Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The Rosary In History: From The Beginning To The Consolidation Of Its Actual Structure

by Rev. Riccardo Barile


Reverend Riccardo Barile recounts the history of the rosary. Christians often used to recite the Psalter, but the growing number of people who could not read caused the Psalter to be replaced by 150 formulas, or a set number of Our Father's and Hail Mary's. The repetitive nature of these prayers easily led to the contemplation of the "mysteries" of Christ. They became more specifically Marian in the 12th century, when the Cistercian monk Stephen of Sallay developed a prayer of 15 Marian "joys" divided into three sections. Later, two books meditating on the life of Christ were written in the 14th and 15th centuries that greatly impacted the spirit of the rosary, and the prayer formulas evolved along with the string of beads used to count the prayers. Fr. Barile ends with a consideration of the Dominican Alan de la Roche's contribution to the development of the rosary. He established it as a pastoral tool, even founding a confraternity in 1464 to keep the practice alive.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, 22 January 2003

It is virtually impossible to chart the exact steps that led to the modern structure of the Rosary. One can follow the birth and growth of the basic inspirations that, from their interaction, brought about the synthesis of meaning and method of prayer.

First of all, continuous prayer is often condensed in a brief formula. Everyone is familiar with the monastic recommendation to repeat: "O God, come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me (Ps 69,2; Cassian, Conference 10,10) or the exhortation: "Breathe Christ always" (St Athanasius, Life of St Anthony, 91,3) which eventually led to hesychasm.

The repetition led to numbered prayer because repetitions and undefined pauses create anxiety, while a set number brings closure and completion.

Marian Psalters Replace The Biblical Psalter

The numbered prayer raised the question of the meaning of the number: What number do the many recited formulas refer to? The reply was: they refer to the Psalter. Another intuition flowed from this, the substitution of the psalms by a definite number of brief formulas. The practice became established for the growing number of persons who could not read the psalms. At that point the Psalter was replaced by 150 formulas or a set number of Our Father's and Hail Mary's that replaced the canonical hours. There was in popular Latin a saying that "he who cannot psalter, can father: he who cannot recite the psalms, should say a set number of Our Father's" (cf. Meersseman, Ordo fraternitatis III, pp. 1444-45).

As the method of counting prayers came into use, prayer began to focus on the "mysteries" of Christ. Already present in the Church Fathers, for some the devotion to the humanity of Christ derived from the adoration of the Cross on Good Friday, that was increasingly accompanied by more affective and Marian hymns and prayers. From this threefold context — the mysteries of Christ, the Marian dimension, moving allusions — two developments are important: Marian psalters and meditations on the life of Christ.

The Marian psalters began in the 12th century in Cistercian communities with the addition of a Marian antiphon to each psalm. From this derives the tendency to edit the antiphons and to compose Marian psalters like that attributed to St Anselm of Aosta (died 1213) that has 150 rhythmic antiphons derived from a verse of each of the psalms.

The meditations of the Rosary are anticipated in the Meditations on the Joys of the Blessed Virgin of the Cistercian Stephen of Sallay (died 1252) who worked out an exercise of prayer for 15 Marian "joys" divided into 3 sections. If the number 15 and the joys connect the writing to the Rosary, the complexity and length are different.

Summaries Of The Mysteries Of Our Lady Or Our Lord

More important for the spirit of the Rosary were the "Meditations on the Life of Christ" that from the beginning of 1300 were attributed to St Bonaventure, now known to be the work of John of Caulas and printed in a critical edition as volume 153 of the Body of Christian Writers of the Middle Ages. The meditations on the public life of Christ begin with his Baptism and end with the Last Supper (chapters 16-73) and they are attentive to the presence of Mary. Before leaving for his public ministry, Jesus asks her blessing receiving the reply, "Go, with the blessing of the Father and mine" (p. 173, 9-10). At the supper in Bethany (ch. 72), even though "Scripture does not mention it" (p. 240, 2-3), Christ reveals the imminence of the Passion and appears to her after the Resurrection (ch. 82) greeting her with the "Hail, Holy Mother" (p. 301, 28-29). More determining for the Rosary was the Life of Jesus Christ compiled from the four Gospels and orthodox authors or Life of Christ of Ludolph of Saxony (died 1377) published in Strasbourg in 1474 and reprinted soon after in 88 Latin editions. The author was first a Dominican and then a Carthusian, who drafted a comprehensive outline (from the generation of the Word to the final coming), with quotations from the Fathers and medieval authors, with a prayer concluding each chapter. He contributed to integrating the use of set mysteries of Christ in personal prayer.

The prayer formulas evolved. At the start, the most common was the Our Father, so much that the name Paternoster was given to the string of beads that was used to count the prayers (and in London to the street where they were made). Then for many reasons, including the translation of the Greek prayer to Our Lady, the Akathistos, into Latin towards the ninth century, the Hail Mary began to prevail as St Peter Damian (1072) records as does a Synod of Paris held around 1200, that added the Hail Mary to the Our Father and the Creed as a daily prayer to be taught to the people (PL 145, 564: Mansi 22,681). Thus a Rosary came to be formed of 50 Hail Mary's or a Psalter of 150 Hail Mary's which already in the 13th century were recited by many persons and devout groups such as the Beguines of Ghent.

Creation Of 15 Decades

The first was the division of the Psalter into 150 Hail Mary's spread over 15 decades, each one preceded by an Our Father (at the time there was no second part of the Hail Mary nor mysteries to meditate on). To the Carthusian Henry Egher of Kalcar (died 1408) is attributed its being suggested by Our Lady. The division was a happy one because it maintained the 150 of the Psalter but broke up the length by dividing them into groups of ten, most practical division because it is based on the fingers.

Short Phrases Referring To The Mysteries

The second arrangement was that of the Carthusian Dominic of Prussia (died 1460) who added to the Hail Mary's in a Rosary composed of 50 Hail Mary's 50 different short phrases summing up the mystery to the name Jesus. They were inspired by Ludolph's booklet that summed up Ludolph of Saxony's "Life of Christ". This rosary was the mirror and perfectly balanced tool for the age, perhaps an absolutely perfect tool for prayer. The Rosary did not replace the liturgy or Scripture; it joined the numerical prayer with meditation of the mysteries of Christ's life; it gave space to what could arouse devotion by causing wonder (14 phrases dealt with the Infancy, 23 with the Passion, only 7 with the Life of Glory).

Phrases That Refer To The Mysteries Of The Public Life

It was open to the rest of the life of Christ with 6 phrases on the public life and ministry: Jesus, "whom John baptized in the Jordan, indicating him with his finger as the lamb of God; who fasted in the desert for forty days and who was tempted three times by Satan; who, having gathered together his disciples, preached the kingdom of heaven to the world; who restored sight to the blind, healed the lepers, cured the paralytic, freed those oppressed by the devil; whose feet Mary Magdalen washed with her tears, dried with her hair, kissed and anointed with perfume; who raised Lazarus who was dead already four days and other dead persons".

Contribution Of Alan De La Roche

The definitive contribution was that of the Breton Dominican Alan de la Roche (died 1475), who established the Rosary as a pastoral tool. To this end he established the first confraternity between 1464 and 1468, approved by the Dominican Order on 16 May 1470. These were older confraternities that Alan revived by giving them the prayer of the Marian psalter and re-invigorating them with his preaching and giving them new life. All this kept alive in time a prayer that perhaps by itself might have died with the death of its creators. Alan knew of and recommended many Rosaries or psalters, with Our Father's and Hail Mary's, only Christological or only Marian, with phrases added or without. He preferred the 15 decades starting with 15 Our Fathers that according to popular belief, honoured in a year the wounds of the Passion of the Lord which would have been 5475 in number, namely, 365 times 15. Alan insisted on the term Psalter: every day the members were to pray 150 prayers and he avoided as much as possible the term Rosary because it had a worldly connotation. Among the many proposals Alan made is our present Rosary, a "prayer directly addressed to Christ. So the first fifty are prayed to honour Christ, Incarnate Word. The second Christ who suffered the Passion. The third in honour of Christ who rose, ascended into heaven, who sent the Paraclete, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who will come to judge" (Apologia, 14,20). Finally, Alan gave a theoretical foundation to the Psalter of the Virgin Mary discovering it in the prayer of the monks, the Fathers, the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, who entrusted it especially to St Dominic. The last is a blatant historical creation, but one has to recognize Alan's ability to impress such an interpretation on iconography and beyond it.

Catholic Reformation And Beyond

How do we account for the Rosary moving from its fluid form still present in Alan to the fixed form that we know? It was a process that was both spontaneous and driven by a few converging initiatives. Alan gave preference to the 3 sets and the 15 decades. The confraternities also fostered a unifying intention and the need to set out the mysteries following a single pattern; to formalize the initial varied experience; the object of promoting indulgences, and later, the atmosphere of the Catholic Reformation that required clear formulas of prayer.

The mysteries are practically the same as the woodcuts published by Francesco Domenech in 1488 in the Spanish cultural area. In 1521 at Venice Alberto Castellani published the Rosary of the glorious Virgin Mary maintaining the 150 phrases, but connected the meditation to the Our Father and calling it a mystery and so favouring the present format. Note that in the publication the Rosary is considered to be a visible prayer with 165 images, one for each Our Father and Hail Mary.

The contribution of St Pius V was principally in the Bull Consueverunt (17 September 1569), where one reads that "the Rosary or Psalter of the Blessed Virgin" is a "method of prayer" through which we" venerate Mary with the Angelic salutation repeated 150 times according to the number of David's psalms, and before every set of ten Hail Mary's we say the prayer of Our Lord with meditations that illustrate the entire life of the same Lord Jesus Christ". For a correct interpretation one should note that there is no list of mysteries; no mention of the phrases to be added to the Hail Mary, but it does mention the Psalter; the meditation seems linked to the Our Father (according to the formula of Alberto Castellani) and is extended to the "whole" life of Christ.

From Alan on, including the Magisterium, one should note that by meditation one should increasingly understand mental prayer — from the practice of repeating the words while meditating — and less the oral repetition, according to the line from Scripture: "the mouth of the just will meditate wisdom" (Ps 36[37],30). Moreover the Papal documents up to but excluding Leo XIII, describe the Rosary mostly in terms of granting the indulgences. Finally the reference to the Psalter became less frequent and after the death of Alan the Confraternity of Cologne reduced the obligation of the 150 prayers from daily to weekly and authorized the breakdown into sets of fifty.

The composition of the Rosary has remained fixed up to the present time with the survival of the phrases attached to the Jesus in the Hail Mary in German-speaking regions. The rest belongs to additions that did not last — like the Mystical Rosary of the Excellent Gifts and Graces that God gave to the Blessed Mary Magdalene of the Carthusian Lanspergius (died 1539) — or to variations that did not affect the structure of the Rosary or its development in pastoral use. Paul VI in Marialis Cultus, n. 51 foresaw "exercises of piety . . . which take their inspiration from the Rosary", but do not change its structure. The Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae offers again, recasting them, some elements of method (for example, the phrases and other items) and of content (the mysteries of light). This is already history, but we can perceive it as something current today.

© L'Osservatore Romano, Editorial and Management Offices, Via del Pellegrino, 00120, Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.

This item 4728 digitally provided courtesy of