Several scholars have different views on the origin or history of the rosary.
The use of “prayer beads” and the repeated recitation of prayers to aid in meditation stem from the earliest days of the Church and has roots in pre-Christian times. Evidence exists from the Middle Ages that strings of beads were used to count Our Fathers and Hail Marys. Actually, these strings of beads became known as “Paternosters,” the Latin for “Our Father.”
Prayers with beads like the rosary may have begun as a practice by the laity to imitate the monastic Liturgy of the Hours, during the course of which the monks prayed the 150 Psalms daily. As many of the laity and even lay monastics could not read, they substituted 150 repetitions of the Our Father (Pater noster in Latin) for the Psalms, sometimes using a cord with knots on it to keep an accurate count.
Tradition does hold that St. Dominic devised the rosary as we know it. Moved by a vision of our Blessed Mother, he preached the use of the rosary in his missionary work among the Albigensians, who had denied the mystery of Christ.
Some scholars take exception to St. Dominic’s role in forming the rosary. The earliest accounts of his life do not mention it, the Dominican constitutions do not link him with it and contemporaneous portraits do not include it as a symbol to identify the saint they say.
Some believe that The various elements which enter into the composition of the rosary are the product of a long and gradual development which began before St. Dominic’s time, however, other scholars would rebut that St. Dominic not so much “invented” the rosary as he preached its use to convert sinners and those who had strayed from the faith.
Moreover, at least a dozen popes have mentioned St. Dominic’s connection with the rosary, sanctioning his role as at least a “pious belief.”
15th century Blessed Alanus de Rupe (aka Alan de la Roche or Saint Alan of the Rock), who was a learned Dominican priest and theologian, is said to have received a vision from Jesus about the urgency of “reinstating” the rosary as a form of prayer.
Blessed Alanus de Rupe also received the Blessed Mother’s “15 Promises”. Before his death on Sept. 8, 1475 and through his devotion to the Blessed Mother, he “reinstituted” the rosary in many countries and established many rosary confraternities.
In 1569, the papal bull Consueverunt Romani Pontifices by the Dominican Pope Pius V officially established the devotion to the rosary in the Catholic Church. Saint Peter Canisius, a Doctor of the Church, who is credited with adding to the Hail Mary the sentence “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners”, was an ardent advocate of the rosary and promoted it (and its Marian devotion in general) as the best way to repair the damage done to the Church by the Reformation.
The rosary gained greater popularity in the 1500s, when Moslem Turks were ravaging Eastern Europe. Recall that in 1453, Constantinople had fallen to the Moslems, leaving the Balkans and Hungary open to conquest. With Moslems raiding even the coast of Italy, the control of the Mediterranean was now at stake.
In 1571, Pope Pius V organized a fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria the half-brother of King Philip II of Spain. While preparations were underway, the Holy Father asked all of the faithful to say the rosary and implore our Blessed Mother’s prayers, under the title Our Lady of Victory, that our Lord would grant victory to the Christians.
Although the Moslem fleet outnumbered that of the Christians in both vessels and sailors, the forces were ready to meet in battle. The Christian flagship flew a blue banner depicting Christ crucified. On October 7, 1571, the Moslems were defeated at the Battle of Lepanto.
The following year, Pope St. Pius V established the Feast of the Holy Rosary on October 7, where the faithful would not only remember this victory, but also give thanks to the Lord for all of His benefits and remember the powerful intercession of our Blessed Mother.
From the 16th to the early 20th century, the structure of the rosary remained essentially unchanged. There were 15 mysteries, one for each of the 15 decades. In the 20th century the addition of the Fatima Prayer to the end of each decade became popular.
After Vatican Council II, Msgr. Annibale Bugnini, architect of the liturgical reform, proposed further changes to the structure of the Rosary, but Pope Paul VI refused to implement the proposal on the grounds that changing such a well-established and popular devotion would unsettle the piety of the faithful and show a lack of reverence for an ancient practice. There were thus no other changes until 2002 when John Paul II instituted five new Luminous Mysteries as we have the 20 mysteries today.