The title refers to a particular activity performed in almshouses, at a time when food and shelter for paupers was sponsored by members of the more affluent class. In exchange for a roof over his or her head and a belly full of food the inmate of the almshouse committed to pray the rosary for the spiritual benefit of his or her benefactor. The prayers might be intended to bring good health or fortune, to secure a place in Heaven, or otherwise to help the best interests of the benefactor. The spiritual work of praying the rosary was known as beadsman’s, beadman’s, or beadwoman’s work. The beadsman produced nothing that could be eaten, sold, or free him from his solitary spiritual task. Prayer was seen as an integral part of life and community, and the activity of the beadsman–that of assuming the benefactor’s prayers–freed the benefactor to pursue secular activities.
Certain human activities, such as the silent prayers described above, produce no tangible evidence of having been performed. Other undertakings, such as poetry, music, dance, and painting do produce signs and can, at times, speak to universal, collective, human yearnings.
Some cultures give physical form to the endeavor of beadsman-like work. Tibetan and Native American sandpaintings, Voudou veves, and Indian kolams are only a few expressions of this idiom. I suspect that the origins of lacemaking are a related, western version of “the prayer made visible,” especially since lace was often produced in almshouses.
Producing prayers, particularly in the form of visual patterns like lace, is a manifestation of the human desire for order in the universe as a whole and in our lives in particular. Our desire for “beadsman’s work” is parallel to our impulse to recognize patterns in the stars, from the traditional constellations to umbrellas (as seen in “A Beautiful Mind”) and to our delight and fascination with magic and simple mathematical relationships.