Tuesday, March 3, 2009
The old English word bede or bead
The old English word bede (Anglo-Saxon bed ) means a prayer, though the derivative form, gebed , was more common in this sense in Anglo-Saxon literature. When, in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the use of little perforated globes of bone, wood, or amber, threaded upon a string, came into fashion for the purpose of counting the repetitions of the Our Father or Hail Mary, these objects themselves became known as bedes (i.e. prayers ), and our modern word bead , as applied to small globular ornaments of glass, coral, etc., has no other derivation. In middle English the word bedes was used both in the sense of prayer and rosary. Thus Shakespeare could still write (Rich. III, iii, 7)
When holy and devout religious men
Are at their beads [prayers ], 'tis much to draw them thence,
So sweet is zealous contemplation.
While of Chaucer's Prioress we are told
Of smal coral aboute hire arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene.
The gauds, or gaudys, were the ornaments or larger beads used to divide the decades. The phrase pair of beads (i.e. set of beads — cf. pair of stairs), which may still be heard on the lips of old-fashioned English and Irish Catholics, is consequently of venerable antiquity. With such speakers a pair of beads means the round of the beads, i.e. the chaplet of five decades, as opposed to the whole rosary of fifteen. Again, to "bid beads " originally meant only to say prayers, but the phrase "bidding the beads ", by a series of misconceptions explained in the "Historical English Dictionary", came to be attached to certain public devotions analogous to the prayers which precede the kissing of the Cross in the Good Friday Service. The prayers referred to used to be recited in the vernacular at the Sunday Mass in medieval England, and the distinctive feature of them was that the subject of each was announced in a formula read to the congregation beforehand. This was called "bidding the bedes". From this the idea was derived that the word "bidding" meant commanding or giving out, and hence a certain survival of these prayers, still retained in the Anglican "Book of Canons", and recited before the sermon, is known as the "bidding prayer ".
The words bedesman and bedeswoman , which date back to Anglo-Saxon times, also recall the original meaning of the word. Bedesman was at first the term applied to one whose duty it was to pray for others, and thus it sometimes denoted the chaplain of a guild. But in later English a bedesman is simply the recipient of any form of bounty; for example, a poor man who obtains free quarters in an almshouse, and who is supposed to be bound in gratitude to pray for his benefactors. Similarly, bedehouse , which originally meant a place of prayer or an oratory, came at a later date to be used of any charitable institution like an almshouse. It has now practically disappeared from literary English, but survives provincially and in a number of Welsh place-names in the form bettws , e.g. Bettws y Coed. Finally, bede-roll , as its etymology suggests, meant the roll of those to be prayed for, and in some sense corresponded to the diptychs of the early Church. The word is of tolerably frequent occurrence in connection with the early English guilds. In these associations a list was invariably kept of departed members who had a claim on their prayers. This was the bede-roll.
The Rams Horn
The Rams Horn on Facebook