Paternosters, chaplets, rosaries

In Western Europe, a string of prayer beads was first called a “paternoster,”.  The name refers to the prayer most often used with it, which begins with the words "Our Father, who art in heaven" (in Latin, "Pater noster, qui es in caelis").  The Ave Maria or "Hail, Mary," another popular prayer, was often added after the Pater Noster.  Repetition of these prayers as a devotional or penetential exercise developed into what is now called a rosary.

Personal rosaries appear in the 11th C., and became increasingly standard possessions during the fourteenth century. By the end of the medieval period they were probably the most common item of jewelry across all classes. In some societies, a person was not considered respectable - or Christian - unless their rosary was visible.  Rosary beads were both a sign of piety and a fashion accessory. They indicated the social status and wealth of the owner in a highly visible way, while still being acceptable to religious authorities. 

Medieval inventories, wills and visual sources confirm that paternosters and rosaries were made of a variety of materials which were chosen for their value, beauty and symbolism.  Archaeological findings from known paternoster making locations such as Paternoster Row in London, St. Mary's Lane in York and centers such as Konstanz and Basel in Germany yield evidence of bone, horn and glass bead production on an industrial scale. In 1260, the Paris Paternosterer's guild had three branches - one for workers in bone and horn, another for coral and mother of pearl, a third for crafters of amber and jet.

Adam Ledyard, a London jeweler of 1381, stocked paternoster beads of white and yellow ambers, coral, jet, and silver gilt. Ave beads were represented by jet and blue glass as well as the cheaper bone and wood versions for children.

Round or oval beads, unfaceted, were the most common choice for Ave beads, although shapes such as flattened squares, lozenges, cylinders, disks and rings all appear in the historical record. In the most costly examples, intricate carving, etching and enameling were used to embellish both gauds and Aves. 

The marker beads (or gauds) were expected to be of equal or superior worth to the Aves with which they were matched. Gold and crystal were among the precious materials used for these marker beads. 

Amber and glass beads were common. Coral was perhaps the most popular of all, combining light weight, symbolic colour, beauty and expense.  Glass and semi-precious stones were used to imitate higher-status materials such as coral, pearls and amber. Bone and wood were the most basic materials, and bone in particular seems to have been cut into prayer-beads in enormous quantities.

Religious practice and observance changed over time, and the form of prayer beads changed with the times. Although exceptions can always be found, generally early prayer beads were formed of straight-strung beads with taselled ends up until the end of the 1300's; in the early 1400's the straight string is formed into a loop and may have a distinctive knop bead or tassel. Simple equal-armed crosses begin appearing on prayer beads in the mid late 1400's. By 1500 the 5 decade 'rosary' with a terminal cross becomes popular in England and parts of Europe.  In about 1500 a loop with large pomander bead rather than a cross becomes almost standard in the Holy Roman Empire. Although the use of prayer beads was banned in England after Henry VIII's break with Rome, the use of prayer beads continued unabated throughout the rest of Catholic Europe. 

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