Where’s the original rosary given from Mary to St.Dominic? Is this relic been kept somewhere? Or it is “lost”? Or is it just a myth?
Well, technically speaking, the very first source to claim that the Rosary was given to St. Dominic was Blessed Alain de la Roche (Alanus de Rupe) in the 15th century, about 200 years after St. Dominic lived. The story does not appear in any contemporary sources concerning St. Dominic. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Rosary says:
Of the eight or nine early Lives of the saint, not one makes the faintest allusion to the Rosary. The witnesses who gave evidence in the cause of his canonization are equally reticent. In the great collection of documents accumulated by Fathers Balme and Lelaidier, O.P., in their “Cartulaire de St. Dominique” the question is studiously ignored. The early constitutions of the different provinces of the order have been examined, and many of them printed, but no one has found any reference to this devotion. We possess hundreds, even thousands, of manuscripts containing devotional treatises, sermons, chronicles, Saints’ lives, etc., written by the Friars Preachers between 1220 and 1450; but no single verifiable passage has yet been produced which speaks of the Rosary as instituted by St. Dominic or which even makes much of the devotion as one specially dear to his children. The charters and other deeds of the Dominican convents for men and women, as M. Jean Guiraud points out with emphasis in his edition of the Cartulaire of La Prouille (I, cccxxviii), are equally silent. Neither do we find any suggestion of a connection between St. Dominic and the Rosary in the paintings and sculptures of these two and a half centuries. Even the tomb of St. Dominic at Bologna and the numberless frescoes by Fra Angelico representing the brethren of his order ignore the Rosary completely.
Plus, the practice of saying prayers with something to keep track of the count predates St. Dominic by millennia - similar practices have already existed in some other religions and cultures. Christians were already familiar both with praying a specified number of prayers and using a counter to aid the recitation of said prayers years before Domingo de Guzmán was even born. For example, in the early 8th century, the Venerable St. Bede (d. 733) attested that churches and public places in France and England had prayer beads available for the faithful to use.
Prayers with beads like the rosary may have begun as a practice by the laity to imitate the monastic Divine Office (aka Liturgy of the Hours), during the course of which the monks prayed the 150 Psalms daily. As many of the laity and even lay monastics were illiterate, they substituted 150 repetitions of the Our Father (Pater noster in Latin) for the Psalms, sometimes using a cord with knots on it to keep an accurate count. This cord (which eventually later became a string of beads) are known as paternosters. Around the time of St. Dominic (13th century), there were already four trade guilds of paternoster makers in Paris, referred to as paternosterers; this suggests a continued link between the Our Father and the prayer beads at the time.
I will say that many elements in our present-day Rosary (for example, the act of meditating on certain episodes in the life of Jesus and Mary, as well as the form of our rosaries itself) actually developed after St. Dominic’s death in 1221. At first, the idea was just to recite said prayers a given number of times with a counter; the idea of meditating on ‘mysteries’ while praying came after. And there was a lot of variation: here’s one from medieval Sarum (aka Salisbury), England, circa AD 1515.
In the early 13th century, the rule of the English anchorites, the Ancrene Wisse, specified how groups of 50 Hail Marys were to be broken into five decades of ten Hail Marys each. (To put things in perspective, the Ancrene Wisse was perhaps first written either shortly after 1200 or between 1215 and 1221 - after the Fourth Lateran Council but before the Dominicans arrived in England. The traditional story has St. Dominic being given the Rosary in 1208.)
Gradually, the Hail Mary came to replace the Our Father as the prayer most associated with beads. Eventually, each decade came to be preceded by an Our Father, which further mirrored the structure of the monastic Office. Eventually people devised variations on the paternoster devotion: many added Hail Marys or Glory Bes in their prayers, or recited 150 Hail Marys (I should mention here that the Hail Mary only received its present form during the late 15th century, when the final part - “Holy Mary, mother of God…” was added) as a “Psalter of St. Mary”; Religious communities are recorded as praying “chaplets” of various sorts from at least the 13th century onward: the lay Beguines of Ghent in 1242 were required to pray three chaplets of Hail Marys daily, and certain Dominican nuns at the cloister of Unterlinden made it a rule to pray a thousand Hail Marys per day (two thousand on special days).
Around this time, many stories circulated of Mary appearing to and rewarding pious individuals for their recitations of the Hail Mary. It is also by this time that we see the term ‘rosary’ crop up: there is a legend in a collection of stories in Middle High German verse known as The Passional (1280-1300) where the 50 Hail Marys chanted by a monk miraculously turned into a rose wreath for Our Lady (rosen crantz, from which comes the modern German term for a rosary: Rosenkranz). Originally, the Latin term rosarium denoted a (literal) rose garden, a rose wreath, or an anthology of texts; soon it became the term for the salutations to the Virgin.
Here’s the thing. There is a Dominic associated with the early history of the Rosary, but this is a different person from Domingo de Guzmán. This Dominic is a Carthusian monk from the charterhouse of St. Alban at Trier who lived in the early-to-mid 15th century (1382–1460), who devised what he called the “Life of Jesus Rosary.” What Dominic of Prussia did was he added a sentence (or clause) to each of the 50 sets of Hail Marys already popular at his time: for example, “…blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus Christ, from whose sacred side, opened by the soldier’s lance, there escaped water and blood for the remission of our sins,” or “…Jesus Christ, whom thou didst wrap in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger.” Dominic was inspired by a brother monk named Adolf of Essen, who wrote two short Latin treatises, one of which recommended the ‘proto-rosary’ and the other, meditations on the life of Christ and His mother.
Promoted by Adolf (who later claimed to have received a vision of the heavenly court praying Hail Marys with Dominic’s clauses to Our Lady), and others like fellow Carthusian Johannes Rode (d. 1439, later the abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St Matthias at Trier), Dominic’s practice soon became popular among Benedictines and Carthusians from Trier to adjoining Belgium and France: it is claimed that Dominic and his brother monks managed to distribute a thousand copies of the devotion via correspondence. The earliest printed rosary book, entitled [Das ist] unser lieben frowen Rozenkranz “[This is] Our Beloved Lady’s Rosary”, appeared in 1475 (fourteen years after Dominic’s death), carrying Dominic’s fifty clauses. Dominic made clear however that his clauses are just suggestory models: in practice there was much variation and experimentation.
Dominic of Prussia helped shape the modern rosary devotion by the addition of meditations on the life of Jesus. Emphasis on the person of Jesus and the events of His life, in effect, transformed the Ave Maria prayer into a Christocentric devotion - a shift that reflects the late medieval popular impulse towards imitatio Christi (‘imitation of Christ’) piety. Instead of simple Aves repeated because the Virgin liked to hear them, or Psalms repeated around the clock in order to literally pray without ceasing, imitatio exercises had as their goal the conforming of the individual person to the model of Christ.
A little bit about Dominic of Prussia here. He was born in Poland in 1382, his first teacher being his own parish priest - incidentally, a pious Dominican. Later, he was a student at the University of Krakow. Falling into bad habits he led a vagabond life until he was 25, when he reformed through the influence of Adolf of Essen, prior of the Carthusian monastery of St. Alban, near Trier. Dominic then became a Carthusian in 1409. Dominic’s monastic life was one of severe penance and religious fervour. The spiritual favours he received were numerous, and many visions are ascribed to him. Among the positions he filled were those of master of novices at Mainz and vicar of the monastery of St. Alban at Trier, where he died in 1361.
While Dominic of Prussia popularized the idea of having exactly 50 biographical meditations on the life of Jesus to the Ave prayer that marked the beginning of a new form of religious exercise, was hardly the inventor of the concept. We have a collection of prayers dating from 1300 that were used by the Cistercian nuns at the cloister at Sankt Thomas on the Kyll (40 miles from Trier) which contain 98 vita Christi meditations. We have no evidence however that Dominic was familiar with this devotion; he he instead attributed his inspiration to a passage in St. Mechthild of Hackeborn’s (1241-99) Liber spiritualis gratiae (“Book of Spiritual Grace”), where Mechthild records a vision of a beautiful tree upon whose leaves were written the entire life of Christ in golden letters. “Jesus Christ, born of a virgin;” “Jesus Christ, circumcised on the eighth day;” Jesus Christ, whom the three kings worshipped;" “Jesus Christ, who was presented in the temple;” “Jesus Christ, whom John baptized; etc.” There was also a 14th century German vernacular Marian psalter where 38 scenes from the life of Christ were inserted within a traditional four-line verse litany of praise to the Virgin:
Help us, Lady, on account of the agony
that Christ suffered on death’s journey,
when Pilate washed his hands,
that we may find a just end.
Now this is where Blessed Alain (ca. 1428-75) enters the scene. In about 1460 Alain began to claim that he had been commissioned by Mary in a vision to preach the Rosary and to found confraternities dedicated to the devotion. He eventually founded the first such guild at Douai in 1468-70, which he called ‘the Confraternity of the Psalter of the Glorious Virgin Mary.’ Alain preferred the traditional Marian psalter of 150 Hail Marys, thinking that the term Rosary with its ‘worldly’ connotations and that the “truncated” Carthusian version with only 50 Aves was a threat to the traditional psalter. Alain also claimed that the Marian psalter and the confraternity actually dated back to the time of Our Lady (!) He was merely reviving them under orders from Mary herself, or so he said. He also began to link the propagation of the Marian psalter to a different Dominic: the founder of the Order of Preachers, to where he belonged.
Fraternities of many kinds were founded in the Middle Ages to meet the religious and social needs of clergy and laity. Their primary purpose was to secure for their members mutual support in death through Masses, prayers and alms, as well as intercessions in sickness and other religious benefits. They often catered for various forms of lay piety and many were associated with the orders of mendicant friars. The difference between many other religious guilds and Alain’s confraternity was that there was no ‘entrance fee’, did not require expensive annual dues, nor vows or constraints. Women as well as men were free to join (although rosary guilds would later become predominantly female). There were no penalties for failing to say the prayers (which were very simple), nor set times for saying them. In fact they could be said at home or while working, while sitting down or standing up or walking around. You did not have to be able to read, nor did you have to purchase and use a special book, as many other devotions required. This flexibility facilitated the spread of rosary guilds throughout Europe and made the Rosary popular.
Alain died at Zunolle in Flanders on 8 September 1475, the very same day Jakob Sprenger in Cologne founded another, more influential confraternity. The Cologne guild had the support of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, whose name appears among the earliest members on the register; the imperial influence was enough for the papal legate, Alexander of Forli, to grant the Cologne confraternity approval in 1476. Soon confraternities were being founded in other parts of Germany (Rostock 1475, Augsburg 1476), and eventually at areas like Burgundy (Lille, Ghent 1475), Portugal (Lisbon 1479), Italy (Venice 1480, Florence 1481), and Spain (Barcelona 1488). Each chapter of the brotherhood was independent of one another; any location could start one of their own. The only requirement for membership was signing a roll with their name, marital status, and whether they were clergy or laymen.
Another factor which popularized these fraternities was their lack of discrimination: as mentioned the guild was open to men and women, and Sprenger made it a point to allow everyone to join regardless of their social status, so that the poor and the needy and the languishing of “this knavish world” can become the equals of the rich and powerful. At a time when people felt that they were but spectators at the Eucharist, extra-liturgical religious practice and private devotions flourished (this was the reason why people prayed the Rosary during Mass at the old days).
In any case, the statutes of the new confraternity at Douai, the Livre et ordonnance (Book and Ordinance), records eight days’ worth of Alain’s preaching, wherein he recommended a form of prayer that harks back to an older one used in the 13th century. A similar method can be found described in a Middle English exemplum dating from 1275, with the French title Comment le sauter noustre dame fu primes cuntroue (Middle English: “How our Levedi’s = Lady’s] Sauter was first founde”). The exemplum recommended dividing the 150 Hail Marys into three sections of fifty by meditating upon the Annunciation at the morning, the Nativity at noon, and the Assumption at evening. The method prescribed at the Douai statutes is almost similar, the difference being that the prophecies of Jesus is commemorated at the morning recitation, His childhood at noon, and His passion at the evening. A second version at the same document also suggested marking off the 150 Aves with 15 Our Fathers, so that the number of Pater Nosters recited in the course of a year would equal the 5,475 wounds Christ suffered as reckoned by St. Bernard.
In his Liber Apologeticus ad Ferricum episcopum Tornacensem (“Apology before Ferricus, bishop of Tournai”), where he defended his own teachings, Alain gave out further variations on the prayer. There he recommended using pictures as an aid to meditation while praying, and suggested meditating upon Jesus’ and Mary’s various body parts (the head of Jesus crowned with thorns, Mary’s lips that kissed the infant Jesus, etc.), on the virtues, friends and benefactors, the duties of office, saints, the altars of the church, a review of one’s own sins, and many other topics. This suggests that Alain himself did not yet have a clear picture of what exactly the devotion was about.
It would be Michael Francisci, a professor at Cologne University, who presented a series of lectures in December of 1475 defending the devotion of the confraternities against their detractors, who would help pick out the best of Alain’s ideas and present them to a wider public in a form that was attractive and practical. From 1465 to 1468, Michael had been at Douai, around the same time Alain was first preaching the Psalter of Our Lady. It was probably around that time that he was first exposed to the devotion, since by 1469 up to 1481 he was actively promoting the Cologne confraternity founded by Sprenger. The lectures were published in two editions, the first in 1476 entitled Sequitur determinatio quodlibetatis facta colonie (“Here follows the scholarly disputation held at Cologne)”, and the second at 1480, with a much more polished title of Quodlibet de veritate fraternitatis rosarii seu psalterii beatae Mariae virginis (“Academic disputation on the true character of the brotherhood of the rosary or the Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary”). In them Michael suggested three sets of meditations: Mary’s earthly joys, her Passion sorrows, and her heavenly joys. In addition, he incorporates the Douai format of marking off ten decades with fifteen Our Fathers to the wounds of Christ, in commemoration of the fifteen hours, persons, places, parts of Christ’s body, instruments, and other aspects of His passion. This is almost similar to our modern Rosary, although the idea of focusing on specific events per decade was still unknown.
Sprenger himself took up Alain’s and Michael’s formats for the Marian psalter, although he did not adopt the idea of meditating on three themes. He recommended in his statutes of 1477 that the members of the brotherhood say “three rosaries” (equals one psalter) a week, each consisting of fifty Aves with five Paternosters. He spoke of the Hail Marys as being ten “white roses,” and adds the “[insertion of] a red rose, by which is meant a Paternoster. And at the same time, meditate on the rose-red blood of Christ Jesus that God our Father wished to be shed on our behalf.” While Sprenger did not specify particular Ave-meditations, the 1477 edition of the statutes contains bound together with it (but printed separately) Dominic of Prussia’s fifty life-of-Christ meditations - something which indicates the continued popularity of the Carthusian rosary. Clearly, the idea here (although Springer himself does not suggest it) was for these fifty meditations to be used as Ave-tags.
In other confraternities, Sprenger’s suggestions were interpreted quite differently. The statutes of the Colmar confraternity called for five Joys - ten Aves each - and five Sorrows - one Pater each. It was an antiphonal format of ten merged Joys and Sorrows.
(Last post for now)
I should note that there was still a huge variation by this time. The first printed rosary books began to appear in 1475. The earliest, [Dis ist] Unser lyeben frowen Rosenkrantz und wie er von ersten offkummen (“This is our Lady’s Rosary and how it first came to be”) as noted earlier contained Dominic of Prussia’s meditations. More popular, however was Vnser lieben Frawen Psalter (Our Lady’s Psalter), attributed to Alain (though likely written by someone else) and reprinted seven times between 1483 and 1502-3 under slightly different titles. This book, which was published to advertise and promote the rosary (or as Alain called it, ‘Our Lady’s Psalter’), did not include Dominic’s version, but it recommended at least six (in reality around seven or eight) ways of praying the devotion, and even allows for more: “However, if none of the six above-mentioned ways pleases you, or if you should have greater devotion by another method, take it for your own, only let this praiseworthy prayer be spoken with diligence and devotion according as it is possible and proper for each person.”
All in all, prayer books published between about 1475 and 1550 reveal a huge array of rosaries with 200, 165, 150, 93, 63, 33, 12 and even as few as 5 meditations. Many of these books contain two or three “rosaries” of various kinds, rosaries to various patron saints on the model of the old psalter type, Ave prayer acrostics, Marian litanies, general meditations, and narrative types. As late as 1610, there was a prayer book which contained no fewer than sixty-three different rosaries (!) to vary the daily or weekly fare of the exercise.
Now, when we say ‘prayer books’, it should be pointed out that many of these were not purely (or totally not) written text: they usually included a set of illustrations. As late as the end of the 16th century, the most widely used set of rosary meditations in Germany was not a written one at all. Included in the Vnser lieben Frawen Psalter - alongside more than seven written versions - was the first picture rosary, fifteen woodcuts depicting a sequence of events in the lives of Jesus and Mary. Although it was only one among the eight different methods of reciting the devotion in the book, seemingly included as an afterthought (they are not mentioned in the text proper, nor counted among the seven other methods enumerated by the author, and do not correspond specifically to any of the ways of saying the prayer that the written text of the handbook describes) the picture rosary soon became the version of choice, not least because it appealed to people who could not read the Carthusian meditations or the Ave psalm psalter, and also because the pictures was universal, transcending the barriers of language. Even with the printing of written texts of the picture “mysteries,” rosary books continued to be supplied with illustrations into the 17th century and well beyond.
The idea of using pictures for meditation was hardly new. As mentioned, Alain had already recommended the recitation of the Marian psalter before an image of Christ or Mary. A manual from the Netherlands (the Exempelboek II) dated 1484 advised that “those who cannot read should look at the illustrations while repeating the Ave Maria and think about the life and passion of our Lord.” The interesting thing here is that the pictures in the Vnser lieben Frawen Psalter (three sets of five medallions, sometimes color-coded white, red, and gold in hand-colored copies) almost correspond to the fifteen mysteries of our present Rosary, the only difference being that the final ‘mystery’ of the ‘golden rosary’ is the Last Judgment instead of the coronation of Mary.
Since Alain’s version proved to be more popular in the long run, people began to adopt his story of how the Marian psalter came to be, while Dominic of Prussia’s contributions were mostly forgotten.
FWIW, the Dominicans like to think so. A Dominican parish in Portland has a beautiful life-sized statue of the BVM (holding an infant Jesus) handing a full (fifteen-decade) Rosary to a kneeling St. Dominic. It can be seen at the top of their website: holyrosarypdx.org/church/
thank-you Patrick for the information
Well, to be fair, it is said that the establishment of rosary confraternities by Dominicans such as Alain or Jakob Sprenger contributed to the revival of religious fervor among Dominican communities (specifically among the reformed Observants) in the late 15th century, and since then, the Dominicans became committed to the propagation of the Rosary.
The devotion was really part of the so-called Observant movement which affected all religious orders (particularly the Dominicans and the Franciscans) in the late 15th century. (Starting from the Carthusian Dominic of Prussia, each of the Rosary’s initial promoters - Johannes Rode, Alain, Jakob, Michael Francisci, Johannes of Erfurt - were actually involved in it.) One of the indirect results of the reform was increased attention to the spiritual life of the laity. In fact, Alain and Jakob both expected the confraternities to engender pious devotion to laymen: by “reviving and reestablishing” (Jakob’s words) a devotion which according to them fell into disuse, they wished to rekindle a form of spirituality from which people of their time had fallen away. It was this focus on the laity that led the Dominicans to promote the Rosary and to found brotherhoods devoted to it.
Fun fact: the name Rozenkran(t)z ‘rosary’ given by Dominic of Prussia to the devotion stuck despite Alain’s vehement dislike of the term because Jakob Springer continued to use it.
I’m sure St. Dominic had a profound devotion to Our Blessed Mother. I never thought that Our Lady handed him a string of beads explaining how it was all to be done. It evolved to what it is today by the grace of God and the inspiration from Our Blessed Mother. It I such a wonderful private devotion, and properly said, it can lead individuals to higher forms of prayer, meditation, and contemplation.
You always have such great posts Patrick. Long I will wish to learn what you know.
It seems like this legends is confused with the brown scapular? That’s some terrible wording there, but I hope the point is made.
Huh. Even when I’ve heard the story, I always assumed that “Our Lady gave St. Dominic the Rosary” meant that she taught him the prayers that were to be used, not that she handed him a physical object. So even if it were 100% true, I would not have even thought about the existence of a “first rosary” relic. In the story, is there supposed to have been an actual string of beads handed over?
The Prayer Rule of the Theotokos (Byzantine) predates the Dominican Rosary by centuries (dates back as early as the 8th century if memory serves). I am not aware of any evidence that links the Prayer Rule to the Latin Rosary, but the similarities are striking. There is also a tradition in the Byzantine Church that Our Lady gave the Prayer Rule to the fairthful.