Six, seven, and the Servites
Quite a few other devotions exist in the Roman Church that use beads of various configurations. These can equally well be called “rosaries,” though they are most often called “chaplets” or “crowns” to distinguish them from the standard fifteen-decade rosary with mysteries. While new chaplets have been invented in all centuries, and in especially large numbers in the 19th and 20th, there are several that have longer histories. A few of them date back -- or might date back -- to well before 1600, including the the Franciscan Crown, the Brigittine rosary, the Rosary of the Passion or the Five Wounds (both of which I've discussed before), and possibly also the Seven Sorrows chaplet. (There's also the Trisagion chaplet, which I may get to soon).
The Franciscan Crown
The seven-decade Franciscan rosary has a unique format. Each decade of the Crown is dedicated to one of the Seven Joys of Mary: the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, adoration of the Magi, finding of the child Jesus in the Temple, the Resurrection, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (which includes her coronation in heaven). (This combining of the Assumption and Coronation of Mary as one event was a common early variant for the five-decade rosary as well; in that case, the Last Judgement was used as the fifteenth Mystery.)
On the first Ave of each decade, the theme is introduced after the word "Jesus": for instance, “...and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, whom thou didst joyfully conceive.”
The Franciscan Crown also adds two Aves after the last decade, for a total of 72, which according to one tradition is the number of years the Virgin Mary lived on earth.
The legendary origin of the Franciscan Crown says that it dates from a Franciscan novice’s vision of Mary in 1422, who told him that since he was now a poor friar and didn’t have money to bring her offerings of flowers any more, he could offer her spiritual “flowers” (Aves) which she would like even better. It should be noted, however, that this story, or one very similar, is also told about the five-decade rosary.
The Brigittine (six-decade) rosary
The six-decade or “Brigittine” rosary (actually 63 beads in all) may not be as old as the lifetime (1304–1373) of St. Birgitta of Sweden, after whom it’s named, but there are mentions of it from at least the 16th century and possibly earlier. Saint Birgitta may have used a string of paternoster beads, but this rosary was probably associated with her at some later time because it includes 63 Aves, the three additional ones being said after the last Pater Noster. These represent the number of years the Virgin Mary is supposed to have lived on earth, according to the Revelations of Saint Birgitta (clearly a different tradition than the Franciscan one).
The first written documentation of this rosary is a decree of the Congregation of Indulgences issued in 1714. This quotes a lost brief of Pope Leo X from 1515, granting an indulgence of one hundred days for each Ave to those reciting the Corona of St Bridget.
The Servite rosary (Seven Sorrows chaplet)
What prompted me to post about this in particular was a recent discussion on the Paternosters mailing list over at Yahoo!groups. I've done a bit more investigating and expanded what I wrote for Bedes Byddyng.
As we’ve seen with Saint Birgitta, the founding date of a religious Order does not necessarily indicate that its particular devotions all originated at that date. This is likely also the case with the Servite devotion known as the Seven Sorrows chaplet.
In 1240, seven members of a Florentine confraternity known as the Laudesi, or Praisers of Mary, were gathered in prayer, under the presidency of Alessio Falconieri. The Blessed Virgin appeared to them, surrounded by angels bearing the instruments of the Passion of Christ, and exhorted them to devote themselves to her service. These men formed the Order of Friar Servants of Mary (to give them their formal name) and adopted as their principal devotion the sorrows of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross.
The Servites were not the only ones to celebrate this and similar devotions. Various lists of the Sorrows of Mary were in circulation, including lists of five, seven, fifteen and twenty-seven(!) sorrows, and not all the lists include the same items. The devotion has also been expressed as Our Lady of Sorrows, the Sorrowful Mother, or Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (solitude), commemorating Mary’s bereavement.
In 1413, this theme was given its own feast day in Germany, called the Feast of the Compassion of Mary. Later in the fifteenth century, this evolved in some places into a commemoration of the Five Sorrows of Mary, corresponding to the Five Wounds of Christ, or in others, of the Seven Sorrows, beginning with the prophecy of Simeon when the infant Jesus was presented in the Temple.
The question is when the Seven Sorrows devotion became a chaplet recited on beads. I have turned up no evidence one way or another about this so far. As I've said before, we cannot just assume that because certain prayers were said, that beads were necessarily used to count them. That is a separate invention and may have occurred at a quite different time. You can equally well count prayers by making marks on paper, or by moving pegs from one hole to another in a piece of wood, or even by counting on your fingers.
The Sorrows currently agreed on are those set forth for the Servites in 1668. This, if not before, may also have been when the prayers of the devotion were set. There are seven groups of seven Aves, with a Pater Noster at the end of each group.
These are the Seven Sorrows used in the chaplet:
(1) the prophecy of Simeon;
(2) the flight into Egypt;
(3) having lost the Holy Child at Jerusalem;
(4) meeting Jesus on his way to Calvary;
(5) standing at the foot of the Cross;
(6) Jesus being taken down from the Cross; and
(7) the burial of Christ.
In the absence of evidence, my own guess would be that that the Servite chaplet probably does not date quite as far back as the 1200s. (As ever, I'd be happy to be proved wrong by the evidence.) At that time, the little evidence we have suggests that beads were primarily used to count large numbers of Pater Nosters. Far more likely to me is that the Servite chaplet was part of the great variety of "chaplets" or devotional sequences of prayers circulating in the 1450s.
You may blame my degree in biology for the fact that I am fond of referring to these as a "primordial soup," Out of this wide variety, the rosary and related devotions have "evolved," in the sense that the most popular ones have been the ones to survive and spread.