Where Did the Rosary Come From? Its History and Lore

Closely allied with the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 was the universal “telling” of the rosary to save Christian Europe from being overwhelmed by the approaching Turkish fleet. Had the Turks won, all Europe would have become Muslim. Despite the great dread of defeat, a stunning victory was achieved and ever since then October 7 has been celebrated as Our Lady of Victory.

A rather simple and humble story tells of a priest in his efforts to exhort young girls in the imitation of the Virgin Mary. Speaking of the Annunciation, the priest asked his charges, “What do you think Mary was doing when the angel Gabriel appeared to her? Was she cleaning the house, gossiping with neighbors or reading? No! What else would she be have been doing but sitting quietly in her room saying her beads.” The picture derived from this story makes it appear that the rosary has always been a part of Christian piety and devotion. Although the story stretches reality, it is true that since the fifteenth century the rosary has found sufficient honor and tribute to establish it as a fixture within the spiritual practice of most Roman Catholics. The roots of this popular prayer are rich and can be found in an evolutionary process which combined legend, devotion, and official Church recognition.

As the apocryphal story above indicates, much legend and lore is associated with the rosary in its long history as part of Catholic devotion. Two basic hypotheses exist to explain the origins of the rosary. The first, offered by the “development of religion” theory, states that the Christian rosary came to Europe from the influence of prayer counters used in Eastern religions, as the Crusades brought some Islamic practices, such as the use of prayer beads, into Christianity. The other hypothesis of the rosary’s origin is that the devotion came to us essentially complete from the hands of Saint Dominic, who had been instructed by the Blessed Mother on its use and efficacy.

Although some merits can be found in each of these theories, neither of them can be adequately supported from the historical record. Hindus and Buddhists have used prayer beads since before the time of Christ. Yet, there is no demonstrable data which links the beads of these Eastern religions to those of Christianity. The theory that crusaders introduced the rosary to the West from the influence of Islam is also more conjecture than fact.

The long-standing tradition that Dominic was given the rosary by Mary actually began 200 years after the saint’s death. Blessed Alanus de Rupe, a fellow Dominican, wrote an account in 1460 in which Mary appeared to Dominic, who was dejected from his failure to convert the Cathars. The Blessed Mother told him that intellectual thinking and preaching were not required against the Cathars, but rather the successful use and promotion of her psalter. She then entrusted to him the rosary, gave him instructions for its use, and revealed its devotion. The story possessed every reason for acceptance, especially its association with a well-known saint. Papal documents supported this theory into the twentieth century. Even the learned John Henry Cardinal Newman explicitly supported the tradition.

The Dominican tradition was not seriously challenged until the eighteenth-century work of the Bollandists, a group of Dutch Jesuits who researched the lives of the saints. These scholars could find no evidence to link the rosary to Saint Dominic in their painstaking work to separate fact from fiction with respect to the saints. In the twentieth century the learned Jesuit Herbert Thurston also challenged the prevailing tradition of the Dominican origin of the rosary. His work created a battle between those who defended the tradition and those who sought new answers concerning the rosary.

The historical record best supports the concept that the rosary evolved into its present form. The elements of prayer beads and the tradition of Saint Dominic are integral to this development, but they are two elements to a vastly larger picture, a portrait which encompasses the evolution of prayers, the practice of piety, and the fulfillment of the age old adage, Lex orandi, lex credendi (“The rule of prayer is the rule of belief”).

The story of the rosary begins with the desert fathers in their attempts to say their prayers faithfully. These anchorites used stones or pebbles to count their daily petitions to God. One stone would be discarded from a bag or pouch with each prayer said, so that the number to be recited could be accurately counted. As time passed, more permanent devices, such as a knotted cord or a notched piece of wood, were used to count these daily prayers and devotions. Thus the concept of a prayer-counter has been with Christianity since the Patristic period.

Irish monks of the seventh century must be credited with the introduction of prayer groups for use in penance or devotion. Recitation of the 150 psalms, arranged in three groups of 50 (na tri coicat), was regularly assigned as penance and prayer for the monks. It was common practice for monks to pray two “fifties” for the repose of the soul of a benefactor or member of the community. “Fifties” were also assigned as corporal prayer. Saint Columba is the one who brought this practice of grouped psalms as prayer to the Continent.

In medieval times the recitation of the Psalms was a practice largely reserved for the literate. Thus, as often happens, conditions necessitated a change of practice. Those monks who were illiterate, or those who could read but had no access to a full text of the Latin psalms, began to substitute popular prayers, in remembrance of Christ, for the psalms. The practice became known as the Jesus Psalter. In order to bring order to the endless possibilities that resulted from substitution for the psalms, the Irish monks circa 800 began to promote the use of the Paternoster (Our Father) as a common prayer which could be assigned in the na tri coicat format for penance. This harmless shift to a universally known prayer, a change which allowed participation by all, was a major step in rosary development. This practice became common throughout Europe. Religious at Cluny (1096) were many times assigned 50 psalms or Our Fathers for the deceased. At the dawn of the eleventh century the use of three fifties of Our Fathers, known as the Little Psalter, prayed on cords or beads of some type, was widespread.

The replacement of the Our Father with the Hail Mary as the primary prayer of the rosary came about in the eleventh and twelfth centuries through a rather complex process. Several Archbishops of Canterbury composed “Psalters of 150 Praises of the Blessed Virgin.” These non-corporal prayers were usually structured in the na tri coicat format. The Ave (Hail Mary) was the basic prayer of these special Marian psalters. Over time the Little Psalter and the beads became associated with the Blessed Virgin and her devotion.

The Ave used in these special psalters was not the prayer we know today. Prior to the fifteenth century, this praise of Mary was totally Scriptural in origin. The infancy narrative of Luke’s Gospel is the root source of the Ave. At the Annunciation the angel Gabriel proclaims, “Rejoice, O highly favored daughter! The Lord is with you” (1:28). Later, during the visitation, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth states, “Blest are you among women and blest is the fruit of your womb” (1:42). The combined greeting of Scripture was used in the offertory of the Mass on the fourth Sunday of Advent, a Marian celebration, from the year 600. The prayer was also used in the Saturday Divine Office and the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the thirteenth century.

Popular devotion led to an expansion of the prayer to its contemporary form. The word Jesus was initially added by Pope Urban IV in 1261. Additions, composed by Saint Anselm of Canterbury and the Catholic reformer Savonarola in the late-fifteenth century, are very close to the words used today. The Catechism produced at the Council of Trent (1545-63) officially recognized the popular addition, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen,” which was then adopted by the revised Roman Breviary of 1568.

The basic structure of the rosary as we know it today stems from the fourteenth century and the work of Henry of Kalbar. Henry was the first to bracket the Marian Psalter with 15 Paters which stood like columns between groups of ten Aves. This German tradition came to England in the fifteenth century. Extant records show that students at Eton College in 1440 were required to recite daily the Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which consisted of 15 Our Fathers and 150 Hail Marys. Archeological evidence testifies to this same structure. Early-fifteenth century “rosaries” consisted of strings of beads where each ten were separated by a larger “marker” bead. The rosary pendant used to pray the Apostles Creed, Our Father, three Hail Marys, and the Doxology, was developed from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century forms of the rosary. Two early-seventeenth-century Jesuit works, The Garden of Our Blessed Lady (1612) and Sacri Rosarii Excercitiones (1622), speak of the pendant as part of the rosary devotion.

Besides the Our Father, which is given us almost verbatim in our contemporary use by Saint Matthew (6:9-13), and the aforementioned Hail Mary, the rosary uses three other prayers. The Doxology or Glory Be has origins which are older than all aspects of the rosary, save the Lord’s Prayer. Invocation of the Trinity was common in the early Patristic period, borrowing from the Hebrew Scriptures’ exhortation, “God be praised.” As early as 529 at the Second Council of Vaison, the doxology as we recite it today was authorized to be said after all psalms in the psalter. The doxology’s association with the rosary begins in the Renaissance period. One prayer book written circa 1500 asks that “the prayer of the Holy Trinity be added to every Our Father of the Psalter.” In 1566 another prayer book called for the doxology to be said after each decade of Hail Marys. Oddly enough the doxology has never been officially recognized as part of the rosary. The document Supremi apostolatus of Leo XIII (1883), which outlined the essentials of the rosary, made no reference to the doxology universally recited by the faithful.

In the Patristic Church, Ambrose and Rufinus (circa 380) wrote accounts of the Apostles Creed and assigned its authorship to the apostles. Medieval tradition promoted this theory, saying it was written on the day of Pentecost, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Contemporary scholarship has shown the Apostles Creed to be one form of a baptismal creed used in fifth-century Rome. The creed is first mentioned as part of the rosary in the Libellus Perutilis, published in 1495. The author saw the creed as a hoop around which a garland of 50 Aves and associated Paters was woven. In the sixteenth century Cistercians were ordered to pray the Apostles Creed with the Aves and Paters of the Marian Psalter.

The Salve Regina or Hail Holy Queen entered into liturgical prayer from the Latin Church. In the thirteenth century Cistercians and Franciscans adopted its use in Compline (night prayer). From the fourteenth century it has been universally sung after Compline in the Latin rite breviary. The authorship of the prayer is uncertain. At least four people have been associated with its composition, including Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. The prayer’s association with the rosary coincided with other events of the day. In 1568 Pope Pius V decreed that the Salve should be sung or recited after Vespers from Trinity Sunday to the first Sunday in Advent. Official papal recognition of the rosary at the same time suggests some connection, although there is no certainty.

On the surface the rosary appears to be a simple repetition of prayers with no direction. This is, however, not the case. The mysteries of the rosary, contemplated during the prayer’s recitation, reside at the true heart of this devotion and make it a meditation upon the life of Christ and His mother Mary. Meditations associated with the prayers of the rosary began in the early fifteenth century. Dominic of Prussia in his book Liber experientiarium composed a set of 50 meditative clauses, one for each Ave recited in a typical “set of 50.” The subject of these clauses embraced the entire life of Jesus and His relationship with Mary. These meditations were later expanded to 150 for each Ave of the entire rosary. These clauses, which were published in books because they were quite difficult to memorize, were appended to the Biblical (first half) of the Hail Mary. For example, the first Hail Mary read, “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, whom thou didst conceive by the Holy Spirit, through the message of an angel. Amen.”

The transition from 150 mysteries to the contemporary 15 began with Alberto da Castello in the early sixteenth century. In his 1521 book Rosario Della Gloriosa Virgine, the word mystery is used for the first time in association with the rosary. The monograph keeps the 150 clauses but divides them into groups of ten and has them introduced by a Paternoster whose theme is consistent with the ten clauses which follow in the decade of Aves.

Several theories exist as to the precise origin of the 15 mysteries in their current configuration of five glorious, joyful, and sorrowful. Various forms of physical evidence show that the mysteries were placed in groups. An anonymous prayer book of 1483 lists the mysteries and divides them into three groups. An altarpiece in a Dominican convent in Frankfurt (1490) contains all 15 present mysteries. One of the original rosary books, Unser Lieben Frauen Psalter contains three insert pages, each with five colored woodcuts of the present mysteries, save the coronation of Mary, which is subsumed into the Assumption. The 1573 text, Rosario Della Sacratissima, lists the mysteries in their present groupings.

Meditation on the rosary was championed by the Jesuits from the foundation of their Society. One book title is illustrative. In 1573 Gaspard Loarte, S.J. published Advice and Suggestions on the Manner of Meditating on the Mysteries of the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin, Our Mother. The work’s influence must have been great, for it was rapidly translated from the original French to German, Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Official Church recognition of the rosary as an approved devotion begins with the aforementioned Alanus de Rupe. As well as initiating the tradition of the Dominican origin of the rosary, Blessed Alanus founded the Confraternity of the Rosary in 1470. Before this time the rosary was an individual devotion of piety; there was no centralized effort to have the prayer recognized. De Rupe’s organization was subsumed under a similar organization started by Jacob Sprenger in Cologne. This latter group grew rapidly. One report listed 500,000 members by 1479. Popularity was guaranteed for the Confraternity, since its requirements for membership were minimal: recitation of Our Lady’s Psalter once per week and reception of Holy Communion on the first Sunday of the month. Sprenger’s manual for the organization called for recitation of the complete psalter (15 decades) where, “after ten white roses they must insert one red rose,” thus giving definition to the idea of one Pater followed by ten Aves.

The Confraternity of the Rosary brought the devotion to the forefront of Church practice. Almost 100 years later in 1571, Don Juan’s great naval victory over the Turks at Lepanto was attributed to the rosary. Pius V declared that from that day, October 7, a commemoration of the rosary would be made in the Mass for that day. In 1573, at the request of the Dominican order, Pope Gregory XIII established the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary on the first Sunday in October. Initially the feast was granted only to churches which possessed an altar dedicated to the rosary. In 1671 Pope Clement X extended the observance to all of Spain. Another military victory over the Turks, at Peterwardein in Hungary on August 5, 1716, led Clement XI to extend the feast to the universal Church. Today the feast is celebrated as an obligatory memorial on October 7. The official definition of the rosary is that given in the breviary for October 7: “The rosary is a certain form of prayer wherein we say 15 decades of Hail Marys with an Our Father between each, and recalling in pious meditation as many mysteries of our redemption as there are single [decades].”

Rosary devotion has been championed by many in the post-Reformation period. Saint Louis Marie de Montfort in his book The Secret of the Most Holy Rosary (1680) gave a brief history of the devotion. The text also served as a manual for the prayers’ recitation. In the nineteenth century Pope Leo XIII wrote 12 encyclicals and other documents which promoted rosary devotion. Leo was the one who, in Supremi apostolatus, initiated the idea of October as a special month for devotion to the rosary. More recently Father Patrick Peyton, CSC, traveled the world many times over in the promotion of family prayer centered on the rosary.

Contemporary Catholicism has seen an eclipse in rosary devotion. Yet this prayer’s strong roots in the tradition of the Faith suggest that one day it will shine again brightly. Our appreciation for the historical roots of this special prayer and its mysteries can aid our personal renewal and help us to rediscover the efficacy and importance of Catholic devotional life.


Father Richard Gribble, CSC is a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross and Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College.

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