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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What is a Paternoster?

For those of you in the cheap seats, a simple summation of the Medieval Paternoster follows:

To answer your question, what is a paternoster:

A paternoster is a very early version of a rosary.  They are very well documented from the 1100s onward, but the number and composition of the beads varied up until the 16th century, when the Vatican standardized it to the rosary you may be familiar with today.

Paternoster were as much a fashion accessory and status item as it was a religious tool.  Although it's main purpose was to keep count of prayers, the noble and wealthy often used them as a sign of status, especially after the sumptuary laws were enacted (paternosters were not regulated, as using rich materials was a way to show honor to God).  Women and men alike owned many strands, often in heraldic colors with heraldic badges, holy reliquaries, and other charms and knick-knacks that held personal meaning.

Different holy orders of monks, nuns, and even knights were apt to have their own set of prescribed beads, that counted out special prayers meaningful to that order.  Even saints often kept beads of differing numbers, most often divided by 10s or 3s by gauds, with any number from 10, 33, 60, 100, 150, etc.

Many paternosters did not have a cross, instead ending in just a tassel, or some other charm or badge.  Documented examples include fleur de lys, roses, stars, and just about any other common medieval symbols.

Paternosters were made from materials available in the day - early ones were as simple as a bag of pebbles or a string with knots, but later paternosters included leather strips with bone or wooden loops or sticks stitched on, strands or loops of wood, bone, amber or horn beads, and gauds of agate, jet, emerald, pearl, coral, precious metals or rock crystal.  Glass beads were especially popular, and was often used to mimic the look of more expensive materials (ie, golden glass was used to mimic amber).

Paternosters were so commonplace and so essential that an entire street in London sold nothing but paternosters, and the materials necessary to construct them.  Still called Paternoster Row today, it has since been used for more modern purposes, but the street name still remains!  Paternosters indeed were so plentiful that the merchants of the day had many different guilds, divided by the types of paternosters you made - thus wood bead paternoster makers were belong to a different group that those who made glass, or metal beads.

Paternosters in current medieval re-enactment serve to add that little extra something that often seems to be missing from even the best crafted garb - the little medieval accessories and niceties that everyone, from commoner to king, would have carried on their person in that era.

Hope this brief history helps - take a look at my latest creations at!  I went ahead and included my latest listing below.  Enjoy!!!

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