What did Margaret mean?
I recently had occasion to look at the Paston Letters, a famous series of letters and documents from a family of English gentry in the mid to late fifteenth century (1400s). They provide quite a bit of insight into the realities of everyday life for a moderately wealthy family of the period. I'd seen something quoted in translation, and I wanted to see what the original text said.
As usual, I was looking for mentions of prayer beads. At this period, the word "beads" by itself with no qualifiers almost always refers to prayer beads. Once you figure out that "bedys" and "bedes" usually mean "beads", it's fairly easy to do a text search for them and see in what contexts beads are mentioned. I found a couple of citations that were pretty much what I expected, and one that was a surprise. (The search also turned up a few references to "bedes/beddes" that were clearly beds, along with a couple of "fetherbeddes" -- the vagaries of text search and English spelling.)
Here's the surprising one. It's from a 1453 letter by Margaret Paston, the mother of the family, to her husband who is away in London. I love this language, so I'll reproduce as much of this as I have room for.
On the text: The spelling of this period is usually pretty easy to decipher if you try reading the text aloud -- these words may not look like the ones we know, but they do sound like them. The original also spells the word her as "here," which I find entirely too confusing, especially since the word here is spelled identically. I've taken the e's off the ones that mean "her." And I've translated a few things [in brackets].
Right wurshippfull hosbond, I recommand me to yow [you], praying yow to wete ["wit", i.e. to know] that þe [the] man of Knapton þat owyth yow mony [oweth you money] sent me this weke xxxix s. viij d.; and as for þe remenant of þe mony, he hath promysid to bring itt at Wytsontyd [Whitsuntide, i.e. around Pentecost Sunday]. And as for þe prest [the priest], Howardys sone, he yede [went] to Canbryge þe last weke and he shall nomore come hom tyll itt be mydsomer [Midsummer], and therfore I myght not [i.e. could not] do yowr erunde [errand].
As for tydyngys, þe Quene come in-to þis town on Tewysday last past after none [last Tuesday afternoon] and abode here tyll itt was Thursday iij after none, and she sent after my cosyn Elysabeth Clere be [i.e. "at"] Sharynborn to come to her. And she durst not dysabey [disobey] her commandment, and come to her. And when she come in þe Quenys presens þe Quene made ryght meche [much] of her, and desyrid her to have an hosbond, þe which ye shall know of here-after; but as for that, he is non nerrere [no nearer] than he was before. The Quene was right well pleasid wyth her answere, and reportyht of her in þe best wyse, and seyth be her trowth ["by her troth", an exclamation] she sey [saw] no jantylwomman [gentlewoman] syn [since] she come into Norffolk þat she lykyth better þan she doth her...
I pray yow þat ye woll do yowr cost ["do your cost" i.e. spend some money] on me ayens Witsontyd ["against," i.e. before, Whitsuntide], þat I may haue somme thyng for my nekke [neck]. When þe Quene was here I borowd my cosyn Elysabet Cleres devys ["device," i.e. probably an enameled necklace or pendant], for I durst [dared] not for shame go wyth my bedys [with my beads] among so many fresch jantylwomman as here were at þat tym. The blissid Trinyté have yow in his kepyng. Wretyn [written] at Norwych on þe Fryday next before Seynt George. Be yowrys [yours], M. Paston.
Clearly, she is thinking of her paternoster beads here simply as an item of personal jewelry. Displaying her wealth and good taste in the Queen's company, including being well dressed and appropriately jeweled, is simply what she owes to her station in life. She concludes that if she is going to be in the royal presence again, she needs more jewelry.
But what I find most interesting about this is that she mentions needing "something for my neck" in one breath, and in the next, says she felt ashamed to go before the Queen with only her "beads." This clearly implies (though it doesn't prove) that she was wearing her paternoster beads around her neck. Is that what she meant?
Today wearing a rosary around your neck is regarded as irreverent -- which is probably why some modern entertainers do it. But in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was apparently fairly common. I've mentioned some examples in an earlier article here.
I'm told it was a practice that was discouraged at the time, but I still haven't found any reference saying so. If anyone has more specifics on this, I'd love to hear them.
(Footnote: the portrait I've reproduced above is not Margaret Paston; I haven't found any surviving portraits from the family. And it's about a generation later. But it fits my image of her perfectly. It's actually a portrait of an unknown woman from the early 1500s, probably painted by Jacobsz Dirk, and is in the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Lille, France.)