The image of a Catholic kneeling in prayer, rosary in hand seems timeless. Having a Dark Ages character rub the beads while murmuring a prayer wouldn’t be an anachronism, would it?

Yes and no. Christians, and people of other faiths such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, have used beads to keep track of the prayers they were repeating. In the fourth century, Egyptian Abbot Paul used 300 pebbles that he would drop. (Would picking up all those little stones count as penance, too?)

By the seventh century, at least some of the faithful used strings of beads. In early medieval times, one way for Christians to do penance and avoid time in Purgatory was to repeat the Pater Noster 20, 50, or more times. Most of the faithful were illiterate, so memorizing a chapter from the Bible—in Latin—was out of the question. But they could repeat a short prayer they heard all their lives in something that passed for Latin.

Photo by Ricce (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The material for the beads depended on the owner’s wealth, and they could be wood, bone, glass, coral, amber, or pearls. (Prayer beads made from rose petals are documented in the 20th century.) The faithful in the Dark Ages would not have called the beads a rosary. That would come later.

According to Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary revealed the prayers of the Rosary to Saint Dominic in the 13th century while he was fighting the heresy of the Albigenses, who believed the flesh was so evil that suicide by starvation was a good thing. However, Merriam-Webster says the first known use of “rosary” in English was 1547.

We have several explanations for how the name of the Rosary came about.

I like a legend of a lay brother so devoted to Mary he would say 50 Ave Marias a day. One day while traveling through the forest, he stopped to pray. He drew the attention of robbers, but the thieves also saw a beautiful maiden who would take a rose from the monk’s mouth after each prayer and weave the flowers into a crown. When the monk finished, the maiden donned the crown and ascended to heaven.

Amazed, the robbers asked the monk who the maiden was. “What maiden?” was the reply. Then, they all realized she had been the Virgin Mary, and the robbers repented.

Woman holding rosary
1549 painting by Barthel Bruyn the Elder (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Another possibility: The rose, the queen of flowers, is a symbol of Mary, the queen of Heaven, and the prayers are a symbolic rose garden (rosarium in medieval Latin).

So, my earlier question boils down to word choice. Christian characters of any era can use prayer beads, but time period and geography dictate whether that string of beads is called a rosary.


Use of Beads at Prayers” by John Volz, The Catholic Encyclopedia

The Rosary” by Herbert Thurston and Andrew Shipman, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Albigenses” by Nicholas Weber, The Catholic Encyclopedia

St. Dominic” by John Bonaventure O’Connor, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Historical Rosary and Paternoster Beads” Paternoster-Row