Last night, I did a multilingual rosary with some friends. The question arose: What was the original language of the rosary? As a well-trained Classicist, I immediately answered “Latin,” but a friend responded right after that she thought the rosary originated in Ireland. Turns out, none of us really knew from where the rosary came, so I decided to do some quick poking around online to find out.
Apparently, the origins of the rosary are pretty hazy. Strings of beads were definitely used in pre-Christian times as aids in meditation and prayer (perhaps as early as 1700 BC, used by the cult of Shiva in India). Early Christian hermits also seem to have used similar methods, like Paul of Thebes, who used pebbles to keep count of his prayers. Eventually, prayer string beads gained popularity in Christian Europe through the 15th century, when they began to be called rosaria, or “rose gardens.” (A “rosarium” designated any collection of similar material; a poetry anthology would be called a rosarium, e.g.)
Tradition holds that Mary divinely revealed the rosary to St. Dominic. But many Catholic historians dismiss that as legend, especially since St. Dominic is not usually associated with the rosary. Most likely, the rosary as we know it developed slowly. It was first used by religious orders to keep track of the 150 Psalms in the Bible. Those who wanted to imitate the monks but were not literate enough to read the Psalms used the rosary for prayers they did know, such as the “Our Father,” as they reflected upon the lives of Christ and Mary. (Our “Hail Mary” prayer originated from this; whenever the faithful began reflecting on the life of Mary, they offered the salutation that the Angel Gabriel offered Mary: “Hail, full of grace!”) Eventually, these elements — the psalms, the everyday simple prayers, and the reflections upon the lives of Christ and Mary — formed the rosary as we know it today.
When did the rosary explode in popularity? In the 1500s, Eastern Europe was being ravaged by a Muslim assault, jeopardizing Europe’s control over the Mediterranean. In 1571, Pope Pius V organized a fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria and asked all the faithful to pray the holy rosary to implore the help of Mary, Our Lady of Victory. Outnumbered but flying the blue flag of Christ crucified on their flagship, the Christians won a smashing victory at Lepanto on October 7, 1571, effectively crippling the Muslim Turkish threat to dominating the Mediterranean. The next year, Pope Pius declared October 7 the Feast of the Holy Rosary, which is observed to this day.
I grew up praying the rosary with my family, and I love praying it with dear friends. It’s a devotion to which all Catholics should commit themselves more. The Holy Rosary and the divine intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary bring tremendous graces, and, as the Battle of Lepanto has shown, they can work incredible wonders.
further reading: History of the Rosary by Fr. William Saunders, The Holy Rosary: Origins from Holy Spirit Interactive, and Beads and Prayers: The Rosary in History and Devotion by John Desmond Miller.
also check out the thrilling account of Lepanto, 1571: The Battle that Saved Europe by H.W. Crocker III