Most of us are familiar with the tradition that goes back many centuries, and which has been accepted in the writings of many popes, as to the connection of St. Dominic with the beginnings of the Rosary devotion. According to tradition, the occasion was the Albigensian heresy which ravaged Christendom, particularly in southern France during the latter part of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th centuries. St. Dominic was distressed at his lack of success in his preaching in countering this heresy, and in his desperation turned to the Mother of God for help. She appeared to him (according to the tradition) and told him to use her Psalter in conjunction with his preaching of the mysteries of our salvation, as an instrument in combatting the great heresy of his day.
We do not have any historical documents dating from that period expressly referring to St. Dominic and the Rosary. We will endeavor to show, however, that there are a number of things that could be responsible for that silence.
We have to keep in mind that over the centuries there has been a considerable evolution in the form that this devotion called the Rosary has taken. We have to remember that in the time of St. Dominic:
The custom of counting repeated prayers by the use of a string of beads or knots, or pebbles in a bowl was prevalent long before the time of St. Dominic. This was common among the Moslems, the Buddhists, and other non-Christian religions as well as among Christians.
From time immemorial the 150 psalms of the bible comprised the most important part of the official liturgical prayers prayed by the clergy and the monks in monasteries. Since, however, many of the common folk were illiterate, there was an attempt to offer those who could not read (especially the Latin) a substitute for the 150 psalms. The practice arose of substituting 150 OUR FATHERS in place of the Latin psalms, using a string of beads to count them, dividing them into "fifties". This chaplet, or string of beads, came to be known as "Paternoster" beads. Little by little, the HAIL MARY took its place along side the CREED and the OUR FATHER as a standard prayer. But still, it was only the first half that was used. In the course of time there came to be a parallel Psalter, i.e., one of 150 HAIL MARYS known as the MARIAN PSALTER.
The Albigensian heresy that plagued southern France in St. Dominic's time was based on a dual view of the world similar to that of the Manicheans of the 3rd century, namely, that there are two supreme beings, a good God who created the spirit world, and an evil god who created the material world. The spiritual world is essentially good, and the material world (including the human body) is essentially evil. The evil god (Satan) imprisoned spirits in material bodies, so whatever one can do to be released from that prison (including suicide) is good. Since matter is evil, marriage and the procreation of mankind is evil. The proponents of this heresy rejected Catholic belief regarding the Trinity, the Incarnation, the sacraments, hell and purgatory, but believed in the transmigration of souls. Christ was not truly a man, nor therefore, was Mary truly the Mother of God. The crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ were only illusions, and the whole concept of the cross in the Christian life was rejected.
This heresy was deeply rooted in southern France in the first part of the 13th century. Its rapid growth was nourished, among other things, by the moral laxity and worldliness of the clergy. In addition, most of the nobility fostered the heresy because of their hope to take over the lands and goods of the Church.
This is the situation that St. Dominic encountered when he began his missionary labors in southern France. This was the situation (according to tradition) that occasioned a special intervention on the part of the Mother of God. In view of Our Lady's apparitions at crucial times in the centuries that followed, would not the intervention of our Blessed Mother at this period in history seem most likely, when the Church in western Europe was so seriously threatened. How fruitful would be the introduction of the Marian Psalter in conjunction with preaching to those who denied the Incarnation of the Word, the motherhood of Mary and the sanctity of marriage. For mingled with the explanation of the mysteries of our salvation would be the prayerful repeating over and over:
"Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb."
Cardinal Luigi Ciappi, O.P., who for many years was the theologian of the Papal household (the Pope's personal theologian), in 1975, a few years before he was made a Cardinal, published an article entitled A DEEPENING OF THE FAITH BY MEANS OF THE ROSARY. In that article he referred to St. Dominic as an ardent promoter of the Marian Psalter, which later was called the Rosary, since he preferred a form of preaching upon the mysteries of the life, passion and death, and resurrection of Christ - alternated with the Psalter of Hail Marys.
The tradition of St. Dominic and the Rosary was more or less universally accepted, especially in documents of many popes, until the work of the Bollandists in the 17th century. This was a group of learned scholars (Belgian Jesuits) who were charged with the work of publishing the "Acta Sanctorum" covering the life of Christ and of the saints included in the liturgical calendar. These were men of undeniable scholarship who set out to rewrite the lives of the saints, so as to preserve in them all that could be established by historical sources, and to weed out legends that surround the lives of many saints.
This group concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to support the tradition of St. Dominic and the Rosary, that this tradition stemmed only from the testimony Alan de Rupe, O.P. (d. 1475), and that his claims (written 250 years after St. Dominic) cannot be substantiated by any documents dating from the time of St. Dominic.
Yet, it appears that this argument of silence put forth by the Bollandists did not seem to outweigh (in the mind of succeeding Popes) the impact of the centuries-old tradition concerning St. Dominic and the Rosary; for Popes coming after the 17th century continued to refer to St. Dominic in connection with the beginnings of the Rosary.
Fr. Francis Willam, in his book THE ROSARY, ITS HISTORY AND MEANING (p. 26), speaks of the "Militia of Jesus Christ" founded by St. Dominic, the members of which recited daily the Psalter of Our Lady. He refers also to the "Confraternity of Prayer" founded by the Dominicans in Piacenza in 1259 (38 years after the death of St. Dominic), the members of which also prayed the 150 HAIL MARYS daily. Fr. Benedict Ashly, O.P. speaks of this Militia as having been found by a Dominican Bishop of Breganza who died in 1271.
At any rate, we have the Marian Psalter actively employed during the life of St. Dominic and shortly after. In this we have the 150 HAIL MARYS which constitute the "body" of the Rosary, i.e., the vocal prayer. What is wanting is the "soul" of the Rosary, i.e., the praying of these Hail Marys joined with reflection on the mysteries of our salvation. And yet, as Fr. Ciappi pointed out, a common method of preaching of St. Dominic was to preach on the life of Christ, interspersing his reflections with the Marian Psalter.
So it could well be that the heart of what the Rosary is (the combination of vocal and mental prayer) was practiced by St. Dominic, not as we have the Rosary today, but in such a way that what he did then in time evolved into what we have now; i.e., that his form of preaching interspersed with prayer eventually evolved into what the Rosary is today.
We know from his biographers that St. Dominic had a great devotion to the Mother of God. And it could well be that the inspiration to preach as he did came from her, as tradition says it did, i.e., the combining of her prayer (the Hail Mary as it existed then) with the reflection on the mysteries of our salvation. Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical on the Rosary, seems to imply this when he states that this devotion in its origin and the wisdom of its constitution is "more divine than human."
History well documents the fact that Alan de Rupe (also Alan de la Roche) (1428-1475) was a great apostle of the Rosary. There must be some basis for his claims that St. Dominic's connection with the Rosary is proved "both from tradition and from the testimony of writers." I find it hard to believe that he just made it up. He was not a dreamer. He was a Master of Sacred Theology, wrote a commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, lectured in Paris, was visitator of his Order in central Europe, wrote his APOLOGIA for the Rosary, and preached in widely spread places. He founded the Rosary Confraternity in 1470 in Douai, and did much to popularize the Rosary.
It could well be that sources to which Alan de Rupe had access did not exist in later centuries. Even if documents did originally exist connecting St. Dominic and the Rosary, countless religious houses and convents were destroyed (with their libraries) in the wars of religious persecution that ravaged Europe over the centuries.
We find this thought clearly expressed by John S. Johnson in his book THE ROSARY IN ACTION, (Ch.3)
"The critics relied mainly on the argument of silence to question the ancient tradition that the Blessed Virgin gave the Rosary to St. Dominic. They should have known that many documents referred to by Alan de Rupe may have existed, but did not survive the burning scourge of the Hugenots, who destroyed convents, monasteries, libraries among the countless institutions they committed to the flames. The critics went so far as to say that Alan had invented the Rosary devotion. . . and had attributed it to St. Dominic to tie it in with a famous name. But the two persons Alan relies on for his story of the origin of the Rosary had their "Mariales" preserved at the Convent of Gand: which library was burnt during the wars on religion. There are other documents which have been discovered in later years which were from before Alan de Rupe's time. The long poem "ROSARIUS" antedates him by 100 years or so, and clearly refers to St. Dominic and the battle of Muret. This removes Alan from all suspicion of inventing his sources. The elements were all in place at the time of St. Dominic; how did they get together in the Rosary?" (p. 26)
We might put this question in another way: Were these elements brought together by the preaching of St. Dominic? We cannot prove with certainty that they were; but neither does the lack of documents prove that they were not.
Masie Ward further undermines the "argument of silence" when she writes in her book THE SPLENDOR OF THE ROSARY: "Discussions of what happened in the middle ages are apt to be obscured by the fact that so many documents have been lost, especially during the ravages of the Black Plague." (p.34)
Fr. Guy Bedouelle, O.P., in his book ST. DOMINIC, THE GRACE AND THE WORD, includes this important comment about a contemporary of St. Dominic:
"Blessed Romee of Livia, one of St. Dominic's companions, Prior of the Convent of Lyons, France in 1223, and later Provincial of Provence, was said to have died, according to the medieval chronicler Bernard Gui, holding tightly in his fingers the little knotted cord on which he counted his AVES. Historians regard this as one of the earliest texts describing our present Rosary in its embryonic form." (p. 254)
Fr. Ludovicus Fanfani, O.P. states in his book DE ROSARI B. M. VIRGINIS that some years after the death of St. Dominic, the devotion of the Rosary (as he promoted it) began to decline. Among the causes of the decline were the great plague of the Black Death which swept through Europe wiping out great portions of the population, and the great Western Schism - which split Europe into various factions. The devotion did not completely disappear, however, as traces of it remained among the people; and, says Fr. Fanfani, documents are not wanting to establish that the devotion was kept alive in England during the 13th and 14th centuries. (p.27)
Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) was a renowned scholar and a promoter of historical studies and research. When he was an official of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, he was asked about the tradition of St. Dominic and the Rosary. The following is his response, a century after the work of the Bollandists:
"You ask whether St. Dominic was the first institutor of the Rosary, and show that you yourselves are bewildered and entangled in doubts on the matter. Now, what value do you attach to the testimony of so many Popes, such as Leo X (1521), Pius V (1572), Gregory XIII (1585), Sixtus V (1590), Clement VIII (1605), Alexander VII (1667), Bl. Innocent XI (1689), Clement XI (1721), Innocent XIII (1724) and others who unanimously attribute the institution of the Rosary to St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order, an apostolic man who might be compared to the apostles themselves and who, undoubtedly due to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, became the designer, the author, promoter, and most illustrious preacher of this admirable and truly heavenly instrument, the Rosary."
After quoting the above, Fr. Anthony N. Fuerst, in his well documented book, THIS ROSARY, states: "To reject this tradition in its entirety, without strong arguments would be very rash." (p. 20)
To the above list of Popes accepting the tradition of St. Dominic and the Rosary could be added many more coming after the time of Benedict XIV. But this is not the main argument supporting the tradition. It is the coming together of many pieces of a puzzle pertaining to the essentials of the tradition as handed down. For example:
In the light of the above, it seems to me that the negative argument (the absence of documents) is outweighed by the presence of the essential components that constitute the heart of what the Rosary is. It seems to me, not merely possible, but very probable, that the Mother of God (as Alan de Rupe testified) did use St. Dominic in some way to give this devotion to the Church. One source of misconception in this regard is religious art, which portrays St. Dominic receiving from Our Lady the Rosary such as we use today. This would not have been. But then, if artists are to portray this tradition, how else would they do it?
And too, what Dominic did could have been done in such a way that it did not stand out as an innovation, as something new; for it was simply taking the Psalter of Our Lady -already in existence - and using it as a means of making his preaching fruitful. It could be that for this reason it was not commented on by the chroniclers of his day. And yet, the combining of the HAIL MARY with reflection on the life of Christ is the essence of the Rosary devotion.