The origin of the Rosary

Now that we are in October, which was declared the month of the Rosary by Pope Leo XIII in 1883, it is helpful to know how the Church came to have this popular devotion. Knowing how the Rosary developed over time will help us appreciate it more and say it better. This history of the Rosary is Question 131 in my book Question Time 1, published by Connor Court in 2012.

131. The origin of the Rosary        

One of my favourite prayers is the Rosary, which we have always said together in our family, both when I was growing up and now with my husband and children. Recently someone asked me where the Church got the Rosary and I was unsure of the answer. I remember something about Our Lady giving it to St Dominic. Is this true? I would be interested to know more about this.

The Rosary is one of those devotions that developed over time out of popular piety. Its origin can be traced back at least 1000 years to the custom of the lay faithful around the monasteries reciting 150 prayers, usually “Our Fathers”, in union with the monks, who were reciting the Divine Office with its 150 psalms. They would count the prayers on beads known then as Pater noster, “Our Father”, beads.

The substitution of the “Hail Mary” for the “Our Father” came around the eleventh century with the rise in popularity of the “Hail Mary”, especially in England. At that time the “Hail Mary” consisted only of the first part of the prayer, with the words of the Archangel and of Our Lady’s relative Elizabeth, up to “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” The name “Jesus” was added later and an indulgence for its use was granted by Pope Urban IV in the thirteenth century. The last part of the prayer, beginning with “Holy Mary, Mother of God”, was added by Pope St Pius V in 1568.

In the twelfth century a variety of practices developed, with either 50 or 150 “Hail Marys” being recited, counted on seeds or grains threaded on a string in groups of 10. St Dominic in the thirteenth century did much to propagate the devotion, preaching it and using it in his fight against the Albigensians, a heretical sect in southern France, Italy and Spain. They rejected the sacraments, especially marriage, promoted sexual promiscuity and denied the Trinity. Blessed Alan de la Roche, O.P., tells how when St Dominic was discouraged by his lack of success in converting the heretics, Our Lady appeared to him and encouraged him to preach the Angelic Psalter, as the Rosary was then called by virtue of the words of the Angel with which the “Hail Mary” begins and the 150 psalms. When he did so he was singularly successful and he continued to pray the Rosary daily all his life and encouraged its use.

It seems that this devotion came to be called the “Rosary” from the beginning of the fourteenth century. The Latin name Rosarium, or “rose garden”, was applied to medieval love lyrics and hence to this love lyric to Mary.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century the 150 “Hail Marys” were divided into 15 decades of 10, each preceded by an “Our Father”. The meditation on the mysteries of the life of Christ and Mary would come later. Around 1400 at the Trier Charterhouse, Adolph of Essen composed a work entitled “The Small Rosary of the Blessed Lady”, in which he suggested meditating on the life of Jesus while reciting the prayers. Late in the fifteenth century Blessed Alan de la Roche composed 150 themes for meditation, and he advised meditating on the Incarnation during the first 50 “Hail Marys”, on the Passion during the second and on the Resurrection, Ascension and Glorification of Christ during the third, thus giving rise to the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries we know today.

In 1569 the Dominican Pope St Pius V standardised the Rosary in its present form. Following the decisive victory of the Christian navy over the Turks in the battle of Lepanto in 1571, which was attributed in great measure to the recitation of the Rosary, Pope Pius V instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victories on 7 October 1572, the first anniversary of the battle. The following year his successor changed the name of the feast to Our Lady of the Rosary.

In 1883 Pope Leo XIII ordered that the month of October be dedicated to the Holy Rosary. In 2002, the beloved Pope John Paul II added the Mysteries of Light, or Luminous Mysteries, which consider the public life of Christ.

More about the history and importance of the Rosary, quotes from Popes and saints encouraging its use, different ways of saying it and answers to objections to it can be found in my little booklet Understanding the Rosary, published by the Catholic Adult Education Centre in Sydney in 2008 and also by the Catholic Truth Society in London. Given the great benefits that have come from saying the Rosary over the years, especially in the family, its recitation is much to be encouraged.