The Rosary is perhaps the most popular non-liturgical prayer in the Latin Rite. It has appealed to people of all stations in the Church, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, religious or laity. It has been recommended by recent Popes from Leo XIII to John Paul II, and by saints, such as St. Peter Canisius (1521-1597), St. Louis Marie de Montfort (1673-1716), and St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787). Aside from its spiritual benefits, its appeal no doubt lies with its ease of recitation, its soothing repetitiveness, and its intimate connection with Scripture and the life of Christ.
The standard Rosary with which most people are familiar is known as the Dominican Rosary. It is composed of 15 decades broken into three sets of 5 decades each. This is by no means the only Rosary around. There are numerous other Rosaries, such as the Franciscan Rosary, the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows, and the Brigittine Rosary. Each has its own unique construction and emphasis. For example, the Franciscan Rosary is composed of seven decades in honor of the Seven Joys of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Furthermore, Rosaries are not restricted to devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary alone. There are rosaries in honor of the Sacred Heart, the Holy Name, the Holy Spirit, the Angels, Saint Joseph, Saint Patrick and many other saints. The one considered here is the standard Dominican Rosary.
The origins of the Dominican Rosary are obscure. There is a popular tradition that the Rosary originated with St. Dominic (c 1170-1221). This legend, however, is unsupported by historical documentation. Critical scholarship, including much research carried out by Dominicans themselves, indicates that St. Dominic had little, if anything, to do with the Rosary. St. Dominic certainly had a deep and abiding devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but there is no mention of his authorship of the Rosary in any of his writings, nor is there any mention by any of his contemporaries or his biographers of his involvement. Given the silence of the historical record of his time, it is difficult to see how St. Dominic could have been its author. Instead the origin of the legend of St. Dominic's involvement appears to have been due to the writings of Alan de la Roche (Alanus de Rupe) c 1428-1475. It is in his writings that we see the legend of St. Dominic's authorship of the Rosary appear for the first time. Alan de la Roche did much to promote the Rosary, and it is no doubt due to him that the notion of St. Dominic as the author of the Rosary became fixed in people's minds. Eventually what was originally a pious story turned into hallowed history.
Prayer beads themselves are of very ancient usage in the Church, probably originating with the monastics of the early Church. Desert monastics were in the habit of reciting a specified number of prayers daily and such a method of keeping track of them is natural. In the life of the Egyptian Abbot Paul (d. A. D. 341), we read that he used to collect three hundred pebbles every day and throw away each one as he finished the corresponding prayer he was accustomed to recite (Palladius, Hist. Laus., xx; Butler, II, 63). It is easy to see how one can start with pebbles and progress onto a string of pebbles or beads of some sort. The Countess Godiva of Coventry (c. 1075) specified in her will that "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" were to be placed on a statute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Malmesbury, "Gesta Pont.", Rolls Series 311). Fragments of prayer beads have been found in the tomb of the holy abbess Gertrude of Nivelles (d. 659) and in the tombs of St. Norbert and of St. Rosalia, both of the twelfth century. It is thus easy to see that prayer beads are not by any means a recent development.
The earliest known prayer form associated with prayer beads was not the Hail Mary. While the Hail Mary had been used since ancient times as an antiphon to our Lady, it really was not used as a prayer form in and of itself until sometime around the 12th or 13th centuries, nor did it take its present day form until the 15th century. Instead the prayer most often associated with these early prayer beads in the Middle Ages was the Our Father. The beads had such a close association with the Our Father that they were commonly known as Paternoster beads, "Pater noster" being the first two words of the Our Father in Latin. Many pious customs of reciting Paternosters existed in the Middle Ages. For example, the monks at Cluny were urged to recite 50 Paternosters at the death of one of their fellow monks (Udalric, 1096). The Knights Templar, from a rule dating from about 1128, were required to say the Lord's Prayer 57 times if they could not attend choir, and on the death of any of their brethren they had to say the Pater Noster a hundred times a day for a week.
The Dominican Rosary as we know it today grew out of a combination of many factors, a complete history of which would be far too long to present here. Briefly, the basic origins of the Rosary lie in the monastic practice of reciting all 150 Psalms in one week. In the desire to give the laity a common form of prayer that had ties to the monastic community, the laity were encouraged to recite 150 Paternosters in imitation. Parallel to this practice were those who had a Marian devotion. They used the Angelic salutation (the opening line of the Hail Mary) instead. These prayers were grouped in sets of 50, 100, or 150 Aves, as are the psalms.
Numerous forms of these Ave devotions were recited by religious and laity alike over the centuries, some very lengthy and elaborate. We are told of St. Albert (d. 1140) by his contemporary biographer that "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 genuflection: 'Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb'." A set of 150 short Marian Psalms with an intervening Ave Maria appears in Migne's collection of the works of St. Anselm (ca 1033-1109). It should be noted that by this we can conclude that the recitation of 50, 100, or 150 Aves actually preceded the good St. Dominic by at least 50 years, if not more. Another example can be found in the Hortulus Animae, a popular prayer book whose first known edition was printed at Strasbourg by William Schaffener of Rappeltsweiler in 1498. In it we see a set of 50 Aves grouped into 5 decades. After each decade, the Our Father and the Creed are recited. Each Ave is associated with an event in Christ's life, starting with His conception and culminating with His Resurrection and Judgment Day, making a total of 50 mysteries. This form of the Rosary was quite popular in the 14th - 16th centuries and may be said to be an early example of Scriptural Rosaries, where each Hail Mary has a Scriptural passage relating to the decade's mystery associated with it.
The Rosary as we know it today started to take its final shape in the fifteenth century. In 1483, a Dominican composed a Rosary booklet called Our Dear Lady's Psalter. It had a Rosary of 15 decades with 15 mysteries, all of which except the last two are what we have today. In 1569, Pope Pius V officially approved the 15 decade form of the Rosary we have today, and in 1573 the same Pope instituted the Feast of the Rosary in thanksgiving for the victory at the battle of Lepanto by Christians over Moslem invaders in which the Rosary played an important part.
It should be noted that while the decades and mysteries have been standardized since the time of Pope St. Pius V, the beginning and ending prayers vary with time and place. In the US, for example, the Rosary begins with the recitation of the Creed and ends with the Salve Regina and concluding prayer (Deus, cuius Unigenitus). Another form, as practiced in Rome, begins with the "Domine, labia mea aperies", which is the starting prayer of the Hours, omits the Creed, and ends with the Litany of Loreto. Various other prayers, such as the Sub tuum praesidium have been employed as well. The prayers most often associated with the Rosary have been included here.
The most recent development in the form of Rosary occurred with the publication of Pope John Paul II's Rosarium Virginis Mariae. In it the Holy Father has added a new set of mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, which focus on Christ's public ministry from the time of His Baptism until His Passion. Traditionally the Joyful mysteries are recited on Mondays and Thursdays, the Sorrowful mysteries are recited on Tuesdays and Fridays, and the Glorious Mysteries are recited on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. With the addition of the Luminous Mysteries, Pope John Paul II proposes that the Joyful mysteries be recited on Mondays and Saturdays, the Luminous Mysteries be recited on Thursdays, the Sorrowful mysteries are recited on Tuesdays and Fridays, and the Glorious Mysteries are recited on Wednesdays and Sundays.
This web page may be downloaded in booklet form here.