[lit-ideas] Re: God bless you

  • From: Robert.Paul@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (Robert Paul)
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: 30 Jul 2004 20:41:23 PDT

>Prove it.<

Maybe not a proof, but a detailed examination of the claim that 'Ring Around the
Rosie' refers to the Black Plague:


Ring Around the Rosie
Claim:   The nursery rhyme 'Ring Around the Rosie' is a coded reference to the
Black Plague. 

Status:   False. 

Example:   [Varasdi, 1989] 
Every child has happily joined hands with friends and recited the familiar
nursery rhyme, "Ring around a rosie, a pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we
all fall down." Few people realize to what this seemingly happy little nursery
rhyme actually refers. 

This nursery rhyme began about 1347 and derives from the not-so-delightful Black
Plague, which killed over twenty-five million people in the fourteenth century.
The "ring around a rosie" refers to the round, red rash that is the first
symptom of the disease. The practice of carrying flowers and placing them around
the infected person for protection is described in the phrase, "a pocket full of
posies." "Ashes" is a corruption or imitation of the sneezing sounds made by the
infected person. Finally, "we all fall down" describes the many dead resulting
from the disease. 

Origins:   If  "few people realize" that "this seemingly happy little nursery
rhyme actually refers" to the Black Plague, so much the better, because the
explanation presented above is nonsense. "Ring Around the Rosie" is simply a
nursery rhyme of indefinite origin and no specific meaning, and someone, long
after the fact, concocted an inventive "explanation" for its creation. 

The "Black Plague" was the disease we call bubonic plague, spread by a bacillus
usually carried by rodents and transmitted to humans by fleas. The plague first
hit western Europe in 1347, and by 1350 it had killed nearly a third of the
population. Although some of the details of the plague offered in this putative
"Ring Around the Rosie" explanation are reasonably accurate (sneezing was one of
the symptoms of a form of the plague, for example, and some people did use
flowers, incense, and perfumed oils to try to ward off the disease), the notion
that they were behind the creation of this nursery rhyme is extremely
implausible for a number of reasons: 

["Ring Around the Rosie" is sometimes said to have originated with a later
outbreak of the plague which occurred in London in 1665, to which all of the
following reasoning applies as well.] 

*       Although folklorists have been collecting and setting down in print 
bits of
oral tradition such as nursery rhymes and fairy tales for hundreds of years, the
earliest print appearance of "Ring Around the Rosie" did not occur until the
publication of Kate Greenaway's Mother Goose or The Old Nursery Rhymes in 1881.
For the "plague" explanation of "Ring Around the Rosie" to be true, we have to
believe that children were reciting this nursery rhyme continuously for over
five centuries, yet not one person in that five hundred year span found it
popular enough to merit writing it down. (How anyone could credibly assert that
a rhyme which didn't appear in print until 1881 actually "began about 1347" is a
mystery. If the rhyme were really this old, then "Ring Around the Rosie"
antedates even Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and therefore we would have examples
of this rhyme in Middle English as well as Modern English forms.) 

*       "Ring Around the Rosie" has many different variant forms which omit 
some of
the "plague" references or clearly have nothing whatsoever to do with death or
disease. For example, versions published by William Wells Newell in 1883: 

Ring a ring a rosie, 
A bottle full of posie, 
All the girls in our town, 
Ring for little Josie. 


Round the ring of roses, 
Pots full of posies, 
The one stoops the last 
Shall tell whom she loves the best. 

Or this version from Charlotte Sophia Burne's 1883 Shropshire Folk-Lore: 

Ring-a-ring o' roses, 
A pocket full of posies, 
One for Jack, and one for Jim, 
And one for little Moses. 
A-tischa! A-tischa! A-tischa! 

Or this version collected by Alice Gomme and published in the Dictionary of
British Folk-Lore in 1898: 

Ring, a ring o' roses, 
A pocket full o' posies, 
Up-stairs and down-stairs, 
In my lady's chamber -- 
Husher! Husher! Cuckoo! 

Quite a fervent imagination is required to maintain that any of these variations
has anything to do with a plague, and since they were all collected within a few
years of each other, how could anyone determine that the "plague" version of
"Ring Around the Rosie" was the original, and the other versions later
corruptions of it? (And why is it that this rhyme supposedly remained intact for
five centuries, then suddenly started sprouting all sorts of variations only in
the late nineteenth century?) 

*       The explanations of the rhyme's "true" meaning are inconsistent, and 
they seem
to be contrived to match whichever version of "Ring Around the Rosie" the teller
is familar with. For example, the purpose of the "pocket full of posies" is said
to by any one of the following: 
*       Something carried to ward off the disease. 
*       A way of masking the "stench of death." 
*       An item the dead were commonly buried with. 
*       Flowers to place "on a grave or funeral pyre." 
*       A representation of the "pus or infection under the skin in the sores" 
plague victims. 

Likewise, multiple meanings are claimed for the repetition of "ashes" at the
beginning of the last line: 

*       A representation of the sneezing sounds of plague victims. 
*       A reference to the practice of burning the bodies of those who 
succumbed to
the plague. 
*       A reference to the practice of burning the homes of plague sufferers to
prevent spread of disease. 
*       A reference to the blackish discoloration of victims' skin from which 
the term
"Black Plague" was derived. 

The word "ashes" cannot be "a corruption of the sneezing sounds made by the
infected person" and a word used for its literal meaning. Either "ashes" was a
corruption of an earlier form or a deliberate use; it can't be both. Moreover,
the "ashes" ending of "Ring Around the Rosie" appears to be a fairly modern
addition to the rhyme; earlier versions repeat other words or syllables instead
(e.g., "Hush!", "A-tischa!", "Hasher", "Husher", "Hatch-u", "A-tishoo") or, as
noted above, have completely different endings. 

*       Children were apparently reciting this plague-inspired nursery rhyme 
for over
six hundred years before someone finally figured out what they were talking
about, as the first known mention of a plague interpretation of "Ring Around the
Rosie" didn't show up until James Leasor published The Plague and the Fire in
1961. This sounds suspiciously like the "discovery," several decades after the
fact, that L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written as a coded
parable about Populism. How come no contemporaries of Baum -- those much closer
in time and place to what he was writing about -- ever noticed this? The answer
is that Baum merely authored a children's book, and it was only much later that
someone invented a fanciful interpretation of it -- an interpretation that has
become more and more layered and embellished over the years and has now become
widely accepted as "fact" despite all evidence to the contrary. It isn't
difficult to imagine that such a process has been applied to "Ring Around the
Rosie" as well, especially since we humans have such a fondness for trying to
make sense of the nonsensical, seeking to find order in randomness, and
especially for discovering and sharing secrets. The older the secret, the better
(because age demonstrates the secret has eluded so many others before us), and
so we've read "hidden" meanings into all sorts of innocuous nursery rhymes: The
dish who ran away with the spoon in "Hey Diddle, Diddle" is really Queen
Elizabeth I (or Catherine of Aragon or Catherine the Great), or "Humpty Dumpty"
and "The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe" describe the "spread and fragmentation
of the British Empire." (The process is aided by a general consensus that some
nursery rhymes, such as "Old King Cole," quite likely were actually based on
real historical figures.) 

So, what does "Ring Around the Rosie" mean, then? Folklorist Philip Hiscock

The more likely explanation is to be found in the religious ban on dancing among
many Protestants in the nineteenth century, in Britain as well as here in North
America. 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. 

Like "A Tisket, A Tasket" or "Hey Diddle Diddle" or even "I Am the Walrus," the
rhyme we call "Ring Around the Rosie" has no particular meaning, regardless of
our latter day efforts to create one for it. They're all simply collections of
words and sounds that someone thought sounded good together. As John Lennon once

We've learned over the years that if we wanted we could write anything that just
felt good or sounded good and it didn't necessarily have to have any particular
meaning to us. As odd as it seemed to us, reviewers would take it upon
themselves to interject their own meanings on our lyrics. Sometimes we sit and
read other people's interpretations of our lyrics and think, 'Hey, that's pretty
good.' If we liked it, we would keep our mouths shut and just accept the credit
as if it was what we meant all along. 

Additional information: 

       The Black Death: Bubonic Plague 

Last updated:   17 November 2000 

The URL for this page is http://www.snopes.com/language/literary/rosie.htm 
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Urban Legends Reference Pages (c) 1995-2003 
by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson 
This material may not be reproduced without permission 


    Bowman, Marion.   "Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses."
    Talking Folklore.   August 1989   (pp. 1-14).

    Burne, Charlotte Sophia.   Shropshire Folk-Lore: A Sheaf of Gleaning.
    London: Trubner & Co., 1883.

    Delamar, Gloria T.   Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature.
    Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1987.

    Gomme, Alice Bertha.   The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and
    New York: Dover Publications, 1964.   ISBN 0-500-27316-2.

    Greenaway, Kate.   Mother Goose or The Old Nursery Rhymes.
    London: George Routledge and Sons, 1881.

    Hiscock, Philip.   "Said and Done."
    [St. John's] Sunday Express.   27 January 1991.

    Leasor, James.   The Plague and the Fire.
    New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.

    Mansfield, Ken.   The Beatles, the Bible, and Bodega Bay.
    Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000.   ISBN 0-8054-2289-7   (pp. 220-221).

    Morgan, Hal and Kerry Tucker.   More Rumor!
    New York: Penguin Books, 1987.   ISBN 0-14-009720-1   (pp. 92-93).

    Newell, William Wells.   Games and Songs of American Children.
    New York: Harper and Brothers, 1883.

    Opie, Iona and Peter.   The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes   [2nd
    New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Slack, Paul.   The Impact of the Plague in Tudor and Stuart England.
    Oxford Univ. Press, 1990.   ISBN 0-19-820213.

    Varasdi, J. Allen.   Myth Information.
    New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.   ISBN 0-345-35985-2   (pp. 205-206).

   Also told in: 

    Butler, William S. and L. Douglas Keeney.   Secret Messages.

Robert Paul
The Reed Institute

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