Wednesday, August 20, 2008


string theory, part 3

I've been writing about string, since during the period of history I'm most interested in, the vast majority of all rosaries were made from beads threaded on some sort of string -- often silk, sometimes linen or other materials. But starting in the late 16th century (I think), we begin to see the occasional set of beads with the wire-linked construction we're used to seeing in modern rosaries.


Dating this innovation is challenging, since -- as I keep saying about other paternoster history questions -- we just don't have a lot of surviving rosaries from that time period to provide us with data. And unlike some of the other questions I've researched, period paintings and illustrations are no help here, since they don't usually show this level of detail -- we're lucky, in fact, if they even show anything of the string, as they do in a few cases such as the Hoccleve portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, where you can just about see that the thread is red. Nor do inventories and documentary evidence usually shed much light on how a rosary is constructed: usually the only details are what material the beads are made of, and sometimes their number.

As I've mentioned earlier in this series of posts, wire-linked construction has some advantages over string: the chain of beads is less breakable and doesn't need re-stringing as often. On the other hand, a wire chain is less flexible than beads strung on thread, and it's still prone to kinks and tangles. Since the beads are fixed in place and not movable, the different construction also changes the way the beads are handled while praying. Rather than beads sliding along a thread one by one, the entire chain of beads moves through the hands, one bead after the next being held between the fingers.

As a method of construction, wire linking is very simple, but somewhat labor-intensive, since until recently each loop on a wire-linked rosary had to be made by hand. Instructions for this are fairly easy to find, but most people find that it takes a bit of practice to be able to make even, consistent links that look nice and hold their shape well.

The first essential is the choice of wire. It needs to be strong, even in thickness, and thin enough to pass through a bead easily. It also has to be the right hardness. The same metal can behave quite differently depending on whether it is "hard" or "soft," and wire for making chains has to have just the right balance between the two. When metal is heated and cooled, it becomes "soft," which means it is more malleable, but easily pulled out of shape. As it is bent, twisted, hammered or worked in other ways, it becomes "harder," which means it will hold its shape better, but it also becomes more brittle and prone to break. For making chains of beads, the wire must be bendable so you can make loops, stiff enough that the loops will hold their shape under stress, but not so hard that it will break.


We take abundant supplies of fine metal wire for granted today, but for a long time all wire was hand made and somewhat expensive. Comparing a beautiful woman's hair to fine metal wires was a compliment to its shine and liveliness! Wire-drawing only became a major industry in Western Europe in the late 1500s. It's probably no coincidence that a number of crafts requiring consistent supplies of even, strong wire blossomed around that same time -- not only wire-linked bead work, but for instance also silk knitting, which requires fine wire needles.

Anyway, to make a long story short -- I haven't yet seen any examples of wire-linked paternoster beads that I am convinced are original and date to much before 1600. I've been shown a few groups of rosaries that have some wire linking and a photo caption saying "XV Jh." (German "Jahrhundert" meaning "century") but none of them convince me. In one case, the style of the metal parts looks very much like 18th-century filigree. Another seems to be something constructed from part of a broken rosary, and I don't see any clear indications of date on that one either.

The wire-linked beads that do look more convincing are a few tenners. Considering Bishop Fugger's beads are wire linked and date from somewhere between about 1604 and 1626, this isn't too surprising. The added labor of forming wire loops might make a bit more sense when there are just a few beads to link.

The earliest long rosary that I know of with wire links is this Portuguese rosary of aloe wood, with a somewhat vague date of "early 17th century" according to the book I got it from. You'll note, by the way, that this is a six-decade rosary, with 63 beads, sometimes called a "Birgittine" rosary.


Rosaries and paternosters are notoriously difficult to date precisely, and like any other jewelry, they were also subject to re-making and repairing as they became damaged or tastes changed. I'm certainly open to the possibility of earlier wire-linked beads, but so far both the evidence I've seen, and what I know of the social and technological background, lead me to think that late 16th to early 17th century is still the most likely date for this innovation.

Posts in this series:

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