What is a Paternoster?
For centuries man has recited repeated prayers as a form of penance and / or petition. No one knows exactly when strings of beads were first used to keep count of prayers, but the earliest historical mention of prayer counters were the pebbles and knotted strings employed by the desert hermits in the 4th century.
As part of their daily prayer, the 12th century religious (monks, friars) were required to read all 150 Psalms. As they were joined by less educated (illiterate) brothers, the substitution of 150 Our Fathers (or in Latin, 'Pater Noster') in place of the Psalms was made. The practice caught on, and became widely popular among the laity also. A string of 10, 50 or 150 beads was commonly used to keep count of one's prayers and came to known as a "paternoster".
By the 13th century, guilds of paternosterers, (those who made the beads and strung them) were a common sight in many of the major European cities. The beads were both carried for prayer and worn as an accessory attached to the clothing or around the wrist or neck. Quite a number of medieval paintings include prayer beads, mostly held in the hand or hung on a wall.
Many early rosaries and paternosters did not have a cross or crucifix but instead had a medallion, medal or tassel. Tassels have a long history of use in articles of prayer. For centuries, people of the Jewish faith have used tassels hanging from the four corners of their prayer shawls to remind them to live according to God's laws.
"The Lord spoke to Moses and said, "Speak to the sons of Israel and tell them to put tassels on the hems of their garments, and to put a violet cord on this tassel at the hem. You must have a tassel, then, and the sight of it will remind you of all the commandments of the Lord." (Numbers 15: 37-39)
Sometimes, larger beads were used to separate smaller groups of beads. These larger beads were called "gauds" and it is not known whether there were, originally, any particular prayers attached to them. Some scholars theorize that as the Hail Mary prayer grew in popularity, the smaller beads were used for the Aves while the larger gauds were reserved for the Our Fathers.
Copyright © 2005 Alice Cantrell(The above definitions and descriptions (Copyright 2005) were written by Alice Cantrell and used first on our original website.)