Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Up against the wall

I've found it very educational to watch the rosary auctions on eBay to see what the modern rosary market and modern rosary ideas are like. Among other things, I've learned to recognize some of the more unusual "types" that come up for sale. Usually the people trying to sell one have never seen the type before, and have no idea what they've got, and the prices being asked vary wildly, all the way from $5 to $250 for the same item.

Wall rosary

One such type is the giant "wall" rosary, with beads that may be an inch in diameter, the whole rosary four or five feet long. Most common is a wooden type, with beads usually described as "hand-carved." Actually they are machine-carved, in patterns of overlapping circles and dots. Usually these are stained a very dark brown, but occasionally you see one that isn't.

Closeup of carved beads

Many of them have a heart-shaped joining piece inscribed with a shrine name, since many were created for sale in souvenir shops -- most commonly St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, but I've also seen one or two from Lourdes.

Heart shaped center

Another fairly common type of wall rosary is approximately the same size, but made of a medium-ivory colored plastic, with a very "sixties" modernistic crucifix. I've also seen "wall rosaries" with plain round wood beads (smooth, not carved), with square wood beads, more or less cross-shaped beads (flat squares with small indentations in the corners), beads that are supposed to look like sections of cut branches with the bark on, and occasionally in other materials such as terra cotta.

Most sellers have never seen or heard of a "wall rosary" until they come across the one they're selling, and their comments can be amusing. Some think they must be very rare and try to price them accordingly. Others assume they are the type worn by nuns -- while many nuns in traditional habits do wear a rosary, in actuality it's nowhere near this big.

As far as I can tell, these very large rosaries are intended as religious decorations for one's wall. There was a period in the 1950s and 60s (which I remember) and perhaps earlier (which I wasn't here for) when Catholics in the U.S. were still feeling rather embattled and defensive about their faith, and tended to react by flaunting it in private (while often hiding it in public). Lots of statues in the house, outdoor Mary shrines, and similar items of decor were part of this trend.

Actual selling prices for "wall rosaries" on eBay tend to be in the $25-$50 range -- I've bought a couple to take apart for the large (1") wooden beads, which are good material for making the Renaissance style of paternoster with 10 large beads that you see men carrying in portraits. (See "Counting to ten" for an example.)

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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Counting to ten

One of the common forms of medieval rosary or paternoster is a string of just one decade — ten beads. The Germans call this a "Zehner" which literally means "Tenner." The beads are usually rather large, giving the owner an opportunity to show off a few extra large, ostentatiously expensive beads, such as red coral or elaborately carved boxwood.

Man with Tenner

"Portrait of a Man with a Rosary," attributed to Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (Netherlands, 1545, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY) (This man looks like he really doesn't want to have his portrait painted!)

By and large, the tenner seems to be a "guy thing." So far I haven't seen any depictions of one being held by a woman, although both men and women are seen holding longer multi-decade strings and closed-loop rosaries.

A number of style variations are possible. Just a quick survey of the examples I can find easily gives these:

· A string of ten beads (sometimes an eleventh, larger bead) with a finger ring at one end and a cross or other pendant at the other. Several examples survive, such as this one:

Simple tenner

Simple Zehner or Tenner from the Diocesan Museum in Köln (Cologne, Germany)

· An open string of ten beads,loosely strung with tassels at both ends, sometimes with an eleventh, larger bead. Often worn looped over a belt. Something similar — not strictly a tenner, since it has 16 beads and an additional contrasting bead in the center — is in the background of the painting The Magdalen Reading

· The Chatsworth paternoster. A ring at the top, followed by a carved wooden cross, then eleven large carved wooden beads, and at the bottom a "prayer nut" bead that opens to show carvings inside. Given to Henry VIII of England by Cardinal Wolsey (16th century).

Chatsworth paternoster

More unusual examples include:

· The "seven skulls." A ring at the top, ten (probably) heavily carved beads with gilded silver beads in between, and a silver pendant. 15th or 16th century, German. This particular string has seven remaining beads, but it is likely there originally were ten.

Skulls paternoster

Seven boxwood skulls (prob. orig. 10), with silver gilt, niello and enamel spacers, ring, & crescent. Inside each skull are 2 carved scenes against feather background. 39cm, skulls ca. 2cm. closed. (Baltimore Museum of Art).

· Twelve carved apricot kernels, with silver beads in between, and a tassel at the bottom. I have my doubts about this one, since a magnified view of the photo shows that the end without a tassel is a rather frayed-looking knot. I strongly suspect that this is merely twelve beads that were once part of a longer string. Since they are so elaborate (and expensive!), they would probably have been salvaged even if they were all that remained of the original rosary.

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String, or nothing

The first question that always comes up when someone wants to make a medieval paternoster is what kind of beads to use. The second question is almost always, "And what kind of thread do I string them on?"

The answer I usually have to give is that we don't have a lot of evidence to go on. In paintings, usually you can't see that kind of detail, because the painter didn't often paint at such a small scale. To complicate matters, we often have no idea just how realistic the painter was trying to be, as evidenced by the number of painted rosaries whose beads seem to be disproportionately big, or of a number like 28, 16, or 39 that doesn't seem to match any set of plausible prayers.

We also don't have much evidence from surviving rosaries or paternosters. As far as I know, all the surviving pre-1600 beads that have survived have been re-strung — except those very few discovered in the last ten or twenty years, which have been recovered from archaeological contexts and were preserved with their cords. (For a long time, remnants of fibers, strings and cloth were simply tossed on the trash heap by archaeologists — fortunately this rarely happens any more.)

This means that just as we can't completely trust what we see in paintings, we can't completely trust the way in which surviving beads may have been re-strung. We hope that whoever re-strung the beads followed the original pattern carefully, but we usually have no evidence whether they did or not.

All this makes it sound like there's no trustworthy evidence at all: well, we do the best we can through comparing different types of evidence, just as we do for other difficult (I was going to say "knotty"!) questions.

For what it's worth, though, we do have a couple of data points. There's at least one 16th-century set of beads in Köln (Cologne, Germany) that are strung on a bright pink silk cord. There is also a 14th-century English example in the Museum of London: eight amber beads still threaded on a tubular tablet-woven string of silk. (From: Crowfoot, Elisabeth, Frances Pritchard and Kay Staniland. Textiles and Clothing, c.1150-c.1450: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4. London: Boydell Press, 2001.)

My own conclusion is that threading beads on silk twist is the best guess in most cases, given what evidence we have. I would hypothesize that in less wealthy contexts, linen or hemp cord would be plausible. Wool is unlikely because it tends to be considerably less strong by comparison, and doesn't take abrasion well as the beads slide back and forth.

As for knots: a good many of the images of medieval rosaries I've seen are clearly strung on a plain thread, with no knots between beads, so that the beads can be slid along the thread one by one as the prayers are said: for example, in a portrait of the Madonna and Child by Ambrogio Fossano. I have heard rumors of period pearl necklaces with knots between the beads, but have never seen anything resembling evidence for this (it tends to be argued on grounds of "common sense," but we all know that what seems sensible to us didn't necessariy seem so to people in history).

By the way, yes it is more than a little odd to see the Infant Jesus playing — most anachronistically — with a rosary; but there are a lot of medieval paintings showing exactly that!

Posts in this series:

String or Nothing
The thread thread
String Theory
Threads of silk and gold
Of flexwire and time machines


Saturday, October 09, 2004

Rosaries for RenFaire

I actually got interested in the history of rosaries and paternosters in the first place because someone from my Renaissance guild said to me, "The character I'm portraying was a Catholic. Would she have carried a rosary, and if so, what would it have looked like?"

"I don't know," I answered, and started looking for information. Alas, sources are few and far between. For some reason, nearly everyone who writes about rosaries focuses on the prayers, and completely skips over questions like what the beads were made of, how many there are, and how they are arranged.

It turns out that the most useful resources are books on jewelry, since rosaries seem to have generally followed the fashions of ordinary jewelry of the same period. We do have a few surviving rosaries from the 15th, 16th and early 17th centuries, and more evidence from period paintings and other illustrations. What can we conclude from these?

First, 16th-century English rosaries came in a variety of forms, some of which look quite a lot like modern rosaries. The form of the modern rosary, a circle of five groups of ten beads each, with a single bead between "decades" and a short side-chain of five more beads and a cross, was more or less "standardized" by the Council of Trent, which met in the middle of the 16th century, from 1563 to 1569.

Judging from jewelry of the time, it's quite possible to find a modern rosary that is a pretty good approximation of a 16th-century rosary of this type. Here are the major things to look for.

(1) Beads were usually not faceted, but round or oval with a smooth surface.

(2) Materials include -- more or less in order from lowest to highest status -- wood, bone, glass, semiprecious stone such as agate, mother-of-pearl, jet, amber, coral, silver, pearls, or even gold with precious stones. The single beads between decades (called "paters" or "gauds") were usually material of the same or higher status than the decade beads.

Any modern rosary that meets these criteria and doesn't look like it's plastic, machine-made or excessively modern in style is quite a plausible accessory for a 16th-century Catholic. Pay especially close attention to the cross and medals of any rosary you're considering -- this is where modern style shows up most often, and a 1930s Art Deco cross just doesn't make for a believable 16th-century accessory.

I'll write more another day about other types of 16th-century rosaries, but briefly, we also see rosaries that are strung on silk thread rather than being made with metal chain-links like modern ones, circles of five decades with just a cross rather than the whole side-chain, and rosaries that end with a religious medal or plain cross rather than a crucifix (a cross with the figure of Jesus on it).

How would a 16th-century Catholic have worn or used her rosary?

Rosaries were technically illegal in Protestant England, but as far as I know, the extent of active persecution of Catholics was actually rather limited, and in any case only significant after the 1570s. Nobles and gentry who refused to attend the parish church were subject to fines, and occasionally someone of significant social standing who had been reported as a Catholic (often by disgruntled neighbors or rivals) was put in jail to think about it for a while, but really active persecution was mostly confined to the politically suspect -- priests actively trying to win converts and anyone suspected of plotting against the Crown. So an ordinary Catholic would probably not get into any trouble just by openly carrying a rosary.

Probably most rosaries were carried in a pocket, as they usually are today. A rosary might also have been worn as jewelry -- in the 16th century it was not considered sacreligious to wear a rosary as a necklace, or it might be wound around the wrist to wear as a bracelet. (Be aware, though, that wearing a rosary as a necklace is considered shocking or irreverent by many modern Catholics, so if you choose to do this, prepare to deal with the audience's reaction.)

A rosary could also be worn hanging from one's belt -- there's at least one portrait of Mary Queen of Scots that shows her wearing one in this style.

The rosary was and is a form of private prayer, so you would not find people standing around reciting it loudly in public. It also doesn't seem to have been such a "hot" issue that you would expect someone to walk up to you in the street and denounce you for having or using one -- any religious attacks were more often about "Papist practices" in general, rather than rosaries in particular.

You might well, however, find someone sitting or kneeling with one off in a quiet corner, or in the back row at a prayer service. If you want to be completely historically accurate, by the way, you would probably be reciting the prayers in Latin -- available online at among other places, along with general instructions on which prayers to say when. (Googling on "rosary prayers Latin" turns up quite a few sites.)

A few pictures of 16th-century rosaries online:

Small rosary of bone, 15th-16th century. (Re-strung in modern times.)

Wood and silver rosary, strung on silk cord, 16th-17th century.

Rosary belonging to Mary Queen of Scots

Portrait of the 63-year-old Erhard Vöhlin von Frickenhausen, 1552

Portrait of a Young Man (Balthasar Eicheister) with Pomander by Bartholomeus Bruyn, the Elder.

Holbein's portrait of Lady Mary Guildford (1527)

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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The Paternosters mailing list

Anyone interested in this blog may also be interested in joining the Paternosters mailing list over at Yahoo.

Paternosters is an e-mail list for people interested in historical rosaries, paternosters, and other prayer beads. If you re-create, research, collect, or just admire and are interested in the variety of rosaries (etc.) that have been used in history, you are very welcome to join us!

There is also a FAQ file in the Paternosters files area (which anyone can read) giving a brief synopsis of the history of the rosary and its predecessor, the paternoster.

To learn more about the Paternosters group, please visit .

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Book review

Originally uploaded by ChrisLaning.

My most recent rosary research foray has been into _Beads of Faith_, by Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott. This was recommended to me by a correspondent who researches the history of Islamic religion, although prayer beads (the *tasbih*) are not his specialty.

When I mention that Gray Henry was a student of Joseph Campbell, that Susannah's most recent book is _The Good Karma Guide_, and that the book has no bibliography and only the most rudimentary photo credits, you'll know what I think of its reliability.

It appears to be the book-ization of a video, and admittedly the photography is gorgeous. :)

However, based on what I _do_ know from better sources, they seem to me to be stretching to make a lot of connections that may not actually be there.


An Islamic rosary picture

Here's a cautionary tale about rosary research.

What I'm trying to track at the moment is whether anyone knows how far back in Islam the use of beads actually extends. _Beads of Faith_ contains a quote from the prophet Mohammed: "Repeat the *Tasbih* a hundred times, and a thousand virtues shall be recorded by God for you, 10 virtuous deeds for each repetition." However I have no idea whether this has been correctly translated.

Until recently the best documentation I could find was a couple of 16th-century Safavid Persian paintings showing people with what are clearly prayer beads. _Beads of Faith_ does have a manuscript illustration which it says is a "12th century Mogul painting" showing an Islamic "saint" in India with his beads.

Oh good, I thought: 12th century is at least a start. A colleague, however, on seeing the supposed "12th-century" image I mentioned above, commented that the book's authors had obviously been misled by the Islamic dating system. From the style of the painting, it's clearly from the 18th or 19th century A.D. -- which in the Muslim dating system is approximately the 12th century _A.H._ (after the Hegira).

Unfortunately, this is not a surprise, given the general quality of the book. :(

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