Is Ring Around the Rosie Really About the Plague?
Most of us are familiar with this classic nursery rhyme, while many of us are also aware with its surprisingly dark origins. While on its face “Ring Around the Rosie” may appear to be just a silly song for children, it is, in fact, a chilling description of the Black Death, the outbreak of Bubonic Plague that wiped out nearly a third of Europe’s population between 1346 and 1353. According to this interpretation, “Ring Around the Rosie” describes the rosy red rash that appeared on plague victims, and“Pocket Full of Posies” the bunches of flowers or fragrant herbs carried by medieval people to ward off the disease. Meanwhile, “Ashes! Ashes!” – sometimes sung as “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!” – refers to either the cremation of dead bodied or the sneezing of the victims, while “We All Fall Down” refers to, well, death.
…only no, it doesn’t. While countless books, articles, and videos state this dark hidden meaning of “Ring Around the Rosie” as fact, in reality the plague interpretation is only a couple of decades old and has been largely dismissed by folklorists. And while the notion of children innocently dancing and singing about the Black Death might appeal to our macabre imaginations, all evidence points to a far more mundane origin for the song.
The first strike against the plague interpretation of “Ring Around the Rosie” is the age of the song itself.
While most sources trace the song’s origin to the Black Death of 1346, others cite the more recent Great Plague of 1665. However, the song in its modern form did not appear in print until 1881 – some 200 or 500 years after its supposed origin – while the earliest recorded versions go back no earlier than the 1790s. If the plague theory is correct, this would mean that the song survived orally for nearly half a millennium before anyone bothered to write it down – a suspiciously unlikely occurrence.
Another strike against the theory is that the song’s lyrics have varied wildly from place to place and decade to decade. If the lyrics were originally about the plague, then we would expect the earliest versions to contain the same references as the modern-day ones. But this is not the case. The earliest recorded version of the song, printed in Germany in 1796, translates as:
“A ring, a ring, a round dance,
We are the children three,
we sit under the elderbush,
and all go hush, hush, hush!
While one of the earliest English-language versions, printed in an 1846 article in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, goes:
Ring a ring a Rosie,
A bottle full of posie,
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie.
Other versions include this one, recorded by American author Ann S. Stephens in her 1855 novel The Old Homestead:
A ring – a ring of roses,
Laps full of posies;
Awake – awake!
Now come and make
A ring – a ring of roses.
And this one, published by William Wells Newell in 1883:
Round the ring of roses,
Pots full of posies,
The one stoops the last
Shall tell whom she loves the best.”
Even this 1898 variation, collected by Alice Gomme in the Dictionary of British Folklore, differs substantially from the “modern” 1881 version recorded in illustrator Kate Greenway’s Mother Goose; or, the Old Nursery Rhymes:
“Ring, a ring o’ roses,
A pocket full o’ posies,
Up-stairs and down-stairs,
In my lady’s chamber —
Husher! Husher! Cuckoo!”
In all these versions, the only common elements are the title “Ring of Roses” and the rhyming reference to posies. The following lines differ substantially from the modern version, with “Ashes! Ashes!” being either completely absent or variously replaced with nonsense syllables, imitations of sneezing, or alternate constructions like “Red Bird, Blue Bird” or “Green Grass, Yellow Grass”. Variations continued to appear well into the 20th Century, with this version being recorded among African-American schoolgirls in Wiergate, Texas in 1939:
“Ring around a Rosey
Pocketful o’ posies
Light bread, sweet bread, squat!
Guess who she told me, tralalalala
Mr. Red was her lover, tralalalala
If you love him, hug him!
If you hate him, stomp!”
Given how dramatically these lyrics evolved over only 100 years, it is unlikely they would have survived unchanged from the time of the Great Plagues to the present day. And even we accept that the modern lyrics do indeed refer to the plague, they do a remarkably bad job describing the actual pandemic. Firstly, while people in the Middle Ages did indeed carry around flowers, spices, and other fragrant substances to ward off the “bad air” thought to spread the disease, the fact that earlier versions of the song refer to “pots” or “laps” full of posies makes this connection tenuous at best. Second, while the theory claims that the titular “ring of roses” refers to a ring-shaped rash characteristic of the plague, this is in fact a very rare symptom – as is the sneezing supposedly depicted in the line “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!” In fact, coughing and sneezing are more common to the pneumonic form of the disease – in which the Yersinia Pestis bacterium infects the lungs – than the flea-borne bubonic variety. Third, contrary to the “Ashes! Ashes!” line, plague victims weren’t ever cremated – they were always buried. Indeed, the Catholic Church considered cremation sacrilegious, as it denied the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead at the Last Judgement. In fact, the first modern cremation in Britain did not take place until 1884, while the Catholic Church did not lift its ban on cremation until 1963. And finally, while the final line, “We all fall down,” appears to be a straightforward reference to dying, many versions of the song, like this one from 1883, don’t reference falling at all but instead a “curchey” or “curtsey” to be performed by the singers:
“A ring, a ring o’roses
A pocket full of posies
One for Jack and one for Jim and one for little Moses
A curchey in and a curchey out
And a curchey all together”
These many inconsistencies make it unlikely that “Ring Around the Rosie” was ever about the plague. Indeed, despite its popularity, the plague theory is a remarkably recent one. The first work to make the discordant connection between the innocent nursery rhyme and disaster was a 1949 article in the newspaper The Observer, which included a nuclear-themed parody version:
A pocket full of uranium,
All fall down!”
In 1951, folklorists and nursery rhyme experts Iona and Peter Opie acknowledged the widespread belief that the song was about the plague, but dismissed the theory as dubious, later complaining that: “We ourselves have had to listen so often to this interpretation we are reluctant to go out of the house.”
However, the first known work to state the theory as fact is James Leasor’s book The Plague and the Fire, published a full decade later in 1961. From there, the theory spread like, well, the plague, until it became accepted as fact. But as critics of the theory point out, if the hidden meaning of the song was known for over 500 years, why did it take until the mid-20th Century for anyone to write it down? Most folklorists have thus dismissed the plague interpretation as a folk etymology, and have concluded that the song likely originated in 18th Century Germany and spread to England, the United States, and elsewhere via German immigrants.
So if not the plague, then what is the song actually about? According to folklorist Philip Hiscock, “Ring Around the Rosie” is part of a long tradition of children’s play songs intended to get around Protestant religious bans on dancing:
“Adolescents found a way around the dancing ban with what was called in the United States the “play-party.” Play-parties consisted of ring games which differed from square dances only in their name and their lack of musical accompaniment. They were hugely popular, and younger children got into the act, too. Some modern nursery games, particularly those which involve rings of children, derive from these play-party games. “Little Sally Saucer” (or “Sally Waters”) is one of them, and “Ring Around the Rosie” seems to be another. The rings referred to in the rhymes are literally the rings formed by the playing children. “Ashes, ashes” probably comes from something like “Husha, husha” (another common variant) which refers to stopping the ring and falling silent. And the falling down refers to the jumble of bodies in that ring when they let go of each other and throw themselves into the circle.”
As with the lyrics of the song, the rules of these “play parties” varied widely. In nearly every variation, the last person to fall down, bow, or curtsey had to pay some kind of penalty. In some versions this involved hugging or kissing another member of the group, while in others the loser moved to the centre of the circle to become the “Rosie” around which the others danced. The name “Rosie” is believed to derive from the French rosier [“rose-yay”] or “rosebush,” while the game itself likely derives from ancient pagan rituals that involved dancing in circles around sacred trees or bonfires – and for more on this, please check out our video That Time British Witches Tried to Stop a Nazi Invasion Using Magic.
But what do the other lyrics of the song mean? In a word, nothing. While some classic nursery rhymes like “Old King Cole” are known to be based on historical figures and events, others are simply fun rhyming nonsense for children to dance and play to. As far as folklorists and etymologists have been able to determine, “Ring Around the Rosie” is one of the latter, and likely has no literal meaning at all. But we humans abhor ambiguity and randomness, leading us to seek out logic and meaning where none exists. This rationalizing instinct has resulted in countless dubious theories seeking to explain the origins of nursery rhymes, including this one:
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.”
One interpretation holds that the “Mary, quite contrary” of the rhyme is none other than Queen Mary I, who attempted to convert England back to Catholicism between 1553 and 1558. According to this theory, “How does your garden grow?” and “Silver bells and cockle shells” refer to Mary’s inability to bear a child, while “Pretty maids in a row” is a derogatory reference to catholic nuns. However, there is no evidence whatsoever for this particular interpretation, and the actual origin of the song remains unknown.
Not even contemporary works are immune from such over-analysis. Gallons of ink have been spilled explaining how L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is in fact a cleverly-disguised allegory for populism even U.S. monetary policy, while a common urban legend holds that Phil Collins’s 1981 hit song In the Air Tonight is actually about an incident Collins witnessed where a man failed to save a drowning victim. Indeed, the Beatles became so frustrated with people trying to find hidden meanings in their lyrics that John Lennon and Paul McCartney intentionally wrote 1967’s I Am the Walrus to be as nonsensical and meaningless as possible, with Lennon allegedly remarking: “Let the f***ers work that one out!”
Intriguingly, the plague interpretation of “Ring Around the Rosie” has taken on a life of its own, becoming what folklorists call meta-folklore – folklore about folklore. Despite being thoroughly debunked by folklorists, the theory has nonetheless persisted, satisfying as it does both our desire for rational explanations and our love of the ironic and the macabre. And like regular folklore, it has evolved over time, growing and changing with each retelling, and branched off into numerous distinct variations. As mentioned before, some versions of the theory trace the song’s origins to the Black Death of 1346, others to the Great Plague of 1665. Similarly, some versions say song originated in London, while others say it came from Eyam, a village in the English Midlands hard-hit by the 1665 Plague. Some versions even claim that the children of Eyam sang the song while dancing around the bodies of the victims! But the one thing all these theories have in common is that they are all patently false. After all, as Sigmund Freud might have put it, sometimes a nursery rhyme is just a nursery rhyme.
- The Origin of Humpty Dumpty
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- That Time About Two-Thirds of China’s Population, and then a Decade Later About Half of Europe’s, Up and Died
Winick, Stephen, Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason, Library of Congress, July 24, 2014, https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2014/07/ring-around-the-rosie-metafolklore-rhyme-and-reason/
Ring Around the Rosie, Professor Buzzkill, https://professorbuzzkill.com/ring-around-rosie/
McDaniel, Spencer, “Ring Around the Rosie” is Not About the Black Death, Nor Has it Ever Been, Tales or Times Forgotten, May 3, 2017, https://talesoftimesforgotten.com/2017/05/03/ring-around-the-rosie-is-not-about-the-black-death-nor-has-it-ever-been/
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