What is a paternoster?
The Middle English Dictionary gives the following definition:
pater-noster (n.) Also paternostre,
(a) A rosary; paire de pater nosteres (pater noster, pateres nosteres), paire pater nosteres (pater noster), a set of rosary beads;
(b) a certain rosary bead indicating that one should say the Lord's Prayer at that point;
(c) ~ makere, one who makes rosaries; also, as surname.
In short, the paternoster was the earliest form of the rosary, and was a common everyday item in the life of medieval Christians from as early as 1040. The earliest prayer beads varied in composition. Prayer beads could vary from a mere 11 beads to as many as over 150. Different religious orders would have a differing number of beads, customized to the sets of prayers required by the Order or Saint in question.
Paternosters came in many forms. The earliest recorded could be as simple as a pouch full of pebbles, to the most elaborate carved boxwood beads, or even solid gold filigree, or entire strands made of emeralds or other precious stones. Linear paternosters such as the one pictured to the left, (Hedwig, early 13th century) could be worn pinned to a gown or draped over a belt, while circular loop paternosters were often carried, or even worn about the neck or wrist.
It was important in medieval society to demonstrate one's piety, as followers of pagan religions were persecuted regularly. Thus, keeping a strand of prayer beads at hand was helpful in keeping out of harm's way. Ironically, these staples of the Christian religion often served other talismanic purposes that hearkened back to an earlier time, when medical lapidary was the best medicine to be had.
Paternosters served many purposes, from demonstrating piety, wealth, and status, to being used as a tool for counting prayers and even time! Several medieval recipes make mention to boil for a certain number of aves, thus establishing a certain amount of time things needed to cook. Paternosters were also a form of medieval "charm bracelet". Pilgrim badges from visits to far away shrines, as well as tokens or badges indicating personal heraldry and household affiliations were often found attached to them, along with other meaningful items.
While modern day rosaries include a cross, medieval paternosters made use of medals, saint's tokens, badges, stars, hearts, and tassels. Earlier period paternosters were often loosely strung to allow the beads to slide along, much like an abacus. They were strung on any number of different types of materials, which included both silk and linen, as well as other materials. Archeological finds regarding the stringing material is scarce, so we must rely on wills and descriptive documents of the day in order to ascertain how these stringing materials were constructed in order to limit unravelling.
Lightweight materials such as jet, amber and coral were a popular choice for the rich, but all manner of different bead materials have been recorded, including agate, carnelian, wood, bone, horn, glass, pearls, rock crystal, gold, silver, ruby and emeralds. Paternosters were so common, that an entire street in London, called Paternoster Row (and still in existance today), was dedicated to paternosterers and their trade.
Paternosterers were divided by materials used in their work. There were bone paternosterers, wood paternosterers, and jewelers who specifically dealt with more precious materials. Glass beads from Venice had a specific merchant, and each merchant had tools of their trade in their stand or shop. Many medieval drawings exists showing paternosterers at work.