Reading the work of mystics or theologians gives us insight into what medieval Christians thought about their faith; walking through the ruins of a monastery or a still-standing cathedral lets us experience some of the physical environments in which they lived, worked, and prayed. But what about some of the more ephemeral aspects of the history of religion? What did faith sound like, feel like, smell like in the Middle Ages?
We can reconstruct some of those experiences by examining the objects which people used to help guide their meditation and prayer. From Late Antiquity onwards, Christians used knotted ropes or strings of beads to help keep count when saying repetitive prayers. Rosary beads, still widely used by modern Catholics, developed out of that tradition. Medieval rosaries often had attachments not found today, such as vials of holy water, relics, pomanders (scent containers), and prayer nuts.
Most of these prayers nuts (sometimes called prayer beads or prayer apples) were made in northern Europe during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries—about 65 examples survive from the Low Countries alone. Prayer nuts are bigger than, say, an acorn or walnut, but not by much: the size of a tennis ball or smaller. This makes the intricacy of their manufacture all the more extraordinary.
They were frequently carved out of boxwood, in part because its fine grain made it well-suited to this kind of micro-carving, but also because in the Middle Ages boxwood was believed to be the kind of wood from which the cross on which Jesus was crucified was made. The prayer nuts were then attached to a belt or string of rosary or paternoster beads—the example shown in the image at the top of this post had its own copper carrying case and accompanying red velvet pouch so that it could be worn at the waist. Objects like this would have been a light but constant weight at the waist of a medieval Christian as they went about their day.
Why make something as time-consuming as this, when a much smaller and simpler set of beads would also allow for focused devotion? Historians think they were one of the ways medieval Christians would undertake what they called a “spiritual” or imagined pilgrimage. Not everyone could afford, or was physically able, to travel to Jerusalem, Rome, or Santiago de Compostela—but by undertaking certain spiritual exercises, by concentrating on imagining events from scripture as vividly as possible, the believer could travel in time and space even though their body remained at home.
The design of prayer nuts seems to facilitate these kinds of devotional practices. Some prayer nuts had more than one “level”, with inside panels that could be unfolded (like the examples above from the British Museum and the Louvre) which could be prompts for different prayers, or different topics of contemplation, as the user worked from the text on the outside to the innermost depiction of the Crucifixion. By focusing intently on the miniature object cupped in your palm, on its intricate details and depth of scene, you effectively shut out the outside world as you contemplate eternity—to twist Shakespeare’s words a little, infinite space could be bound in a nut shell.
Of course, these would not have been cheap items, to make or to purchase, and we cannot divorce the religious function of these items from their social ones. They were as much a social status symbol as a physical representation of a person’s faith. They could perform a dual role as prayer nuts and as pomanders, with small holes on the exterior of the nut allowing pleasant fragrances to escape as the object’s owner prayed or went about their day.
Scholars also think that the relative lack of wear on some of the more intricate, later examples implies that they weren’t necessarily made to be regularly used, but to be kept in a Wunderkammer—a collection of rare objects and curiosities—as a marker of the owner’s wealth and sophistication.
New digital technologies can give us new insights into the devotional artefacts and architecture of the Middle Ages, into the methods used to create those objects and into how they were used. By measuring the amount of dirt embedded in a manuscript leaf, researchers can work out which pages were the most popular in a given text overall. By using acoustic measuring technology, researchers can recreate the medieval soundscapes of Byzantine and better understand why ancient authors said, “It sounds like there are angels in the buildings.”
They can also help us better understand the techniques which were used to carve these prayer beads. A team of researchers from the Netherlands and France undertook an X-ray tomography study of an early sixteenth-century prayer bead now kept at the Rijksmuseum. This study revealed that the prayer nut was composed of four main parts: the outer shell with its abstract motifs, the inner relief showing the Crucifixion, the crosses and tiny pikes wielded by some of the figures in the scene, and the arc which tops the scene. The kind of drilling and carving needed to produce these parts, and on such a scale, would have required drills, chisels, knives, and some kind of magnifying lens. Fibrous material found between the inner and outer shells may once have been soaked with perfumes or aromatic vinegars, so that the prayer nut might also have functioned as a pomander. Similarly, a team based at Canada’s Western University carried out a microCT scan of a prayer nut which gives the viewer a close-up view of an intricate carving of the Last Judgement.
An intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has even created 3D printed versions of a prayer nut—made of sugar, scented with frankincense and flavoured with wine. These new versions may be innovative in composition but they encourage us to use our senses when we interact with these objects—just as medieval Europeans once did.