquaginta psalmos aut toties orationem dominicam", P. L., CXLIX, 776). Similarly among the Knights Templar, whose rule dates from about 1128, the knights who could not attend choir were required to say the Lord's Prayer 57 times in all and on the death of any of the brethren they had to say the Pater Noster a hundred times a day for a week.
To count these accurately there is every reason to believe that already in the eleventh and twelfth centuries a practice had come in of using pebbles, berries, or discs of bone threaded on a string. It is in any case certain that the Countess Godiva of Coventry (c. 1075) left by will to the statue of Our Lady in a certain 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" (Malmesbury, "Gesta Pont.", Rolls Series 311). Another example seems to occur in the case of St. Rosalia (A. D. 1160), in whose tomb similar strings of beads were discovered. Even more important is the fact that such strings of beads were known throughout the Middle Ages -- and in some Continental tongues are known to this day -- as "Paternosters". The evidence for this is overwhelming and comes from every part of Europe. Already in the thirteenth century the manufacturers of these articles, who were known as "paternosterers", almost everywhere formed a recognized craft guild of considerable importance. The "Livre des métiers" of Stephen Boyleau, for example, supplies full information regarding the four guilds of patenôtriers in Paris in the year 1268, while Paternoster Row in London still preserves the memory of the street in which their English craft-fellows congregated. Now the obvious inference is that an appliance which was persistently called a "Paternoster", or in Latin fila de paternoster, numeralia de paternoster , and so on, had, at least originally, been designed for counting Our Fathers. This inference, drawn out and illustrated with much learning by Father T. Esser, O.P., in 1897, becomes a practical certainty when we remember that it was only in the middle of the twelfth century that the Hail Mary came at all generally into use as a formula of devotion. It is morally impossible that Lady Godiva's circlet of jewels could have been intended to count Ave Marias. Hence there can be no doubt that the strings of prayerbeads were called "paternosters" because for a long time they were principally employed to number repetitions of the Lord's Prayer .
When, however, the Hail Mary came into use, it appears that from the first the consciousness that it was in its own nature a salutation rather than a prayer induced a fashion of repeating it many times in succession, accompanied by genuflexions or some other external act of reverence. Just as happens nowadays in the firing of salutes, or in the applause given to a public performer, or in the rounds of cheers evoked among school-boys by an arrival or departure, so also then the honour paid by such salutations was measured by numbers and continuance. Further, since the recitation of the Psalms divided into fifties was, as innumerable documents attest, the favourite form of devotion for religious and learned persons, so those who were simple or much occupied loved, by the repetition of fifty, a hundred, or a hundred and fifty were salutations of Our Lady, to feel that they were imitating the practice of God's more exalted servants. In any case it is certain that in the course of the twelfth century and before the birth of St. Dominic, the practice of reciting 50 or 150 Ave Marias had become generally familiar. The most conclusive evidence of this is furnished by the "Mary-legends", or stories of Our Lady, which obtained wide circulation at this epoch. The story of Eulalia, in particular, according to which a client of the Blessed Virgin who had been wont to say a hundred and fifty Aves was bidden by her to say only fifty, but more slowly, has been shown by Mussafia (Marien-legenden, Pts I, ii) to be unquestionably of early date. Not less conclusive is the account given of St. Albert (d. 1140) by his contemporary biographer, who tells us: "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'." This was the whole of the Hail Mary as then said, and the fact of all the words being set down rather implies that the formula had not yet become universally familiar. Not less remarkable is the account of a similar devotional exercise occurring in the Corpus Christi manuscripts of the Ancren Riwle. This text, declared by Kölbing to have been written in the middle of the twelfth century (Englische Studien, 1885, P. 116), can in any case be hardly later than 1200. The passage in question gives directions how fifty Aves are to be said divided into sets of ten, with prostrations and other marks of reverence. (See The Month, July, 1903.) When we find such an exercise recommended to a little group of anchorites in a corner of England, twenty years before any Dominican foundation was made in this country, it seems difficult to resist the conclusion that the custom of reciting fifty or a hundred and fifty Aves had grown familiar, independently of, and earlier than, the preaching of St. Dominic . On the other hand, the practice of meditating on certain definite mysteries, which has been rightly described as the very essence of the Rosary devotion, seems to have only arisen long after the date of St. Dominic's death. It is difficult to prove a negative, but Father T. Esser, O.P., has shown (in the periodical "Der Katholik", of Mainz, Oct., Nov., Dec., 1897) that the introduction of this meditation during the recitation of the Aves was rightly attributed to a certain Carthusian, Dominic the Prussian. It is in any case certain that at the close of the fifteenth century the utmost possible variety of methods of meditating prevailed, and that the fifteen mysteries now generally accepted were not uniformly adhered to even by the Dominicans themselves. (See Schmitz, "Rosenkranzgebet", p. 74; Esser in "Der Katholik for 1904-6.) To sum up, we have positive evidence that both the invention of the beads as a counting apparatus and also the practice of repeating a hundred and fifty Aves cannot be due to St. Dominic, because they are both notably older than his time. Further, we are assured that the meditating upon the mysteries was not introduced until two hundred years after his death. What then, we are compelled to ask, is there left of which St. Dominic may be called the author?
These positive reasons for distrusting the current tradition might in a measure be ignored as archaeological refinements, if there were any satisfactory evidence to show that St. Dominic had identified himself with the pre-existing Rosary and become its apostle. But here we are met with absolute silence. Of the eight or nine early Lives of the saint, not one makes the faintest allusion to the Rosary. The witnesses who gave evidence in the cause of his canonization are equally reticent. In the great collection of documents accumulated by Fathers Balme and Lelaidier, O.P., in their "Cartulaire de St. Dominique" the question is studiously ignored. The early constitutions of the different provinces of the order have been examined, and many of them printed, but no one has found any reference to this devotion. We possess hundreds, even thousands, of manuscripts containing devotional treatises, sermons, chronicles, Saints' lives, etc., written by the Friars Preachers between 1220 and 1450; but no single verifiable passage has yet been produced which speaks of the Rosary as instituted by St. Dominic or which even makes much of the devotion as one specially dear to his children. The charters and other deeds of the Dominican convents for men and women, as M. Jean Guiraud points out with emphasis in his edition of the Cartulaire of La Prouille (I, cccxxviii), are equally silent. Neither do we find any suggestion of a connection between St. Dominic and the Rosary in the paintings and sculptures of these two and a half centuries. Even the tomb of St. Dominic at Bologna and the numberless frescoes by Fra Angelico representing the brethren of his order ignore the Rosary completely.
Impressed by this conspiracy of silence, the Bollandists, on trying to trace to its source the origin of the current tradition, found that all the clues converged upon one point, the preaching of the Dominican Alan de Rupe about the years 1470-75. He it undoubtedly was who first suggested the idea that the devotion of "Our Lady's Psalter" (a hundred and fifty Hail Marys ) was instituted or revived by St. Dominic . Alan was a very earnest and devout man, but, as the highest authorities admit, he was full of delusions, and based his revelations on the imaginary testimony of writers that never existed (see Quétif and Echard, "Scriptores O.P.", 1, 849). His preaching, however, was attended with much success. The Rosary Confraternities, organized by him and his colleagues at Douai, Cologne, and elsewhere had great vogue, and led to the printing of many books, all more or less impregnated with the ideas of Alan. Indulgences were granted for the good work that was thus being done and the documents conceding these indulgences accepted and repeated, as was natural in that uncritical age, the historical data which had been inspired by Alan's writings and which were submitted according to the usual practice by the promoters of the confraternities themselves. It was in this way that the tradition of Dominican authorship grew up. The first Bulls speak of this authorship with some reserve: "Prout in historiis legitur" says Leo X in the earliest of all. "Pastoris aeterni" 1520; but many of the later popes were less guarded.
Two considerations strongly support the view of the Rosary tradition just expounded. The first is the gradual surrender of almost every notable piece that has at one time or another been relied upon to vindicate the supposed claims of St. Dominic. Touron and Alban Butler appealed to the Memoirs of a certain Luminosi de Aposa who professed to have heard St. Dominic preach at Bologna, but these Memoirs have long ago been proved to a forgery. Danzas, Von Löe and others attached much importance to a fresco at Muret; but the fresco is not now in existence, and there is good reason for believing that the rosary once seen in that fresco was painted in at a later date ("The Month" Feb. 1901, p. 179). Mamachi, Esser, Walsh, and Von Löe and others quote some alleged contemporary verses about Dominic in connection with a crown of roses; the original manuscript has disappeared, and it is certain that the writers named have printed Dominicus where Benoist, the only person who has seen the manuscript, read Dominus . The famous will of Anthony Sers, which professed to leave a bequest to the Confraternity of the Rosary at Palencia in 1221, was put forward as a conclusive piece of testimony by Mamachi ; but it is now admitted by Dominican authorities to be a forgery ("The Irish Rosary, Jan., 1901, p. 92). Similarly, a supposed reference to the subject by Thomas à Kempis in the "Chronicle of Mount St. Agnes" is a pure blunder ("The Month", Feb., 1901, p. 187). With this may be noted the change in tone observable of late in authoritative works of reference. In the "Kirchliches Handlexikon" of Munich and in the last edition of Herder's "Konversationslexikon" no attempt is made to defend the tradition which connects St. Dominic personally with the origin of the Rosary. Another consideration which cannot be developed is the multitude of conflicting legends concerning the origin of this devotion of "Our Lady's Psalter" which prevailed down to the end of the fifteenth century, as well as the early diversity of practice in the manner of its recitation. These facts agree ill with the supposition that it took its rise in a definite revelation and was jealously watched over from the beginning by one of the most learned and influential of the religious orders. No doubt can exist that the immense diffusion of the Rosary and its confraternities in modern times and the vast influence it has exercised for good are mainly due to the labours and the prayers of the sons of St. Dominic, but the historical evidence serves plainly to show that their interest in the subject was only awakened in the last years of the fifteenth century.
That the Rosary is pre-eminently the prayer of the people adapted alike for the use of simple and learned is proved not only by the long series of papal utterances by which it has been commended to the faithful but by the daily experience of all who are familiar with it. The objection so often made against its "vain repetitions" is felt by none but those who have failed to realize how entirely the spirit of the exercise lies in the meditation upon the fundamental mysteries of our faith. To the initiated the words of the angelical salutation form only a sort of half-conscious accompaniment, a bourdon which we may liken to the "Holy, Holy, Holy" of the heavenly choirs and surely not in itself meaningless. Neither can it be necessary to urge that the freest criticism of the historical origin of the devotion, which involves no point of doctrine, is compatible with a full appreciation of the devotional treasures which this pious exercise brings within the reach of all.
As regards the origin of the name, the word rosarius means a garland or bouquet of roses, and it was not unfrequently used in a figurative sense -- e.g. as the title of a book, to denote an anthology or collection of extracts. An early legend which after travelling all over Europe penetrated even to Abyssinia connected this name with a story of Our Lady, who was seen to take rosebuds from the lips of a young monk when he was reciting Hail Marys and to weave them into a garland which she placed upon her head. A German metrical version of this story is still extant dating from the thirteenth century. The name "Our Lady's Psalter" can also be traced back to the same period. Corona or chaplet suggests the same idea as rosarium . The old English name found in Chaucer and elsewhere was a "pair of beads ", in which the word bead originally meant prayers .
The custom of reciting prayers upon a string with knots or beads thereon at regular intervals has come down from the early days of Christianity, and is still practised in the Eastern as well as in the Western Church. It seems to have originated among the early monks and hermits who used a piece of heavy cord with knots tied at intervals upon which they recited their shorter prayers. This form of rosary is still used among the monks in the various Greek Churches, although archimandrites and bishops use a very ornamental form of rosary with costly beads. The rosary is conferred upon the Greek monk as a part of his investiture with the mandyas or full monastic habit, as the second step in the monastic life, and is called his "spiritual sword". This Oriental form of rosary is known in the Hellenic Greek Church as kombologion (chaplet), or komboschoinion (string of knots or beads ), in the Russian Church as vervitza (string), chotki (chaplet), or liestovka (ladder), and in the Rumanian Church as matanie (reverence). The first use of the rosary in any general way was among the monks of the Orient. Our everyday name of "beads" for it is simply the Old Saxon word bede (a prayer ) which has been transferred to the instrument used in reciting the prayer, while the word rosary is an equally modern term. The intercourse of the Western peoples of the Latin Rite with those of the Eastern Rite at the beginning of the Crusades caused the practice of saying prayers upon knots or beads to become widely diffused among the monastic houses of the Latin Church, although the practice had been observed in some instances before that date. On the other hand, the recitation of the Rosary, as practised in the West, has not become general in the Eastern Churches ; there it has still retained its original form as a monastic exercise of devotion, and is but little known or used among the laity, while even the secular clergy seldom use it in their devotions. Bishops, however, retain the rosary, as indicating that they have risen from the monastic state, even though they are in the world governing their dioceses.
The rosary used in the present Greek Orthodox Church -- whether in Russia or in the East -- is quite different in form from that used in the Latin Church. The use of the prayer-knots or prayer-beads originated from the fact that monks, according to the rule of St. Basil, the only monastic rule known to the Greek Rite, were enjoined by their founder to pray without ceasing" ( 1 Thessalonians 5:17 ; Luke 1 ), and as most of the early monks were laymen, engaged often in various forms of work and in many cases without sufficient education to read the prescribed lessons, psalms, and prayers of the daily office, the rosary was used by them as a means of continually reciting their prayers. At the beginning and at the end of each prayer said by the monk upon each knot or bead he makes the "great reverence" ( he megale metanoia ), bending down to the ground, so that the recitation of the rosary is often known as a metania . The rosary used among the Greeks of Greece, Turkey, and the East usually consists of one hundred beads without any distinction of great or little ones, while the Old Slavic, or Russian, rosary, generally consists of 103 beads, separated in irregular sections by four large beads, so that the first large bead is followed by 17 small ones, the second large bead by 33 small ones, the third by 40 small ones, and the fourth by 12 small ones, with an additional one added at the end. The two ends of a Russian rosary are often bound together for a short distance, so that the lines of beads run parallel (hence the name ladder used for the rosary), and they finish with a three-cornered ornament often adorned with a tassel or other finial, corresponding to the cross or medal used in a Latin rosary.
The use of the Greek rosary is prescribed in Rule 87 of the "Nomocanon", which reads: "The rosary should have one hundred [the Russian rule says 103] beads ; and upon each bead the prescribed prayer should be recited." The usual form of this prayer prescribed for the rosary runs as follows: "O Lord Jesus Christ , Son and Word of the living God, through the intercessions of thy immaculate Mother [ tes panachrantou sou Metros ] and of all thy Saints, have mercy and save us. If, however, the rosary be said as a penitential exercise, the prayer then is: O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. The Russian rosary is divided by the four large beads so as to represent the different parts of the canonical Office which the recitation of the rosary replaces, while the four large beads themselves represent the four Evangelists. In the monasteries of Mount Athos, where the severest rule is observed, from eighty to a hundred rosaries are said daily by each monk. In Russian monasteries the rosary is usually said five times a day, while in the recitation of it the "great reverences" are reduced to ten, the remainder being simply sixty "little reverences" (bowing of the head no further than the waist) and sixty recitations of the penitential form of the prescribed prayer.
Among the Greek Uniats rosary is but little used by the laity. The Basilian monks make use of it in the Eastern style just described and in many cases use it in the Roman fashion in some monasteries. The more active life prescribed for them in following the example of Latin monks leaves less time for the recitation of the rosary according to the Eastern form, whilst the reading and recitation of the Office during the canonical Hours fulfils the original monastic obligation and so does not require the rosary. Latterly the Melchites and the Italo-Greeks have in many places adopted among their laity a form of to the one used among the laity of the Roman Rite, but its use is far from general. The Ruthenian and Rumanian Greek Catholics do not use it among the laity, but reserve it chiefly for the monastic clergy, although lately in some parts of Galicia its lay use has been occasionally introduced and is regarded as a latinizing practice. It may be said that among the Greeks in general the use of the rosary is regarded as a religious exercise peculiar to the monastic life; and wherever among Greek Uniats its lay use has been introduced, it is an imitation of the Roman practice. On this account it has never been popularized among the laity of the peoples, who remain strongly attached to their venerable Eastern Rite .
The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.
Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.
No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.
Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online