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A bedesman carved on the tomb of Ralph Fitzherbert[1] who died in 1483

Bedesman, or beadsman (Med. Eng. bede, prayer, from O. Eng. biddan, to pray; literally "a man of prayer"; and from Anglo Saxon "bed"), was generally a pensioner or almsman whose duty was to pray for his benefactor.


A Bedesman (or Bedeswoman) in Medieval times worked in this Christian occupation attached to the crown and churches in Scotland and England. In general, the task was to pray for souls listed on a bede-roll (pictured) represented by small items on a string called "bedes" (i.e. "prayers"). Souls who wished to be prayed for, secured their listing by giving alms, donations, or gifts.[2] Or, if a departed member of a guild, the Chaplain would add them to the roll for prayer post-mortem. When, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the use of little perforated globes of bone, wood, or amber, threaded on 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, later becoming known as "beads".[2]


Bedesmen were sometimes accommodated in a Bedehouse (an alms-house), some of which have survived into modern times. These are generally considered to be buildings of special interest and are often listed.[]

Royal arrangement

In Scotland, there were public almsmen which were supported by the king who expected to pray for his welfare and that of the state in return. These men wore long blue gowns with a pewter badge on the right arm, and were nicknamed Blue Gowns. Their number corresponded to the king's years, an extra one being added each royal birthday. They were privileged to ask alms throughout Scotland.[3] On the king's birthday, each bedesman received a new blue gown, a loaf, a bottle of ale, and a leathern purse containing a penny for every year of the king's life. On the pewter badge which they wore were their name and the words "pass and repass," which authorised them to ask alms.[4] The last beadsman died in Aberdeen in 1988.[5]


In consequence of its use in this general sense of pensioner, "bedesman" was long used in English as equivalent to "servant." The word had a special sense as the name for those almsmen attached to cathedrals and other churches, whose duty it was to pray for the souls of deceased benefactors. A relic of pre-Reformation times, these old men still figure in the accounts of English cathedrals.[6][4]


In a somewhat similar practice in Spain (roughly 14th century onwards), there were blind people hired to sing prayers for customers. Some customers were regulars, others hired these singers only from time to time.[7] Bedesmen existed in Scotland until the late 1990s. [8]

See also


  1. ^ Camm, Bede (2004), Forgotten Shrines, Gracewing, p. 16, ISBN 0-85244-615-2, retrieved 2010.
  2. ^ a b Bede
  3. ^ Chambers, Robert (1885). Domestic Annals of Scotland. Edinburgh : Chambers. pp. 183-84.
  4. ^ a b  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bedesman". Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 616.
  5. ^ McAleese, R. 2017. 'Life in the Day of a Bedesman', Scottish Local History Journal, 97: 29-38.
  6. ^ Gold - a new rush?
  7. ^ Gomis, Juan. "Pious voices: Blind Spanish prayer singers." Renaissance Studies 33.1 (2019): 42-63.
  8. ^ McAleese, R. 2017. 'Life in the Day of a Bedesman', Scottish Local History Journal, 97: 29-38.

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