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 http://rosarycreations.com/rosaryprayerslatin.htm 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)
Labels: 16thc, England