Ancient Meaning Of The Word “Beads” And How The Rosary Got Its Name

From as early as 1000A.D, paternosters or similar strings of prayer beads have been a common accessory carried by men and women of all ages. The small circular objects we know in English as “beads” were named from this practice; the root of the English word bead is the same as for the word bid, and originally meant to pray. Clearly they were worn for much different reasons than the fashionable bead bracelets we wear today.

Paternosters and other devotions using beads also continued to bepopular even after the invention of the rosary as we know it today. Before the English Reformation, King Henry VIII of England was given an elaborately carved boxwood paternoster by Cardinal Wolsey which remains on display at Chatsworth in England.

Depending on your place in life and your purse, your medieval rosary or paternoster could be a string of just knots, or a string of beads of wood, bone, glass, semiprecious stone such as agate or jet, amber, or even gold, emeralds, or sapphires. Typically, medieval rosary or paternoster beads were a kind of personal jewelry, and followed the fashion of other jewelry of the time. Coral beads were especially valuable and popular, as coral was thought to be a good-luck charm against the evil eye.

Medieval beads may be oval or round, decorated or plain, and are typically smooth rather than coarse. Many less common types of rosary use flat discs or rings instead of beads. While today most rosary beads are put together by links of metal chain, originally most were loosely strung on silk thread or ribbon, like a necklace.

By the way, being made of rose petals isn’t how the rosary got its name. The word “rosary” originally meant “rose garden” or “rose wreath,” and it was applied to a devotion involving repetitions of the “Hail, Mary” because of a legend!

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