Friday, November 28, 2008

The rosary rebellion

The Reformation of the church in England was a long, complex and sometimes bloody process. For those interested in studying this process, I think that one of the great contributions to the literature of religious history in England is Eamon Duffy's account of the Reformation, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580.


This was the first book I encountered on the history of the English Reformation that begins by examining the state of religion in England before the break with Rome, and it was also the first history of the subject I read that was not written from a specifically Protestant point of view. I grew up in a Congregational church, and English-speaking Protestants, understandably, tend to dwell on the aspects of the Reformation that represent their own beginnings. But Duffy's book takes a more comprehensive view. It's joined the short list of books that I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the history of popular devotion, including the rosary.

One of the most interesting rosary-related stories in the book is this one, which I will quote in Duffy's words.

Sometime in Whit week 1549 Walter Ralegh (the father of the famous seaman) was riding to Exeter. Near the village of Clyst St. Mary he overtook an old woman on her way to Mass; she was praying upon a pair of rosary beads in her hand. Ralegh, a staunch supporter of the Reformation, challenged the old woman, asking her what she meant by carrying such beads, "sayenge further that there was a punyshmente by the law apoynted agaynste her and all suche as woulde not obeye & folowe the same & wch woulde bee putt in execution vpon theime." The old woman hurried to the church, where the parishioners, already disgruntled by the imposition of the 1549 prayer-book on the previous Sunday, were gathering for Mass,

"and beinge impacyente & in an agonye with the speches before paste betwen her & the gentleman begyynethe to upbraye in the open Churche verie harde & unsemelie speches concernynge religion, saienge that shee was thretned by the gentleman, that exvcept shee woulde leave her beades & gene over holie breade & water the gentlemen woulde burne theym oute of theire howses & spoyle theim."

The enraged parishioners all but lynched Ralegh, a local mill was burned, and the rebellion escalated. The incident, not without elements of farce, was to end in black tragedy. When ultimately Lord Russell was dispatched by Somerset to put down the rebellion, Clyst St. Mary was the scene of a particularly bloody pitched battle, in which the local peasantry were ruthlessly butchered, along with all the prisoners captured by the royal forces then and previously. The village was put to the torch. Archbishop Cranmer's dislike of beads and holy water had cost the people of Clyst dear.

This mini-rebellion -- to put it in context -- was a local but very significant incident in a larger movement, generally referred to as the Prayer Book Rebellion. The immediate trigger, and the chief grievance of the protesters, was the imposition of a new Prayer Book, which was markedly more Protestant in its declarations of doctrine than many people were prepared to countenance.

Generally speaking, London was the center of Protestant thinking at this period, and in more outlying areas such as the west of England, there were plenty of people who saw no reason to change the ways of thinking and methods of worship that had served them well for hundreds of years.

King Henry VIII had begun the process of reformation in 1534 by denying the authority of the Pope and declaring himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England -- while retaining for himself many Catholic beliefs and practices. The bishops and commissioners he appointed, however, tended to be much more avowedly Protestant. The resulting mix of religion and politics meant that the attempt to bring about a countrywide reformation progressed by fits and starts through the rest of Henry's reign, and enforcement of change at the local level was often sporadic and uneven.

The death of Henry and accession of Edward VI changed all this. A decree specifically banning rosary beads and a number of other Catholic practices was published in 1547. (Below is a nice piece of propaganda, showing some of the now banned items, "Certaine of the Popes marchandize lately sent ouer into Englande")


As this incident shows, however, we have plenty of evidence that people were still using their rosaries. As Duffy points out, the mention of "holie breade & water" indicates that it was not just beads that were the focus of the disagreement, but other specially blessed things as well. Nonetheless, the beads were an easily visible symbol, and the fact that they could be part of a dispute that sparked an armed conflict is some indication of how strongly people could feel about their beads.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Beads from the Inventory of Philip II

A recent discussion on the Paternosters mailing list has made me think about all of the fascinating -- and often knotty! -- little questions that arise when we try to make sense out of the very brief descriptions of paternoster beads that survive in inventories, wills and similar lists. Often the description is all we have in the way of data about what the beads were like.

As I've commented elsewhere, these descriptions were not really written for us, hundreds of years later. They were written, for the most part, to assist in keeping track of someone's possessions during life, or sorting out how much they were worth and who they should be passed on to after the owner's death. Since whoever was doing the sorting usually had the actual beads in front of them, only the minimum description was needed, just enough to identify which of several possible sets of beads was being referred to.

On top of that, we are also dealing with historical spelling and vocabulary, which -- to say the least -- are often not identical to the modern versions of either. And as you might expect, some of the words used in the descriptions were never common words in the first place, or else they're being used in a specialized sense -- rather like the word "gauds" in English, which was originally borrowed from the Latin word for joy (Gaudete = Rejoice!) and can mean jewels or ornaments in a general sense, but which when applied to Christian prayer beads specifically refers to distinctive "markers" separating groups of other beads.

The recent discussion on the Paternosters list provided an excellent example, and several of us amateur scholars attacked it with zest.

The question came from Katherine Barich, to whom I am profoundly indebted because she just loves collecting and reading through old inventories in search of interesting bits about historical clothing. This takes a peculiar intellectual gift that I don't think I have. Fortunately she has been very generous about sharing what she finds, and periodically I get an e-mail from her with more paternoster listings for my slowly growing database.

Here's the entry she found in the inventory of Phillip II of Spain, taken in 1594. It is in "Archivo Documental Espanol - Tomo X - Inventarios Reales Bienes Muebles Que Pertenecieron a Felipe II" by F. J. Sanchez Canton.

Un rosario, que tiene sesenta y tres perlas avemariadas y otras cuatro en la cruz, con siete estremos de oro, labrado de medio relieve, con nuebe ruvies en cada un y otro estremo de oro en la cruz con diez ruvies. Tasado en trecientos y noventa y seis ducados.

Philip II, son of Emperor Charles V, was a Hapsburg and brought most of Spain (and for part of the time, Portugal as well) under his rule for a substantial swath of the 16th century. Here's a portrait of Philip II with a rosary, although clearly these are not the beads described in the inventory (for one thing, they're the wrong color):

I'm going to walk through the process I went through to try to make sense of this entry, because I think it's a good example of the sorts of things we frequently encounter.

Here's what Babelfish says (these "translations" always make me giggle):

A rosary, that has sixty and three Rep them avemariadas and other four in the cross, with seven estremos of gold, worked of average relief, with nine rubies in each and a other estremo of gold in the cross with ten rubies. Appraised in three hundred and ninety and six duchies.

OK, fixing the obvious idiocies, we have:

A rosary that has 63 Ave Maria beads [pearls]?, and four more in the cross, with seven [gauds]? of gold, worked in middle relief [bas- relief]?, with nine rubies in each; and another [gaud]? of gold: the cross with ten rubies. Appraised at 396 ducats.

I'm grateful, by the way, to the colleague who clued me in to Babelfish as a deeply flawed, but nonetheless very useful, tool in deciphering a language. What it does do well is to translate a lot of the common words for you, all in one fell swoop, so you don't have to spend your time looking up words like nuebe and sesenta and tasado. Then you attack the less common words one by one, or those that Babelfish clearly doesn't have a clue about.

This is especially helpful for anyone who isn't a full-time scholar. I, for instance, can read French reasonably well considering that the last time I formally studied it was decades ago, and I understand enough about most of the Romance and Germanic languages that I can at least tell which parts of the sentence are what and which way the grammar is going. But for the rest, it's a matter of lots of looking in dictionaries and a good deal of guesswork.

A bit of digging in my ancient Spanish dictionary (Appleton's, 1943, which I got for free from a book exchange) reveals that perlas are indeed pearls, and not (as in German) beads: the normal Spanish words for beads seem to include abalorio and (somewhat more obscurely) chaquillo. (The dictionary lists several more, including cuenta which seems to literally mean "counter.")

Estremo isn't in the dictionary. Hm. I wonder if it's supposed to be estreno, which has to do with "commencement, beginning, inauguration." (16th-century Spanish spelling? Who knows?) At any rate, there are seven of these estremos (plus one), which makes sense if there is one before each decade and extra ones before and after the last three beads.

The online dictionaries I find in a quick search don't contain either estremo or estreno. Going the other way, they prefer to translate "gaud" as adorno (decoration) or joya (jewel). Appleton's translates "gaud" as objecto charro (showy or flashy object).

If the estremos are indeed gauds, we are still not quite home free with the translation. We still have to decipher "y otro estremo de oro en la cruz con diez ruvies." Literally this says "and another estremo of gold en the cross with ten rubies."

First question, what does en mean in this context? Prepositions are notoriously tricky to translate, especially since their use is often strongly idiomatic. Literally the estremo seems to be "in" the cross, which doesn't make very much sense, so I would guess it means "next to."

Second question: which object has ten rubies? The lack of punctuation, or of any relative pronoun, means it's not clear whether we have an estremo with ten rubies, and a cross, or an estremo, and a cross with ten rubies. The fact that all the other estremos have nine rubies each makes me think it's a little more likely that the rubies belong to the estremo. We've also been told already that the cross has four pearls, so perhaps it doesn't need rubies as well. Alas, the jewels were probably re-set and the gold melted down long ago, so we'll never know.

A final interesting point about this rosary: it has 63 pearls. This strongly suggests a Brigittine rosary, which has six decades (rather than the usual five) and three extra beads at the end. I've heard this was a popular type of rosary in the 16th century, but haven't run across many examples. The only surviving example I can recall is this one, which is Portuguese and 17th century:


There are several ways the beads of such a rosary could be arranged: this one has all 63 beads in one loop, with six groups of ten and a final group of three. There are only six gauds here, as there are none next to the cross. Other examples of rosaries often do seem, at this period, to have gauds beginning and ending all of the decades including the first and last, so I would not be surprised at all to see a Brigittine rosary with eight gauds.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Of flexwire and time machines

string theory, part 5

As I discussed previously, "flexwire" or nylon-coated wire has become the most popular modern material for stringing rosaries, and it requires some new techniques.

Modern rosary makers, being used to a type of rosary where the beads don't slide, have had to figure out how to string a rosary on flexwire so that the beads maintain their spacing and don't move. The solution most of them use is to string one to several very small beads between each main bead of the rosary. This also nicely covers the wire, which many people don't find very attractive -- particularly the early versions of coated wire, which resembled stainless steel wire from the hardware store. Many people have become very creative with these "betweens" (in German these would be "zwischenperlen," which I think is a delightful word!). Rosary makers like Mary's Prayers Rosaries may use two or three different types of small beads between each large one, which can make quite an attractive contrast.

With the newer types of coated flexwire, which come in at least a dozen different colors, it would seem logical to me to experiment with making modern rosaries with beads that can slide as you count them. This would mean leaving some of the wire exposed, but if it's pretty, why not? So far I haven't seen anyone try this, but it would be interesting to see how well it works and what people think of it -- and how the flexwire stands up to abrasion when beads are sliding back and forth.

As we've seen, flexwire is pretty much immune to a lot of the problems of rosaries made with string: it's very resistant to tangling and kinking, to breaking by being pulled on and to metal fatigue. But it's not perfect. To the surprise of some rosary makers, rosaries strung on flexwire can stretch with use.

You'd expect this with fiber-based threads -- in fact I've had to re-string some of my paternosters where the silk thread has stretched. But it's rather a surprise to see the same thing happening to wire. Jennifer of Miracoli Rosaries reported that one of her customers' rosaries stretched nearly an inch after just three months of regular use. On checking her stock, she found that several rosaries made with stone beads that had been simply stored hanging up for a year had also stretched.

This caused a bit of consternation on the Rosary_makers mailing list. What could have caused it? The answer seems to be that the metal wire in flexwire is not a single strand, but several strands, braided. If it's subjected to a lot of tension, it turns out that this braided strand can stretch a certain amount, even though the individual wires in it don't. This is especially likely to happen if a light weight of flexwire is used to string heavy beads, so the advice is to use the heaviest weight that will go through the bead holes. (Most flexwire comes in at least two or three thicknesses.)

The other thing that can cause stretching is if the strand of flexwire is used right off the spool, and is then pulled very tight to fasten it off after stringing the beads. This can be prevented if you "relax" the wire before using, or stretch it a few times between your hands, and perhaps let it hang overnight with the beads on it before finishing off.

To sum up, flexwire has a lot of advantages, and has made it much easier for creative rosary makers to produce strong, durable rosaries very quickly. But I have to point out that there's one type of project for which it still doesn't work very well. That is for close replicas of historical types of prayer beads from before 1600. If you want to make your beads look like they just fell through a time machine from the 15th century into your living room, even the newer, more flexible varieties of coated wire still don't work quite like silk thread. Here's an example from Rosary Workshop:

A rosary strung on flexwire simply does not hang the same way as one strung on silk, and it doesn't look the same lying on a flat surface either. The flexwire resists bending, so the strand of beads tends to lie in a gentle, nearly straight curve, and the loops where the end of a strand of beads attaches to a pendant or medal, fall in wider and more gradual curves. There are quite a few historical paintings that show a rosary casually tossed on a side table or step and about to slide off the edge, and you can definitely see the difference in the way they hang.


(The above example is a detail from Antonello da Messina's St. Gregory Triptych, 1473.)

Fortunately, most people are not trying to pretend that their rosary dropped through a time machine from some other century, so the different drape doesn't matter in the least. I cheerfully admit to being a modern person myself, and I'm thankful for many things about modern civilization, including the Internet! Historical rosaries are not the only beads I string ;)

Posts in this series:

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

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008


string theory, part 4

Silk thread and wire links, the rosary-stringing methods of choice for most of history, are no longer the only choices. Within the last decade or two, there's been a revolution in the bead-stringing world. Various forms of plastic-coated wire are now the "string" of choice for many uses.

The first coated-wire product to hit the market (or at least the first one I became aware of) was "Tiger Tail," which is a miniature braided stainless-steel cable covered with nylon. Originally it came only in the natural silvery color of the wire, but you can now buy gold-colored versions too. In more recent years, Acculon and other companies have produced a number of variations, including different thicknesses and even more colors.

Unlike common crafting wire, which is generally made of soft copper or brass, these are mostly based on stainless steel wire, which is much stiffer and very springy. This is especially true of the early versions, which are braids of 3 or 7 strands of wire. More recently, manufacturers have produced 21- and 49-strand versions as well (three braids of 7 and 7 braids of 7, respectively). When more strands are used to produce the same size braid, the individual strands have to be thinner, and thinner strands of wire tend to be more flexible and less springy. This means that the 21- and 49-strand versions are considerably more flexible and "drapey" than the 3- and 7-strand types.

Flexwire (as I'll call this type of product in general) has some advantages over both wire-linked construction and fiber-based string, particularly if your main concern is sturdiness. Because the core of flexwire is metal, it can support very heavy beads, such as the denser types of stone beads. It's also very resistant to tensile stress -- it won't break easily when you tug on it, or if it catches on something. Tension breaks seem to be the main problem with most modern strings of beads, so this is a big advantage for makers of modern necklaces, bracelets and rosaries. The springiness of flexwire also means it's not very subject to breaking from metal fatigue, which occurs if a small area of wire is bent sharply back and forth several times and becomes brittle.

(This rather interesting modern rosary strung on flexwire is something I saw a couple of years ago on eBay. I have it labeled as "eclectic"!)

However, using flexwire also requires some differences in technique. Since it's hard to bend flexwire sharply, it's difficult to tie knots with it; the knots tend to resist tightening because of the wire's stiffness, and later to slip out because of the smooth nylon coating. This means that in order to secure the ends of the wire, instead of a knot you have to add a "crimp bead." These are small tubes of metal of just the right degree of hardness. The end of the wire is passed through the loop of a clasp, medal, or other ending and doubled back on itself. The crimp bead is slipped over both of the parallel wires and then squeezed with pliers to grip both wires tightly. This supplies the friction necessary to keep the wires from springing apart and the beads slipping off. (If a crimp bead is squeezed too firmly, it can cut through the nylon coating, weakening the wire.)

I'm much indebted here to Rosary Workshop and to the members of the Rosary_Makers mailing list, many of whom use flexwire to make modern rosaries. Several of them graciously answered my many questions about flexwire and any potential problems with it, and gave me permission to quote them.

Laura Eckert of Still Stone and Moss, for instance, did some testing of her own, and reports: "I held both ends of a piece with pliers and yanked as hard as I could. (I'm pretty strong.) After many mighty yanks, the wire finally broke -- right at the edge of the pliers. Could have been the sharp edge of the pliers that cut the wire. (For necklaces, I use a clasp that WILL break, so nobody gets strangled.)

"I tested crimp connections the same way. No crimps ever lost their grip. Even the crummiest crimps held -- this could be due to SoftFlex's nylon coating. Crimps closed with gentle pressure held as well as crimps closed with a death-grip. (I use crimping pliers -- the kind that first dent & then wrap the crimp.)

"I bent a piece of SoftFlex firmly at a U-turn angle with pliers, and the wire did "remember" that bend. Under ordinary conditions, it doesn't kink. For two-plus years, I've kept a rosary strung on 49-strand SoftFlex jumbled in the bottom of my purse -- when I pull it out, it falls into position without any weird bends. Rosaries left draped over the top of a 1/4" board for several months developed a slight bend, but returned to normal when suspended for an hour or so.

"No problems with abrasion to report after 4-plus years of use with a variety of beads, including stone & metal. No signs of wear even at the crimp points on a bracelet worn daily for several years."

Posts in this series:

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

Labels: ,