The Rosary: Origin and Development PDF Print E-mail

by Ramon A. Pedrosa

The Rosary is perhaps the most popular non-liturgical prayer in the Latin Rite. It is a repetitive devotion that developed over the centuries into its present form. But it is not the only form of repetitive prayer.

In the East.

Orthodox Catholics have for many centuries another prayer form - the Prayer of the Heart, also called The Jesus Prayer (for more extensive detail see supra):

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,

have mercy on me a sinner."

Their memory aid is the prayer rope, ancient in Orthodox spirituality, and predates the use of the Latin rite rosary (meaning 'rose garden') by centuries. The earliest form of the prayer rope is a small ladder made of knotted leather thongs or plaited string, usually having a hundred 'rungs.' This symbolizes the ladder seen by Jacob in his dream.

In the West.

The rosary has appealed to people of all stations in the Church, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, religious or laity. It has been recommended by Popes from Leo XIII to John Paul II to Benedict XVI, and by saints, such as St. Peter Canisius, St. Louis Marie de Montfort, and St. Alphonsus Liguori. Its appeal no doubt lies in part with its ease of recitation, its soothing repetitiveness, and its intimate connection with Scripture.

This is by no means the only Rosary around. There are numerous other Rosaries, such as the Franciscan Rosary, the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows, and the Brigittine Rosary. Each has its own unique construction and emphasis. For example, the Franciscan Rosary is composed of seven decades in honor of the Seven Joys of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Furthermore, Rosaries are not restricted to devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary alone. There are rosaries in honor of the Sacred Heart, the Holy Name, the Holy Spirit, the Angels, Saint Joseph, Saint Patrick and many other saints. The one considered here is the standard traditional Dominican Rosary orginally composed of 15 decades broken into three set of 5 decades each.


The origin of the Rosary in the Latin rite.

The origins of the Dominican Rosary are obscure. One legend has it that St. Dominic de Guzmán  (1170-1221 A.D.) invented the rosary. This legend, however, is unsupported by historical documentation. Critical scholarship, including much research carried out by Dominicans themselves, indicates that St. Dominic had little, if anything, to do with the Rosary. St Dominic certainly had a deep and abiding devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but there is no mention of his authorship of the Rosary in any of his writings, nor is there any mention by any of his contemporaries or his biographers of his involvement. Given the silence of the historical record of his time, it is difficult to see how St. Dominic could have been its author. Indeed the origin of the legend of St. Dominic's involvement appears to have been due to the writings of the Dominican Alan de la Roche (Alanus de Rupe) c. 1428-1475 who revived the devotion to the Rosary almost three hundred years later. It is in his writings that we see the legend of St. Dominic's authorship of the Rosary appear for the first time. Alan de la Roche did much to promote the Rosary

But it is the apostle of the Blessed Mother, Saint Louis Marie De Montfort, who tells us that in a vision, Our Lady, accompanied by three angels. told the young St. Dominic,

"Do you know which weapon the Blessed Trinity wants to use

to reform the world? I want you to know that,

in this kind of warfare, the principal weapon

has always been the Angelic Psalter,

which is the foundation-stone of the New Testament.

Therefore, if you want to reach these hardened souls

and win them over to God, preach my Psalter."

Two things from this revelation from the Blessed Mother:

1. the “Hail Mary” and, for that matter, the Holy Rosary,  consisted simply and only of the angelic psalter viz.

“Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you”

2. it was the principal weapon to reach hardened souls and win them over to God.

The Blessed Mother was referring to a pious devotion already taking place among the common people who invented praying the simple psalter 150 times in imitation of the monastic practice of praying the 150 psalms in the Divine Office to mark the hours of the day and the days of the week. They didn’t know how to read, and they were busy at their shops and in the fields, but wanting to share in the practice, they started praying the simple psalter on a string of 150 beads or knots as a parallel to praying the psalms. It was a way that the illiterate layman could also remember the Lord and his Mother throughout the day. But it was not the Hail Marys as we know it today that they prayed. In truth it did not even start with the Marian Psalter. But more of this later.

Let us first consider how the Marian Psalter come into practice.

At that time the Albigensian heresy was devastating the faith in France. The Albigensians were a group of fanatical heretics, named after the town of Albi in southern France where they lived. Their credo was based on a dual view of the world similar to that of the Manicheans of the 3rd century, namely, that there are two supreme beings, a good God who created the spirit world, and an evil god who created the material world. The spiritual world is essentially good, and the material world (including the human body) is essentially evil. The evil god (Satan) imprisoned spirits in material bodies, so whatever one can do to be released from that prison (including suicide) is good. Since matter is evil, marriage and the procreation of mankind is evil. The proponents of this heresy rejected Catholic belief regarding the Trinity, the Incarnation, the sacraments, hell and purgatory, but believed in the transmigration of souls. Christ was not truly a man, nor therefore, was Mary truly the Mother of God. The crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ were only illusions, and the whole concept of the cross in the Christian life was rejected. Their greatest act of religion was called the endura, an act of suicide that freed the soul from the body. These guys were the first suicidees. They also fought against any authority that represented a kingdom of this world, thereby assassinating royal and church officials. Its rapid growth was nourished, among other things, by the moral laxity and worldliness of the clergy. In addition, most of the nobility fostered the heresy expecting to take over the lands and goods of the Church. The Church condemned this heresy, and St. Dominic tried to convert them through reasonable preaching and genuine Christian love.

The praying of the Marian Psalter in conjunction with preaching bore great fruit to those who denied the Incarnation of the Word, the motherhood of Mary and the sanctity of marriage. For mingled with the explanation of the mysteries of our salvation would be the prayerful repeating over and over: “Hail, Full of Grace, The Lord is with you” - not the long Hail Mary as we know it today.

So how did the Rosary start? Has it always been the way we pray it now?

As a matter of historical record, it is only some three centuries later, when one of Dominic's future disciples, Alain de Roche, begin to establish Rosary Confraternities to promote the praying of the rosary.

An Outgrowth of the 150 Psalms of David

But the Rosary was prayed even before St. Dominic was taught it by the Blessed Mother. Most historians trace the origin of the Rosary as we know it today back to the so-called Dark Ages of ninth century Ireland.

150 Psalms. In those days, as is still true today, the 150 Psalms of David were one of the most important forms of monastic prayer.  Monks recited or chanted the Psalms day-after-day as a major source of inspiration.

The lay people who lived near the monasteries could hear and see the beauty of this devotion, but because very few people outside the monasteries knew how to read in those days, nor did they speak Latin, and because the 150 psalms are too long to memorize, they were unable to adapt this prayer from for their own use.

150 Pater Noster.

The first step in the development of the rosary took place about the year 800 A.D. when one of the Irish monks suggested to the neighboring lay people that they might like to pray a series of 150 Our Fathers in place of the 150 Psalms.  Thus, the practice arose of substituting 150 Our Fathers in place of the Latin psalms, using a string of beads to count them, dividing them into "fifties". This chaplet, or string of beads, came to be known as "Paternoster" beads.

150 Ave Maria.

Little by little, the Hail Mary took its place along side the Creed and the Our Father as a standard prayer. But still, it was only the first half that was used (see infra). In the course of time there came to be a parallel Psalter, i.e., one of 150 Hail Marys known as the Marian Psalter.

The repetition of long prayers occasioned the invention of memory aids with all sorts of devices -the use of a string of beads or knots, or pebbles in a bowl, was prevalent long before the time of St. Dominic. This was a common usage among people in all ages to remember counting long numbers at harvest or in commerce. not only among Christians but among the Moslems, the Buddhists, and other non-Christian religions. Prayer beads themselves are of very ancient usage in the Church, probably originating with the Desert monastics of the early Church. They had the habit of reciting a specified number of prayers daily and such a method of keeping track of them is natural. In the life of the Egyptian Abbot Paul (d. A. D. 341), we read that he used to collect three hundred pebbles every day and throw away each one as he finished the corresponding prayer he was accustomed to recite. It is easy to see how one can start with pebbles and progress onto a string of pebbles or beads of some sort. The Countess Godiva of Coventry (c. 1075) specified in her will that "the circlet of precious stones which she had threaded on a cord in order that by fingering them one after another she might count her prayers exactly" were to be placed on a statute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Peter Damian, who died in 1072, was the first to mention this prayer form.

Soon many people were praying the one hundred fifty Angelic Salutations while others still favored the one hundred fifty Our Fathers.

At first, in order to count their 150 Our Fathers, people carried around leather pouches which held 150 pebbles.  Soon they advanced to ropes with 150 or 50 knots; and eventually they began to use strings with 50 small slivers of wood in the knots.

In the early 15th century, a Carthusian named Henry Kalkar is credited with bracketing the 150 Hail Marys into decades (sets of ten), separated by Our Fathers. Shortly thereafter, the Hail Mary's were separated into five decades. The Rosary at that time resembled its current form, although there has since been further development. The latest is the addition of the five Luminous mysteries by Pope John Paul II.

In other words, the Rosary was invented not by theologians or monks or saints, but by the ordinary layman. And the Blessed Mother adopted it! She has always said that if we do something first she will follow with what she has promised.

Origin Of The Mysteries

Okay now we know how the 150 Hail Marys developed. The 150 was prayed straight, without stop. But during the thirteenth century another prayer form began to develop, which would soon give the Rosary its Mysteries.  The repetition of the Angelic Psalter with the contemplation of Mysteries was first started by religious orders in Prussia around 1300 A.D.

Many medieval theologians had long considered the 150 Psalms to be veiled prophecies about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  By deep meditation and skillful interpretation of the Psalms certain of these men began to compose 'Psalters of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.'  These were a series of 150 praises in honor of Jesus, based upon interpretations of the 150 Psalms.

Thus, during the thirteenth century there were four distinct 'psalters' in use at the same time:

the 150 Our Fathers,

the 150 Angelic Salutations,

the 150 praises of Jesus, and

the 150 praises of Mary.

In an age when unity was held in such high regard, perhaps it was inevitable that these four prayer forms should eventually be combined.

It is from the fifteenth century that the Dominicans become the foremost promoters of the Rosary.

From the time Saint Dominic established the devotion to the holy Rosary (in its Psalter format) up to the time when Blessed Alan de la Roche re-established it in 1460, it has always been called the Psalter of Jesus and Mary. This is because it has the same number of Hail Marys as there are psalms in the Book of the Psalms of David. Since simple and uneducated people are not able to say the Psalms of David, the Rosary is held to be just as fruitful for them as David's Psalter is for monastic and religious men and women.

Ever since Blessed Alan de la Roche re-established this devotion, the voice of the people, which is the voice of God, gave it the name of the Rosary, which means "crown of roses."

Over the next 250 years the devotion spread across Europe, reaching  the laity via voluntary confraternities and rosary picture-books.  There were numerous competing versions, advocating as few as five Mysteries and as many as 200. The matter was not settled until 1569. In that year St. Pope Pius V, himself a Dominican, issued an apostolic letter establishing the fifteen-Mystery form  of the Holy Rosary as the official, Church-authorized version.  This was the format in use for the next four centuries.

How do you pray the rosary:

Do you think of the prayers, the Our Fathers, the Hail Marys and the Glory Bes. Do you meditate on the words thereof. So when do you meditate on the mystery? While someone intones the prayer? Can you do all three? say the prayer, meditate on the prayer while saying it, meditate on the mystery?

For nearly my whole generation, to say the rosary was to babble away at the prayer. No meditation on the prayer itself. No meditation on the mystery. It was impossible to do any of them meaningfully. So I just did it dutifully, without question. Until I started to look more closely into this devotion. The first event was to separate it from holy Mass. Long before anyone told us otherwise my family would attend mass while praying the rosary, or pray the rosary while hearing mass. Perhaps it was because at that age we didn’t understand either the Mass nor the rosary.

Ateneo was for me to understand the Mass. And to relegate the saying of the rosary away from it. Some in my family from sheer habit could not go to sleep unless they prayed the rosary - rather until the rosary lulled them to sleep. It seemed that saying the rosary had become a hypnotic habit, but it was something only for the old folks to do and to to leave them alone at their babbling. I would think the Lord must be bored to death with all that prattling.

That is why when Fely and I were raising the children we stumbled on a method of praying the mysteries of the rosary so that we didn't seem like we were babbling away.

It was as  disciples of Father Patrick Peyton that the idea of family prayer shaped our spiritual life together. We would pray the rosary but to keep the children from falling asleep we had to devise ways to keep things interesting. Because truth to tell it was a boring practice for the children. They would run away each time

And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath:

but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord," Ephesians 6:1-4

Fathers, provoke not your children to anger,

lest they be discouraged,

Colossians 3:20-21


So we asked the little ones to tell us stories at each mystery, and to share with us what it meant for them at that time. I will not tell you the hilarious versions that they put together of the mysteries culled from a combination of their readings from Classic Comics, Father Peyton’s Family Theater episodes, and their own interpretation from school. As they grew older their meditations became more insightful. But I tell you what a joy to discover such intense spirituality among the children.

Before we leave this portion, let me complete it with the struggles I used to have (not that they are gone but it is part of the growth process) about praying the rosary. I am a member of a Friday prayer group. We went to do a retreat at the mountain home of Ambassador Charlie Valdes in Bataan. One afternoon someone suggested we pray the rosary. That is when I recounted to Charlie my family’s experience with the rosary. And I suggested a meditation at each mystery to be led by one of us taking turns. He was very positive and he announced the new way of saying the rosary and every one responded. The first mystery meditation by one of us was so beautiful. But when the turn at the second came, he did not follow the new method but kind of bulldozed his way praying a little aggressively the hail marys no meditation non-stop until he did the Glory be at the end, and then announced belligerently “That is the only way to pray the rosary” and stormed out of the hall. Every one was aghast. He later apologized. But he illustrated a problem in Holy Mother Church, or with some of us. We are more papista than the Papa like they used to say.

Let me say this about praying the Holy Rosary, I have resisted it. It is so boring. And I would think it must be insulting to the Blessed Mother to keep prattling away at what was the most beautiful conversation between her and the archangel Gabriel. So the thought that bothers me is this: does she actually ask us to pray this rosary? Like the various apparitions starting with Lourdes and Fatima? I hate to be a wet blanket, but isn’t she present at Mass, at every Mass. And is this true what some one said that we need to pray it so that she can help us, that without it she cannot help us. What?

A rosary is always in my pocket and a crucifix around my neck. They have become my normal ornaments of dress - nothing else.

So on the other side as usual are these thoughts in pro of the rosary:

The Rosary: I may not like it, but She does.

You may find it boring, She doesn't;

It's not for me or you. It's for Her.

(Fr John, Opus Dei)

And this meditation:

If you're bored to death with your prayers,

Can you imagine how bored to death

God must be with you.

How I Pray The Rosary

I have learned to pray the rosary in my head, or in my heart if you wish, without need for a physical rosary in my fingers and the only time I actually use the rosary is to show off. Anyway God made my fingers.

The method I have discovered is I count out the Hail Marys either using my fingers - for instance on the left hand 5 fingers from the little to the thumb then go to the right hand 5 fingers from the thumb ending at the little.

Eventually I can do it without even moving my fingers just mentally remembering the place.

If I get distracted in the middle of the OF or the HM or don’t remember if I finished it or not I don’t bother and just proceed to the next this is due to a meditation some time back in 1995 or 96 when I realized that

“when you pray the rosary don’t bother trying to do it perfectly -

you’ll never make it - just say it that’s all she asks of you –

the rest is up to her. 1995”

A method I like to use is that my mind prays the first part of the OF or HM and I ask my soul to respond with the 2d part. Eventually when I had familiarity with Dexter I ask my dear guardian angel to pray with me as I do the first part and he does the 2d, and vv.

My Rosary. Why do I follow the others in paying homage to the Mother of God, my Mother. I have made my own, fruit of my long struggle with this boring repetitive devotional prayer. It does not do her justice.


As I explained in the monograph the Hail Mary in The Prayers of My Life, I try each time to discover the original flavor or text of the conversation between the archangel Gabriel and the Blessed Mother at the Annuciation:

in the Hail Mary:

as: its not ‘Hail Mary,’ but ‘Hail Full of Grace,’ and even more accurately it is ‘Shalom Full of Grace.’

as: its not just ‘Jesus,’ but ‘Our Lord Jesus.’

as: its not just ‘Holy Mary Mother of God’ but ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother.’

and farther down: as not only ‘pray for us sinners,’ but ‘pray for us for we are your children.’

To summarize:

Shalom O Perfect One, you are full of Grace and the Lord is with you. Blessed is the fruit of your womb, our Lord Jesus, and so you are among women the most blessed.

Holy Mary Mother of God. Pray for us your children for you are our Mother. Now and at the hour of our death.

And so also in the OurFather (see the monograph: The Our Father, The Prayers of My Life):

as: its not ‘our daily bread,’ but ‘our Bread of Life,’

or its not ‘forgive us ... as we forgive...’ but the other way around ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us, forgive us our trespasses’

or its not ‘our sins’ but ‘our lack of consideration’ although puede na yong ‘trespasses.’

as: its not ‘deliver us from evil,’ but ‘deliver us from the Evil One.’

And so to summarize:

Our Father, your name is hallowed, your kingdom reigns, your will is done in heaven so may it also be on earth.

Give us this day our bread of life

as we forgive those who are inconsiderate to us, forgive us our lack of consideration

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One

Lately Fely and I recite Pope Leo XIII’s prayer to St Michael at the end of every decade.

Now then if the rosary was invented and improved through its long history, why can’t I do my own thing. Here’s what’s been happening to my Rosary. First the mysteries.


Regarding the mysteries themselves I have made up my own in the thought that there must be a lot more mysteries in her life. Why limit it to what some holy hermit made up for himself. So here...

Other Mysteries Of The Rosary

The Mysteries of the Preparation of Mary

1. The Promise of The Woman in the figures of Ruth - Hannah - Judith - Esther

2. The Conception of Sarah - of Anne - of Elizabeth

3. The Fidelity of Susanna

4. The Queenship of Mary

5. The Immaculate Conception

6. The Birth of Mary

7. The conception of Elizabeth

The Pointing Out of the Woman by Jesus

1. in Cana

2. Mary and His Brothers

3. in the Crucifixion

4. in the Temple

5. The Way

6. He was subject to her for 21 years


The Prophetic Mysteries

1. Genesis: The Woman Promised by the Father

2. the types of Mary in the Old Testament: Sarai, Judith, Esther, Ruth

3. Isaiah: A Mother of a Nation

4. Isaiah: A Virgin Mother

5. the Immaculate conception in the womb of St Anne

6. the birth of Mary

7. the birth of her Son

8. The sword upon her soul

9. the words of her Son in the Temple

10. the words of her Son in Golgotha

5 Mysteries of the ancestry of Jesus

1. Adam & Eve

2. Abraham & Sarah

3. Hannah and Elkanah

4. David & Bathsheba

5. Joachim & Anna

6. Joseph & Mary

And so on following the long established tradition of the joyful, now the luminous, the sorrowful, and the glorious mysteries.


Why are we stuck with such unimaginative prayer styles. Everyone through the centuries has been inventing and reinventing prayer forms. So with the rosary. Here’s my contribution, instead of the long winded iterations:

One Our Father at the beginning of the rosary.

At the beginning of each mystery recite the first half of the Shalom Full of Grace.

Then the meditation itself on the mystery, a real meditation: if there are two or more, one describes the mystery and another gives his insights or inspirations about it. At the next meditation, others take over.

At the end of the meditation, the second half, the Holy Mary is recited. And at the end of the entire rosary, one Glory Be.

(Excerpted from (Reflections by Laymen, 20 Mysteries of the Holy Rosary, Walking in the Light 9. Series 2005)