The Original (and Pre-Colonial) Version of the Rosary

Sad to say, there is a shadow side to today’s rosary practice which taints the original version of the “Hail Mary” prayer created in the Middle Ages.  

Found at the Queen of the Holy Rosary Shrine. Photo taken by Robert Lipka. Wikimedia Commons.

A pope in the sixteenth century remade the medieval rosary by adding the words, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” at the end. 

The emphasis on sin and fear of death became prominent in the 16th century both in Protestantism and in Roman Catholicism unfortunately.*  That familiar ending to the prayer taints and compromises the original version of it that was practiced by the pre-modern church including notables like Saints Dominic, Francis, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich, Nicolas Cusa, etc.

Below I will share the original version of the ”Hail Mary” prayer that I respect and prefer because it does not dwell on sin or guilt or fear of death but instead emphasizes the dignity of the human that we strive to uphold, including the dignity of our powers of creativity.  As Mahatma Gandhi has warned, “a religion based on fear is not a religion.” 

Rosary. Wikipedia. Public domain.

This surely addresses the immediate question that death raises: Is one’s work, one’s vocation, finished?  And what was that work, that vocation, that one gave to the world while on earth? 

Such a response to death deals with a question of substance therefore in preference to conjuring up the fear of death and what follows with  punishment for sin and “fires of hell” (words from the ritual) that sadly dominate the prayers that are recited.

Following is the original “Hail Mary” prayer from the 12th century:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with you, untroubled maiden.
You are blessed among women, you who brought forth
peace to people and glory to the angels.
Blessed too is the fruit of your womb,
who by grace made it possible for us to be his heirs.

I much prefer this prayer to the one that has dominated from the fear-ridden and patriarchal 16th century up to today.  

To be continued.

*See French historian Jean Delumeau’s major study, Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture 13th-18th Centuries. 

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, pp. 163-166.

Banner image: Mother Mary, from Notre Dame de Oliviers, Murat, France. Photo by DDP on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

How does the older (and for many the all-new) version of the Hail Mary prayer strike you?  How would you name the differences between the older and the more recent versions?

Recommended Reading

Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society

Visionary theologian and best-selling author Matthew Fox offers a new theology of evil that fundamentally changes the traditional perception of good and evil and points the way to a more enlightened treatment of ourselves, one another, and all of nature. In comparing the Eastern tradition of the 7 chakras to the Western tradition of the 7 capital sins, Fox allows us to think creatively about our capacity for personal and institutional evil and what we can do about them. 
“A scholarly masterpiece embodying a better vision and depth of perception far beyond the grasp of any one single science.  A breath-taking analysis.” — Diarmuid O’Murchu, author of Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics

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12 thoughts on “The Original (and Pre-Colonial) Version of the Rosary”

  1. Avatar

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mathew, for sharing the original 12th century, Hail Mary. It is a huge and beautiful blessing. Thank you from the bottom on my heart. I can pray with joy now, even the sorrowful mysteries. God bless you.

  2. Avatar
    Rev. Hudson Richard, PhD

    I can’t thank you enough. I’ve been praying the Rosary for decades. (No pun intended.) I often bristled at the ending thinking how negative, but NEVER ever thinking that there might be an earlier version. Thank you again!

  3. Avatar

    They took out —

    “Untroubled maiden, you brought forth
    peace to people and glory to the angels.”

    And made the girl a passive object without choice. And they juxtaposed her physical womb with sin, death, punishment and pain.

    But I wonder if during this time in the 16th century, if the outlook was especially dark and desperate, maybe they were filled with such trepidation and fear that the “hour of our death” prayer is the one that resonated with people, like if you’re in the dark of night then maybe you need a prayer that represents your state of mind. It’s hard to conceive of “the heirs” when your brain is firing off SOS signals from trauma, annihilation.

    The Black Madonna seems to be the more complete “Mary” – not tampered with, not edited with the emperor’s agenda, complex, multi-layered, and versatile, adaptable and true in both the dark and the light.

  4. Avatar

    Thank you for this! I resonate with Rev. Hudson’s comments above. Like the prayer I was taught as a child ending in “if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Yikes, not the solace a child needs as a verbal lullaby!

    I also appreciate that the comments about living in dire and threatening times and perhaps that is how and why this occurred. But every time I would end with sinners and death, it was like strong dose of mea culpa, mea culpa. There is plenty of that in most people’s psyches already.

    There is a gentle sweetness in this version that I am looking forward to bringing into a rosary practice, like certain hymns uplift and broaden one’s view of the universe. We used to sing this communion song “Night with Ebon Pinion” that was depressing as hell and I am much more likely to visit “Take it to the Lord in prayer” or “I come to the garden alone.”

    Thanks again, not only for this, but for the great work you do in the world.

  5. Avatar

    Thank you, thank you thank you…. I have felt just like you for many years. Why would God create us, and put forth fear into us . That would be a very cruel father? It has just caused conflicting thoughts for me since I’ve been a little girl.
    I agree with you. I much prefer this way of saying the Hail Mary.
    Thank you for bringing this forward to our attention.

  6. Avatar

    I was so blessed to read this teaching on the Hail Mary. So many have lost their love for the rosary. I have recently returned to it. I live alone and I need this concrete way to pray. Thanks again????

  7. Avatar

    Here is the prayer I have been saying:
    Hail Mary, full of Grace, God is with thee. Blessed are you, and blessed is the Fruit of your womb.
    Holy Mary, Mother of our Savior God, pray for us.

  8. Avatar

    Thank you so much Matthew. This feels like a timely revelation.
    Have been rereading Karen Armstrong’s THE LOST ART OF SCRIPTURE: Rescuing the Sacred Texts. Her engagement with the sacred texts of Judaism Christianity and Islam helps a reader to understand the complex story behind the existential crisis in Israel/Gaza.

  9. Avatar

    The 1500’s were the time of the Black Plague, chaos and mass death, creating a need for the church to help both the living and those people who might sicken and die within mere days. They needed both spiritual guidance and an explanation, to help them make sense of it all. Corporate human sinfulness was their solution. The plague eventually went away, but the focus on sins was “useful” for the many in the Church, just as it was again after 1981 when the AIDS epidemic hit the U.S and televangelists blamed the dying gay people for “bringing God’s wrath upon themselves ” (by being gay). They erased Jesus’s Loving compassion and worshiped a cruel god.

    The God of Moses, of Jesus, of John’s Gospel, of mystics, of mine, is one of Love and Grace, always lovingly holding us in Her/His hands, always trying to heal our souls and deepen our connection with Her/Him, always teaching us and offering to guide us into fuller, richer Awareness of our Beloved, our God, especially through the mystical Christ-Awareness built into our soul/body (Word/Son/Logos) . We were gifted/Graced with this mysticism for a reason, and that reason is Love.

  10. Avatar

    This is amazing, I want to know more! I’ve done quite a bit of research on the Rosary and never heard this part! ( i lead monthly Rosary Circle to Mary Magdalene and am writing a book on this.)
    I do know St (tho not saintly) Dominic claimed to “discover” the Rosary and instructed its use to “stamp out heresy in the region” namely, the Inquisition against the Cathars, early chritian followers of Jesus, Magdalene and the way of Love. Now I wonder about that not being the beginning of the Rosary as Dominic claimed. I’d love to know your sources for further study and exploration.
    I’m heart and mind blown by this revelation. And yet, not surprised… the Rosary has her own wisdom. Thanks so much.

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