Our Lady's Joys and the Medieval History of the Rosary
The Marian rosary, a defining feature of Catholic spirituality since at least the late Middle Ages, did not appear overnight.
The practice of “telling the beads” was ancient, becoming popular as a devotion using the Pater Noster (“Our Father”). Writing in Cistercian Studies Quarterly in 2015, I suggested that one important—though sometimes overlooked—tributary into the great tradition of the rosary may have been the monastic practice of contemplating a series of events from Mary’s life—most commonly, the annunciation, nativity, presentation, and finding of Jesus in the temple—known as her “joys.”
It is quite common, certainly in Catholic spirituality, to refer to Mary’s trials and to give her the title mater dolorosa (“mother of sorrows”). In the Middles Ages, the grace of her life’s participation in the incarnation and, ultimately, the unfolding mystery of human redemption, also gained Mary a reputation as an icon of joy. She was said to have rejoiced at the good things God accomplished with, in and for her.
My article, with the same title as this post, drew attention to a work attributed to Stephen of Sawley (d. 1252), a Cistercian abbot who encouraged contemplation of Mary’s joys by his monastic brethren. Meditationes de gaudiis beatae et gloriosae virginis Mariae (“Meditations on the joys of the blessed and glorious Virgin Mary”) may have been composed for novices, since Stephen took considerable interest in their formation.
In both form (i.e. structure) and catechetical purpose—Stephen used heartfelt recollections of Mary’s experiences to convey central truths of the Christian faith—the work bore a remarkable likeness to the Marian rosary. Its existence adds weight to the argument that the rosary had monastic roots, in addition to (and in anticipation of) its more familiar association with the mendicant orders, especially the Order of Preachers (“Dominicans”).
I am grateful for two subsequent engagements with my article, which may also be of interest to readers of this post:
David N. Bell, Handmaid of the Lord: Mary, the Cistercians, and Armand-Jean de Rancé, Cistercian Studies Series 293 (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications/Liturgical Press, 2021), 173-4
John C. Hirsch, “The twenty-five joys of our lady an English Marian Rosary of the fifteenth century from Bodleian Library MS Don. D. 85," Traditio 71 (2016), 333-42 (338-9)