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ChrisBedes Byddyng: Medieval Rosaries & Paternoster Beads
by Chris Laning

“Ther nas no Cristene creature that kynde wit hadde...
That he ne halp a quantite holynesse to wexe:
Some by bedes biddynge and some by pilgrymage...”

(A rough translation:
 There is no Christian creature that has any wits
 Who doesn't help to make holiness increase:
 Some by praying for others and some by pilgrimage...)

From "bid" to "bead"

Virgin-coverBeads, pebbles, or some other small object have probably been used to count prayers for as long as prayers have been counted. No one knows just where or when the practice began. As legend would have it, Christian prayer beads were used by Saint Anthony Abbot and other religious hermits of the desert, in the second to fourth centuries of the Christian era (AD). Saint Paul of Thebes is said to have counted his prayers using a pocket full of loose pebbles. The will (in about 1041) of Lady Godiva of Coventry bequeathed to a nearby monastery "a circlet of gems that she had threaded on a string, in order that by fingering them one by one as she recited her prayers, she might not fall short of the exact number."(She actually did exist, though her legendary naked ride through Coventry seems to be a myth.) 

English is almost unique in taking the word "bede," which originally meant a prayer or request, and using it to name that familiar small, round object pierced with a hole. This use of the word "bead" dates back at least 600 years. The lines at the beginning of this article, for instance, come from the great English poem “The Vision of Piers Plowman”, written in about 1375.

German-horn-amber300The English word “bead” comes from the same root as “bid” (Old English: ebed). To be o_bed_ient (there's "bede" again) means to do someone's "bidding", to do what they ask. We also "bid" on items up for auction. In the Middle Ages, a wealthy patron might support poor “bedesmen” who promised to pray, or make requests to God, on behalf of the patron and his family.

German horn: A small rosary of horn beads, a terminal bead of silver-mounted copal, and a tiny silver statue of Saint Christopher. More about these beads at







Most other languages refer to beads with words related to “pearl” (Dutch parels, German perlen, French perles, Swedish pärlor, Italian perline or pallina), or “grain” (Spanish granos, Portuguese grānulos, Italian grano, German Korne). Russian calls them “balls,” Romanian calls them "pearls" or "globes," and Greek has several words, most of which seem to mean something like “bubble.”

Hedwig: A straight string of lapis lazuli with marker beads of rock crystal, black silk tassel, pewter pin and silver cross. More about these beads at

As late as the 16th century, mentions of "beads" still referred almost exclusively to rosaries or prayer beads. Other uses of large beads were still rare in Europe at the time, although tiny seed beads had already become part of elaborate embroideries on clothing, especially in Germany.

In Western Europe, a string of prayer beads was first called a “paternoster,” from 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"). This is one of the oldest prayers in Christianity, going all the way back to the Gospel of Matthew, which says Jesus Christ specifically told his disciples to pray in this fashion. The Pater Noster was one of the prayers every medieval Christian was supposed to know by heart.

Large-amber300For those who could not read, reciting a certain number of paternosters or other prayers was an easily understood substitute for the more elaborate, formal prayers recited daily by priests, monks, and nuns. These formal prayers required owning a prayer book (which was expensive) and being able to read it.

Magdalen beads. A man's string of large ambroid beads with carved bone markers and black silk tassels. Patterned after a string of beads in the background of Rogier van der Weyden's _The Magdalen Reading_ More about these beads at

Spiritual directors might also tell their followers to say certain numbers of Pater Nosters as a daily quota. The Ave Maria or "Hail, Mary," another popular prayer, was often added after the Pater Noster. For instance, the Ancrene Riwle (Anchoresses’ Rule) of about 1200 recommends “thritti [30] Pater nostres, and Ave Maria after everich [every] Pater noster.” This kind of repetitive praying later developed into the devotion now called the rosary. Sometimes a certain competitive spirit enters into these devotions. We have records from the 12th and 13th centuries of saints and penitents who recited 100, 300 or even 1,000 Pater Nosters and Ave Marias every day!

Green-tasselBy analogy with the 150 Biblical psalms, early prayer beads were likely to be strings or loops of 150 beads, or smaller multiples such as 30 or 50. Medieval beads could be made of many materials, including clay, wood, bone, glass, and mother-of-pearl; semi-precious stones such as chalcedony, amber, jet, and coral; and even gold, silver and precious stones.

Unlike modern rosaries, which are constructed with wire, medieval rosaries were simply beads threaded onto a strong silk or linen thread. They did not always have a cross; many simply ended with a decorative silk tassel, or perhaps a medal or other symbolic pendant such as a heart. Decorative brooches, little flasks of holy water, charms and saints' relics could also be attached. Making medieval-style rosaries like this is an easy stringing project.

A modern rosary is a loop of five "decades" or groups of ten small beads each. Between each group is a single, larger bead. The modern rosary also has a "drop" attached to the loop, a short string of three small beads between two large ones, ending in a cross. Directions for making and reciting the modern rosary can easily be found online.

Rosaries in the Middle Ages were common everyday accessories, just as we wear a wristwatch or a cell phone today. They were worn hanging from belts, wrapped around wrists or arms, and even as necklaces. Today, those who pray the rosary often carry it in a pocket or purse.

There is also a thriving market in collectible and "art" rosaries, made individually and by hand. Many use exotic or modern materials such as poly clay, dichroic glass and flex wire. Creative btn_downloadebookartists combine vintage beads, new beads, exotic beads and cherished treasures to create a personal, and very meaningful, rosary.

Excerpted from “Bedes Byddyng: Medieval Rosaries and Paternoster Beads” by Chris Laning, available for $4.50 from (go to page 14 on that site and scroll down; it's issue #135). This 80-page book contains historical notes and instructions for making your own medieval rosaries in several styles.

CA-#135Explore more about the history of rosaries and prayer beads at Be sure to visit the Gallery section for close-ups and details on making modern reproductions of medieval prayer bead strings.

"What's New" on Paternoster-row takes you to the Paternosters blog>, which features short articles on many types of prayer beads, old and new. Some sample articles include:

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