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Monday, January 25, 2010

What is a Paternoster?

Paternosters are a medieval version of Rosaries. Paternosters were as common in medieval times as a cell phone or a car would be to us in the modern day. And much like a phone or car, paternosters were a highly visible statement that reflected status, wealth and piety.

Both men and women owned and wore paternosters. They varied in material and length depending on many different variables. The meanest of peasants might own a simple knotted hemp string to represent beads, while a wealthy noble would have owned one made of the most precious of stones and displaying the best workmanship available. The number of beads varied as well, with documented examples of 10, 12, 33, 50, 100 and 150 bead paternosters. In fact, it seems as though the number of beads could be practically any number at all, as paternosters were frequently restrung, and beads were sometimes lost.

Beads could be made from almost any material available in the medieval era. Common bead materials included wood, bone, cinnabar, glass, amber, precious stones, coral, mother of pearl, pearls, rock crystals, gold, silver or brass. In fact, paternoster beads were made from any of the materials available at that time period.

Paternosters served as a valuable tool to both rich and poor alike.  Peasant were often illiterate, and paternosters (sometimes called "chaplets" or "prayer beads") allowed them to track the number of prayers they had recited. For the wealthy merchant or noble, paternosters allowed them to display their wealth in a way that was both pious and humble.  This became increasingly important for social status as the sumptuary laws of the 15th century limited how a merchant could be dressed, as there were no limits set on the richness and quality of a gentleman's or lady's paternoster.

Paternosters were the ultimate in medieval fashion accessories.  They were worn slung over a belt or hilt, or pinned and draped over the shoulder in the case of a woman. Some paternosters were made into a necklace that resembled an early rosary, and these were worn around the neck. Paintings from this era of history heavily document the existence and commonality of the paternoster, and evidence of the multitude of these Christian prayer beads exists through digs and medieval documents listing possessions and their distribution after death.

There is even a street still named Paternoster Row in England. This street was filled with paternoster vendors long ago, and retains the name to this day, although now the wares sold there have changed.

Many medieval re-creationists and living history enthusiasts often missing adding the accessories that lend authenticity to their garb. Possessing and wearing a paternoster aides in completing that authentic look, and provides an opportunity to embellish with style!

I recently posted this lovely paternoster, made from wood beads with porcelain gauds and silver toned spacers and cross into my Etsy store at It is strung on a natural fiber cord, and has a nice solid feel in the hand. Tell me what you think!

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