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Prayer Bead Production and use in Medieval England

Prayer Bead Production and use in Medieval England

By Anna Gottschall

Rosetta: Papers of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, Issue 4 (2008)

Introduction: From ancient to modern times, in Christianity and other world religions, beads have been employed to assist the faithful in prayer. The word ‘bead’ derives from the Old English word ‘ebed’, originally meaning to pray or request, and was used to describe groups of beads which were loosely strung together. During the medieval period these strings of beads were used by Christians as mnemonic aids to physically count their prayers. Initially, this was attributed to the Pater Noster (Lord’s Prayer), later the Hail Mary and then the rosary as we know it today. As well as being devotional tools these objects were probably the most common item of jewellery across all classes, and this made them an everyday object frequently accessed by religious orders and the laity.

I propose to evaluate what the evidence reveals about the production and composition of prayer beads and rosaries, to consider the limits of these sources and to discuss the problems that emerge in interpretation of the evidence. In terms of production I aim to address several questions: Who made prayer beads? Where were they produced? How was production organised? And what can be determined about production methods? To do this I will consider evidence from excavation reports from the City of London and Constance in Germany, an artistic representation of a Paternosterer from the Stadtbibliothek in Nurnburg and historical records concerning bead production from Paris, Rome and London.

Excavation reports in England reveal evidence of prayer bead production and manufacture during the medieval period. For the purposes of this article I am focussing on central London due to the high number of archaeological excavations undertaken in this area between 1974 and 1988 which reveal evidence of prayer bead production. It is known from written records that the artisans who made prayer beads were known as Pater Nosterers, who would usually work near to the main church or cathedral in the town or city. During the later medieval period the Pater Noster area of London, surrounding St Paul’s Cathedral, so called due to the association of prayer bead production, was known for the sale of religious artefacts and memorabilia. After the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism, trade in religious objects collapsed and the publishing of religious tracts became the prime industry in this area. However, there is little remaining archaeological evidence of bead production from this site due to the bombing of the area during the Second World War. From the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC) records on-line there is evidence for bead production and manufacture excavated from several site codes all of which are in the Pater Noster area. At BC72 (Baynard’s Castle, Baynard House, Queen Victoria Street, Upper Thames Street, EC4) there were wood, bone, natural resin, amber (late 1400s), glass and stone beads excavated. The materials excavated from TL74 (2-3 Trig Lane, Upper Thames Street, EC4) have been dated to 1066-1485 and consist of a high concentration of natural resin beads, but also bone, coral, stone, glass and wood. SWA81 (Swan Lane Car Park, 95-103 Upper Thames Street, EC4) has fewer beads discovered, however, types included stone, natural resin, glass and lead alloy. BIG82 (Billingsgate Market Lorry Park, Lower Thames Street, EC3) had a high concentration of glass beads dating to 1485-1714, and several ceramic, natural resin and bone beads, but also one ivory bead. In terms of production, COT88 which is in Camomile Street (Cotts House, 27-29 Camomile Street, EC3), contained animal bone waste dating from 1485-1714.

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