Prayer Beads Revisted – The Components

Last time we discussed the basic geography of a rosary and what the most common forms were for European Roman Catholics. Now let’s discuss the individual components of the Rosary in greater detail.

Beads, that is what both the Ave and Paternoster beads are. The average person was most likely to have a rosary that was made of wooden, bone or glass beads. Wooden and bone beads were manufactured locally in most places in Europe. The City of London still has a Paternoster Row – a street where Paternosters were once sold and probably manufactured.

Henry VIII’s rosary is a tenner that is made of elaborately carved boxwood beads with a ring at one end and a large gaude/Paternoster at the other. I was fortunate to actually see this rosary in person a number of years ago when it was on tour in Las Vegas at the Bellagio Art Gallery. You can see it online here.

Do glass rosaries surprise you? The import records from England indicate the import of literally thousands of Paternoster strands from Italy during the 1500’s – all made of glass. I have not been able to locate any surviving paternosters that are made of glass. The beads that they were believed to have been made of do appear archaeologically.

What else can the beads be made of? Well, we have already mentioned wood, bone and glass, but all sorts of stones, semi-precious and precious, coral and metal beads were used. There were actually special rules, called sumptuary laws, put into place in some locations to attempt to control the ostentatious display of wealth. The church put specific sumptuary laws in place to prohibit some of their clergy from using rosaries that contained precious stones and coral.

Other materials may also have been used, like clay or rose petals. There is a lot of modern mythology about when mashed rose petals began to be used to make rosary beads. I have not been able to find any reliable scientific information on this technique as a source of medieval rosary beads. I believe that some of the confusion on this topic may be due to the association with the red rose with the cult of Mary. Modern researchers may have taken comments about roses and Mary literally, when they are meant symbolically. This sort of confusion is unfortunately common. For instance, the German word for beads is Perle. Modern English speakers often assume the word means pearl, when it actually just means a bead made of ANY material.

Multi-decade rosaries are often made as loops. The looped rosary is probably the most common form that we find modernly, and it was definitely used prior to 1600. Loops commonly contained 3 or 5 decades. They generally had a decorative tassel or cross. The cross could be a solid cast or carved piece, or it could be made of multiple beads, as demonstrated in this picture. Several rosaries that were found aboard the wreck of Henry VIII’s ship the Mary Rose (July 19, 1545) had constructed crosses like this. Many of the crews skeletons were found with their rosary on their person or in close proximity, indicating that most of the sailors carried rosaries at all times.

English: A rosary found on board the carrack M...English: A rosary found on board the carrack Mary Rose. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rosary ends could be decorated with crosses, tassels, a large beads called a gaude, or a ring. Remember Henry VIII’s rosary – he had a gaude and a ring.

I hope that this brief summary of rosary components helps you better understand what a pre-1600’s rosary should look like.

Memento Mori: Reflections on Mortality

This article was originally written as a handout for those wishing to understand more of the details of the Memento Mori in Medieval Europe.


“Memento Mori” is a Latin phrase that is translated as “Remember you are mortal” or “Remember you will die.” It is used to refer to art, including jewelry, paintings, literature, and musical compositions which focus on the concept of mortality. The phrase appears to have originated during the classical period in Rome. Roman generals parading in victory through Rome were reminded by a slave that they were mortal and could fall from grace at any time. (If you are a Mel Brooks fan you may remember this scene from the movie History of the World, Part I.)

In the Middle Ages, the large number of deaths caused by the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) and wars inspired a Cult of Death that was often visible in jewelry and art work. This art almost always includes a skull, a skeleton, or a coffin. Tombstones often included a skull or sometimes a complete skeleton. This was supposed to remind friends and family members that they would die someday, too, and should therefore live their lives in a fashion that was good for their souls. Virtuous living would ensure a place in heaven instead of an eternity in hell.

Another interesting manifestation of the Memento Mori is the use of natural materials to represent blood. For instance, heliotrope cameos have naturally occurring red flecks in the stone. These flecks were used to represent blood in images of Christ with a crown of thorns. This material became very popular with Italian Renaissance cameo carvers.

Commonly used pieces of jewelry, such as Rosaries, rings, and pendants are among the types of jewelry found in Memento Mori. The pendants were usually worn on long chains, but they could also be pinned to a lady’s bodice or sleeve. Men also wore pendants pinned to their clothing or their hats. One of the most famous pieces of this type of jewelry is the Tor Abbey Jewel from England. This pendant includes a complete enameled gold skeleton in an enameled coffin. Rosaries using skulls as “counters” – either “Aves” or “Our Fathers”, or having a single skull as a pendant were also popular. Some elaborately carved wooden Rosaries included entire scenes in their “Our Fathers”. These scenes were hidden inside “beads” which could be opened to reveal the scene within.

Here are a couple of examples of Memento Mori style Rosaries. First we have a three decade Mother of Pearl and Coral Rosary with white bone skulls.

Etsy 155


This three decade Rosary uses white bone skulls for the Aves and Black Onyx Beads for the Our Fathers.

Etsy 156

Funeral or Mourning Jewelry is sometimes included in the concept of Memento Mori, but this jewelry is usually focused on a particular individual. This form of jewelry became particularly popular in the late 1700’s. A lock of the dead individual’s hair was sometimes included in the jewelry. During later periods, most notably the Victorian Age, hair jewelry became an important art form of its own.



Prayer Beads – a Summary of Their Use Prior to 1600

I originally wrote this article as a handout for reenactors specializing in pre-1600 personas. It focuses on the time frame of the Middle Ages and is intended as a brief reference for aiding in persona development and costuming. In cultures where religious behavior is an important part of your participation in the society, understanding what sort of religious equipment your persona would have owned, displayed, and used is an important part of developing and dressing your persona. I have since written a much more detailed book “Prayer Beads for My Persona – Part 1: Christianity”, but this article remains a good basic resource.


Prayer Beads have been used through the centuries by most major religions. The use of counting devices seems to appear whenever a religion decides to use the repetition of prayers as part of their rites. Prayer beads simplify the process of counting and remembering prayers, and they have the advantage of being portable.

Hindus may have been the first major religion to use prayer beads, known as mala, as early as 8BC. Modernly there are two major branches of Hinduism, Shaivism and Vishnuism. Shaivists, who are devotees of the god Siva, carry strings of 32 to 108 beads, made from the seeds of a specific plant. Vishnu mala usually have 108 carved wooden beads made from the sacred basil shrub.

Buddhist prayer beads are also called mala, and usually consist of strands of 108 beads, one for each of the impurities or lies that one must overcome in order to achieve Nirvana. The long malas are usually only worn by monks, ordinary people usually wear only 30 or 40 beads. The beads were originally made from the wood or seeds of the sacred Bodhi tree, but as Buddhism spread throughout Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, new materials such as bone, amber and semi-precious stones became common.

The basic mala.Etsy 31

The Catholic Church used Paternosters, modernly called a Rosary. The name comes from the “our Father” portion of the prayer. The Paternoster appears to have existed since at least 1000 AD, but specialized versions may date much earlier. The basic unit of the modern Paternoster is the decade – 10 smaller Ave beads and one larger Paternoster bead. Variations of 5 and 7 beads are also known. Some religious orders had specialized forms of paternosters with specific special beads to represent special prayers.

Each bead in the Paternoster represents a prayer. In the Middle Ages the Rosary was said in Latin. The prayer for each “Ave” bead was:

Ave Maria, gratia plena. Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus.Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

Which, when translated to English reads:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The prayer for each “Paternoster” bead was:

Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur Nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo. Amen.

In English it reads:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

Sumptuary Laws, prohibiting the ostentatious display of wealth appeared in Europe as early as the 1200’s. An elegant solution to this challenge was the “Paternoster”.

“Prayer Beads become fashionable religious jewellery, worn hanging from a girdle, around the neck, wrist arm, or sometimes being fastened by a brooch to the breast.” page 120, Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose

The Paternoster beads were made of a wide variety of materials including: coral, amber, jet, crystal, chalcedony, lapis, silver, blue glass, wood, tin, shell, bone, and horn. The Mary Rose shipwreck, which occurred in July of 1545, provides us with at least 8 Paternosters. The materials used to make the Paternosters were often believed to have magical properties, adding to the “magic” of the Paternoster.

As a side note – Ave Maria Gratia Plena was used as a protective incantation during the Middle Ages. The initials – AMGP were frequently engraved or stamped on jewelry, and other items, as a source of added protection.

The two most common forms of Paternosters in Europe are the Tenner and the Three Decade. The Tenner (called the Zehner in German speaking areas) is a simple strand of 10 Aves with a Paternoster (sometimes called a Gaud), a tassel, or a cross at the end, and sometimes a ring for suspension, or a tassel at the other end.

Etsy 125























The Three Decade Paternoster is simply three groups of 10 Ave beads separated by Paternoster beads. The early Paternosters usually ended with a tassel. Later versions sometimes ended with a cross. Crucifixes were rare on Paternosters until after 1600. The materials that Paternosters were made from varied greatly by social class.

Etsy 126

Islam – Men, women and children frequently wore talismans, such as the eye bead, to protect them from the evil eye. The “job” of praying was largely assigned to men, and therefore women rarely had prayer beads.

Here is an example of a simple eye bead necklace.

eye bead necklace

There are two predominant forms of prayer beads used in Islam, The Subha and the Tesbih. The Subha was a string of either 39 or 99 prayer beads which are used to enumerate the 99 names or attributes of God. The strand of 99 beads is usually divided in thirds by a slightly larger bead and includes an elongated terminal bead. This form of prayer beads was used predominantly in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The Tesbih is a strand of 33  beads, usually adorned with an elongated bead and a tassel. This form of prayer bead strand was used predominantly in Persia and Turkey.

Here is an example of a nicer than average (a little fancy) Subha.

Subha ready to go

And here is an example of a typical Tespih.

tespih ready to go

I hope that this brief summary of Prayer Beads used during the Middle Ages is helpful to you in your development of a more historically accurate portrayal of your persona.