The origin of the Rosary is extremely obscure. According to the tradition of the Order of Preachers, accepted by a number of Popes since 1495, the Rosary was devised by St. Dominic himself, and used by him in his missionary work among the Albigensian heretics, in consequence of a vision in which our Lady revealed it to him.
However, scholars note that there was no uniform way of saying the Rosary till a considerable time after St. Dominic’s death, and his earliest biographers do not mention the prayer. Despite this point, the Rosary is very properly distinguished as Dominican. The Friars of that Order gave it the form it now has and for centuries have zealously spread its use throughout the world, bringing blessings to countless souls and offering worship to God.
In truth, the Rosary was not born all at once but was the fruit of a lengthy evolution. By following this evolution we will better understand its spirit and open ourselves to search out the methods of reciting it that are included in the history of this prayer. In this way, we can be aided to make our use of it more effective.
Five centuries were necessary (from the 12th to the 16th century) in order for the Rosary to arrive at the form it has today. The 12th century saw the spread of the first (and Scriptural) part of the Hail Mary (“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you” [Luke 1:42]).
Previously these words of the Angelic Salutation had been in use but not with the frequency and repetitiveness that it came to assume when the “Psalter of Mary” was born. Its birth stemmed from the use monks made of the 150 Psalms if the Bible as is still done today in the Divine Office, now known as the Liturgy of the Hours. Those who were unlettered, monks as well as laypeople who could not read the Psalms, substituted 150 Our Fathers in their place.
In order to keep count of the Our Fathers, people made us of a corona, or crown, of 150 beads: the corona of Our Fathers. We should note that the use of such a corona with beads in order to count prayers is very ancient and is used not only by Christians but by other religions as well. In the second half of the twelfth century, 150 Hail Marys were substituted for the Our Fathers, and the “Psalter of Mary” was born.
The second part of the Hail Mary (“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death”) came into use only at the end of the fifteenth century. In the previous century, the Carthusian Henry of Kalkar had already subdivided the 150 Hail Marys into fifteen decades, set off from one another by the Our Father.
This subdivision had quickly met with great success and until 2002 constituted the series of fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary. In that year, as we shall see below, Pope Blessed John Paul II added a new series of Mysteries to the Rosary – the Luminous Mysteries. (From The Greatest Marian Titles by Anthony Buono)