Rosary History

A Short History of the Rosary

The currently “traditional” method of praying the rosary has not always been traditional. In fact, The Seven Day Bible Rosary is closer to the way the rosary was prayed in former centuries than the current “traditional” rosary.

The earliest rosary was an outgrowth of the monastic practice of praying the 150 psalms weekly.  Around the beginning of the ninth century, the laity began praying 150 Our Fathers as a substitute for the monks’ Psalter, and soon they were using strings with 150 or 50 knots or pieces of wood.

The practice of saying Hail Marys began to develop in the eleventh century.  However, for perhaps two hundred years, only the Angelic salutation, the first part of the Hail Mary, was said.  It was not until about the middle of the thirteenth century that the present form of the Hail Mary came into common use.  “It is certain that in the course of the twelfth century and before the birth of St. Dominic (1170-1221), the practice of reciting 50 or 150 Ave Marias had become generally familiar” (Andrew J. Shipman, “The Rosary,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol.  XIII, ed.Charles G. Herbermann et al., New York: Robert Appleton Co., 1912, 185).

The current practice of dividing the Hail Marys into decades—groups of ten plus an Our Father and a Glory Be—was not yet developed when St. Dominic began promoting the rosary to defeat the Albigensian heresy in the thirteenth century.  This was a heresy that taught that all material things including the human body were created by an evil spirit and were therefore evil.  The Albigensians denied that Christ took on our full human nature with a genuine body, and that was a denial of the Incarnation.  “Probably what St. Dominic did was this: at the command of the Blessed Virgin he urged the people to recite often and fervently the salutation which the Archangel Gabriel uttered to Mary”(Isidore O’Brien, O.F.M., The Drama of the Rosary, Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1948, 5).

This amounted to a frequent and fervent act of faith in the reality of the Incarnation—the second Person of the Blessed Trinity taking on our full human nature, and in the presence of the people’s proclamation of faith, the Albigensian heresy withered away.

Perhaps because of the promotion of this prayer by St. Dominic, a variety of laymen’s Psalters developed so that by the end of the thirteenth century there were four different forms: “the 150 Our Fathers, the 150 Angelic Salutations, the 150 praises of Jesus, and the 150 praises of Mary” (Scriptural Rosary, Chicago: Scriptural Rosary Center, 1961, 11).

During the fourteenth century, “chains of 50, 100, or 150 phrases . . . were attached to the recitation of the Aves, one phrase to each Ave” (W. A. Hinnebusch, “Rosary,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XII, New York: McGraw Hill, 1967, 669).

 In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the division into decades and the combination of an Our Father and ten Hail Marys occurred for the first time (Hinnebusch, 669).

The consolidation to the present tradition began in the late fifteenth century.  “In 1483, a Rosary book written by a Dominican, Our Dear Lady’s Psalter, cut down the 150 points [of meditation] to 15 all of which, except for the last 2, corresponded to the present mysteries.  The Coronation was combined with the Assumption, and the Last Judgment was the 15th mystery” (Hinnebusch, 669).   The Seven Day Bible Rosary follows this 15th century practice for the Glorious mysteries. 

The first book to use the term “mysteries” to refer to the Rosary meditations was written by a Dominican in 1521 and retained the old series of 150 thoughts or meditations                   (Hinnebusch, 669), but “during the 16th century the Rosary of 15 mysteries gradually prevailed” (Hinnebusch, 669).

The decline of the “150 special thoughts” rosary was partially caused by technology.  About the beginning of the 16th century, the printing press made it possible to reproduce woodcuts with relative ease, but economics made it more attractive to reproduce just one picture for each decade rather than one for each bead—15 instead of 150.  That set the style for the contemporary tradition of the fifteen “traditional” mysteries of the rosary.

In the twentieth century there has been a revival of the medieval form of the rosary with several publications of special thoughts for each Hail Mary.  In 1961 the Scriptural Rosary popularized the idea of reciting a verse of Sacred Scripture before each Hail Mary (Scriptural Rosary, 11).

In 1973, the National Council of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter on Mary in which they noted the following:  “Besides the precise rosary pattern long known to Catholics, we can freely experiment.  New sets of mysteries are possible.  We have customarily gone from the childhood of Jesus to his Passion, bypassing the whole public life.  There is rich matter here for rosary meditation, such as the wedding feast of Cana and incidents from the public life where Mary’s presence and Mary’s name serve as occasions for her Son to give us a lesson in discipleship: ‘Still more blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it’ (Luke 11:28)” (Behold Your Mother—Woman of Faith: A Pastoral Letter on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Washington: NCCB, 1973, n. 97). The revised version of The Seven Day Bible Rosary with the Luminous Mysteries now includes the miracle at Cana.

Pope John Paul II has also promoted the idea of an expanded rosary.  “I believe… that to bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional pattern which, while left to the freedom of individuals and communities, could broaden it to include the mysteries of Christ’s public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion…” (n. 19, italics in original).

He then introduced the Luminous Mysteries (or Mysteries of Light) in this way:  “Consequently, for the Rosary to become more fully a ‘compendium of the Gospel,’ it is fitting to add…a meditation on certain particularly significant moments in his public ministry (the mysteries of light).  This addition of these new mysteries, without prejudice to any essential aspect of the prayer’s traditional format, is meant to give it fresh life and to enkindle renewed interest in the Rosary’s place within Christian spirituality as a true doorway to the depths of the Heart of Christ, ocean of joy and light, of suffering and of glory” (n.19).

Thus, The Seven Day Bible Rosary is not a radical or unapproved form of praying the rosary.  It combines elements from the medieval forms, from the traditional form of recent centuries, from the recent practice of the scriptural rosary, and the gift from Pope John Paul II—the Luminous Mysteries.  To use the words of Pope John Paul II, it is an effort to make “the Rosary to become more fully a ‘compendium of the Gospel’” and “to give it fresh life and to enkindle renewed interest in the Rosary’s place within Christian spirituality” (n.19).

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