Monday, October 25, 2010

Prayer Beads

At one point in The Black Crown I have Lancelot using prayer beads. Actually, in the original draft, I said “rosary”, but one of my alert critique partners challenged me on it. So I decided to do some research.

It turns out that although saying the rosary did not come into practice until about the mid-twelfth century, prayer beads go back to at least the seventh century. One of the practices of medieval monks was to say 150 Paternosters (“Our Father” -- the Lord’s Prayer). This was considered the equivalent of saying all 150 of the Psalms of David. By the tenth century it was commonplace to use a set of beads to help keep track of the number said. In fact, the English word “bead” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “bid”, meaning to pray.

Prayer beads weren’t necessarily fancy things. They could be anything from knots in a string or beans laced together to bits of wood to fine stone or gems, depending on the wealth of the owner. Coral seems to have been extremely popular, which is interesting, for the material would have been rare.

Their length could be any multiple of 5 or 10 that fit into 150, although 10, 50 and 150 seem to have been the most popular counts. More often than not early prayer beads had no dividing marker between groups of beads, unlike today’s rosary where there is a “space” between groupings.

The modern rosary also has a dangly bit with 5 beads and a crucifix. Medieval prayer beads usually had only the roundel of beads. Sometimes a marker might be added to denote the end of the sequence, but the form the marker took varied widely. It might be a larger bead or a tassel or a gem or a cross or a piece of jewelry such as a broach.

Patrenostre beads from 14th century Brabant.  These might have been placed at the end of the string.  Henry VIII was supposed to have had a string with these.

By the mid-twelfth century, as the cult of the Virgin Mary spread across Europe, the practice of substituting an Ave – the prayer “Hail Mary full of grace” – spread with it. By the thirteenth century, Ave’s had replaced the “Paternosters” and the sequence of prayers had changed to 10 Hail Mary’s followed by one “Our Father”. An extra bead was inserted at the end of each group of 10 to represent the “Paternoster.”

The paternoster beads were also known as “gauds”, but I haven’t found an explanation for the source of this expression. I assume it refers to “Gaudeamus”, which means, “Let us rejoice”, but the expression doesn’t appear in the Lord’s Prayer itself. If anyone knows, I’d appreciate clarification.

Interesting prayer beads from a 14th century tryptic used on an altar.  The beads here are not strung in a loop.
They also appear to have been used jewelry. One explanation for this was that there was a tax on jewelry, but not on religious items. Anyway, by the 14th century their use as jewelry had become common and they’re often seen in the paintings and sculpture of the period.

Prayer beads, of course, aren’t unique to Western Christianity. Moslems also used them and so did the Buddhists. Today, Baha’is do, as well, to help count out the 95 repetitions of “God is Most Glorious” they’re required to say daily.


  1. Great post, Vicki, and you know how timely for me!

  2. Fascinating. I've got to do some research on Buddhism, so this was timely. Thanks! :)

  3. Thanks for some extra tidbits of information. What I also find interesting is what is implied in the creation of the beads: that there were some monks who knew the Psalms off by heart. Also many early missionaries, of course, went forth armed with whole books of the Bible committed to memory. It's an amazing testimony to the faculty of memory which we don't exploit much nowadays (and is also useful information for the medieval novelist!)

  4. Victoria, depending on which branch of Buddhism you follow, there are various mantras that were required to be repeted. Most of the short chains of prayer beads I found in China (I brought home a couple) had 19 beads, including a "marker" bead to start the set. The ones I love best are hazel-nut size ones I bought in Datong at a market near the famous hanging temple. Don't know if you've every been to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing (the round thing with the blue roof), but the square out front has a fascinating prayer mosaic that's also broken into 19 segments. Not sure what the 19 is about.

    Susan, the comment about memorisation is interesting. We do it so little today that we forget what an important part it was of earlier cultures!

  5. Henry VIII indeed had a string of elaborately carved boxwood beads, the largest of which opens like the one you have illustrated. It's called the Chatsworth Paternoster and is usually on display at Chatsworth. See the article at: