Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Children's Singing Game "Ring Around The Rosie" REALLY Isn't About The Plague (Online Excerpts)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides information and comments about the widely held belief that the children's rhyme "Ring Around The Rosie" refers to the 14th Century and/or the 16th century "Great Plague" in Europe.

 The content of this post is presented for folkloric and historical purposes.

 All copyrights remain with their owners.

 Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
Click for the closely related pancocojams post entitled "Various Old Versions Of "Ring Around The Rosie" (Children's Singing Game)"

These excerpts are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only. 

Excerpt #1
"Ring a Ring o' Roses" or "Ring a Ring o' Rosie" is an English nursery rhyme and playground singing game. It first appeared in print in 1881, but it is reported that a version was already being sung to the current tune in the 1790s and similar rhymes are known from across Europe.


The Great Plague explanation of the mid-20th century
Since after the Second World War, the rhyme has often been associated with the Great Plague which happened in England in 1665, or with earlier outbreaks of the Black Death in England. Interpreters of the rhyme before World War II make no mention of this;[23] by 1951, however, it seems to have become well established as an explanation for the form of the rhyme that had become standard in the United Kingdom. Peter and Iona Opie, the leading authorities on nursery rhymes, remarked:

"The invariable sneezing and falling down in modern English versions have given would-be origin finders the opportunity to say that the rhyme dates back to the Great Plague. A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and "all fall down" was exactly what happened.[24][25]

The line Ashes, Ashes in colonial versions of the rhyme is claimed to refer variously to cremation of the bodies, the burning of victims' houses, or blackening of their skin, and the theory has been adapted to be applied to other versions of the rhyme.[26] In its various forms, the interpretation has entered into popular culture and has been used elsewhere to make oblique reference to the plague.”[27]

Reasons against the Great Plague explanation
Folklore scholars regard this explanation as baseless for several reasons:

The plague explanation did not appear until the mid-twentieth century.[20]

-The symptoms described do not fit especially well with the Great Plague.[25][28]

-The great variety of forms makes it unlikely that the modern form is the most ancient one, and the words on which the interpretation are based are not found in many of the earliest records of the rhyme (see above).[26][29]

-European and 19th-century versions of the rhyme suggest that this "fall" was not a literal falling down, but a curtsy or other form of bending movement that was common in other dramatic singing games.[30]"...

Excerpt #2  
The "Real" Meaning of "Ring Around the Rosie" by Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton
..."The "plague" usually referred to by those who give this explanation is the Black Death of 1347-50, which killed perhaps 1/3 of the population of Europe and had a decided effect on literature and art of the period. Those who are familiar with Boccaccio's Decameron will know, for instance, that the setting for this series of stories is a country villa where several people have fled to escape the plague. In visual art, the "dance of death", featuring skeletons leading people of all classes to their death, became common in both secular and sacred art.

Sometimes, the plague referenced in the rhyme is said to be the Great Plague of London of 1665-6, the last major outbreak of plague in the English-speaking world. Once again, we have many firsthand accounts of this calamity--even more than in the earlier outbreak, since literacy was more widespread by the 17th.

From a purely historical standpoint, there were already difficulties in attributing the rhyme as far back as the 14th century. There are no references to this rhyme in contemporary literature, artwork, or the like that I have been able to discover. The same goes for the 17th century. If the rhyme is that old, it would be expected that someone would have mentioned it somewhere between the 14th century and the 19th; even if it were only a few words tossed off as an aside. Yet, no one does, despite the fact that antiquarians began collecting such material in the 18th century and publishing it. As Philip Hiscock, a folklorist associated with the Folklore and Language Archive at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, states, "English antiquarians have been bringing together, publishing, and discussing traditional rhymes, songs, and stories for over three hundred years. It does seem odd they might have missed this one."(2)

There are also problems with the interpretation itself. First, a red mark is not a sign of the plague; red marks are seen in a variety of other infectious diseases (rubella being perhaps the best known), but not in either variety (bubonic or pneumonic) of plague. Secondly, both explanations of the third line are problematic. Plague victims were not cremated--not in 1347-50, and not in 1665-6. Cremation is a relatively recent practice in Western Europe, even when large numbers of dead were involved. (3). The other interpretation, involving sneezing, is a problem because sneezing was associated only with the pneumonic version of the plague, which did not represent the majority of cases. (Pneumonic plague, while caused by the same bacterium as bubonic plague, is more virulent and attacks the respiratory system directly.)


...many of these [early versions of "Ring Around The Rosie"] could not possibly have anything to do with the Plague. They do seem to refer dancing games; Philip Hiscock, in fact, theorizes that such games might have been a way to get around Protestant bans on dancing in the late 18th and 19th centuries. (8) In fact, none of the early collections say anything about any connections with the Plague. So what's the rhyme really about? As the variations above show, this rhyme is likely no more than a bit of nonsense doggerel invented to go along with a game, and truly has no "deeper meaning."


It seems, therefore, that the plague explanation of "Ring around the Rosie" is a product of our own century, and was not the "original hidden meaning" of the rhyme. It is also interesting to note that I did not hear the Plague explanation until I was well into my twenties; I certainly never heard it as a child, and I have never heard it explained as a Plague reference by a child; but rather, it's always been related by other adults. Tantalizingly plausible as the explanation is, it cannot be backed up by credible evidence."...

Excerpt #3
Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason
July 24, 2014 by Stephen Winick
...A recent blog post at Londonist* [by James FitzGerald] describes “Five London Nursery Rhymes Depicting Death and Ruin.” The rhymes in question have diverse origins and histories, but what seems incontrovertible from James FitzGerald’s work is that they describe dark and portentous matters from English history.


FitzGerald’s text goes like this:

A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

FitzGerald states emphatically that this rhyme arose from the Great Plague, an outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plague that affected London in the year 1665

This interpretation emerged in the mid-twentieth century, and has become widespread, but it has never been accepted by folklorists, for several reasons. First, like most folklore items, this rhyme exists in many versions and variants. This allows us to ask whether the specific images associated with the plague occur in all or even most versions. It turns out they don’t. Many versions have no words that sound like sneezes, and many versions don’t mention falling down. For example, Iona and Peter Opie give an 1883 version (in which “curchey” is dialect for “curtsey”):

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

Moreover, in many versions , everyone gets up again once they have fallen down, which hardly makes sense if falling down represents death.

“Posies,” or bouquets of flowers, are almost universal in the song. However, many versions do not make them portable but install them in in pots or bottles, which doesn’t fit well with the plague interpretation. William Wells Newell, writing in 1883, gave several versions, including:

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


Ring around the rosie
Bottle full of posy
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie

On May 16, 1939, in Wiergate, Texas, John and Ruby Lomax collected an interesting version for the Library of Congress, from a group of African American schoolgirls. You can hear it in the player below. The words were as follows:

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!


None of these versions fits the plague interpretation very well, but they do reveal other functions and meanings: the rhyme is often used as a playful courtship game in which children dance in a ring, then suddenly stoop, squat, curtsey (“curchey”), or in some cases fall to the ground. The last to do so (or the one that jumps the gun) has to pay a penalty, which is sometimes to profess love for (or hug or kiss) another child. In some versions, this child then takes up a place in the middle of the ring, representing the “rosie” or rose bush. Newell explicitly states that the game was played like this in America in the 1880s, and European analogs from the same time and later are similar. In many versions, then, the roses and posies signify what flowers often signify in traditional European culture: not suffering and death, but joy and love.

The above observations show that “Ring Around the Rosie” is a “singing-game” or a “play-party song,” both of which are names for children’s dance songs. Plague theorists say it’s still possible that the plague was the original meaning, and that children pressed the rhyme into service for their games and dances. But there are other reasons, too, not to believe the plague story. For example, this rhyme and dance are internationally distributed, and records turn up on the European continent before they do in England. The Opies give versions from Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, among other places. Meanwhile, there’s no evidence the rhyme existed in English until the late 19th Century. Newell, writing in 1883, asserted that the rhyme was known in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1790, but he gave no evidence, and none has come to light. After this unsubstantiated claim, the rhyme doesn’t turn up in English until 1881. What evidence is there it survived undocumented since 1665?

The claim that the rhyme is related to pestilence is even younger; the folklorists who diligently recorded the rhyme itself in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries never mention the plague interpretation, although they surely would have had they known it. The first evidence I’ve seen that people were connecting the rhyme with death and disaster is from 1949, when the newspaper The Observer ran a parody of the rhyme beginning “ring-a-ring-o’-geranium, a pocketful of uranium” and referring to the bombing of Hiroshima. In 1951, we find the first direct reference to the plague interpretation: Iona and Peter Opie state that some people believe the rhyme refers to the plague, but are not themselves convinced.

Finally, there’s simply no direct evidence. Even if the rhyme itself remained unrecorded for two hundred years after the plague, various types of evidence might exist: a description of children playing dancing-games referring to roses and mocking the plague, or oral traditions of the earliest informants making the link. As it turns out, though, neither of these kinds of evidence has turned up, despite meticulous day-to-day accounts of life in London in 1665, and accounts of the Plague by people who lived through it. So today’s scholars want to know: how did the first person who claimed a connection between the events of 1665 and this rhyme find out about that connection, and why can’t we find whatever evidence he or she had?

All this makes scholars skeptical, to say the least. In 2010 English folklorist and librarian Steve Roud noted that “the Plague origin is complete nonsense,” and in the 1980s, the Opies (who first recorded and debunked the belief in 1951) wrote: “We ourselves have had to listen so often to this interpretation we are reluctant to go out of the house.”

Still, the story only seems to have grown stronger in the second half of the twentieth century, and this itself is interesting to folklorists. After all, the story is itself folklore: a tale that was passed on by word of mouth first, then in writing and online media. And because it is also about folklore, folklorists classify it as “metafolklore”: folklore about folklore.


There are also innumerable individual versions of this story, each with its own quirks. Because the plague can infect different parts of the body and cause different symptoms, because people know about or imagine different historical health practices, and because different versions of the rhyme have different specific words, plague stories vary widely in the correspondences they find between words and plague experiences: for some, “a-tishoo” signifies a sneeze, while for others “ashes” signify cremation. For supporters of pneumonic plague, the ring is a rosy skin rash, while for supporters of the bubonic plague it’s a red inflammation around a black buboe. In fact, observing the many different ways in which “Ring Around the Rosie” has been said to conform to real or supposed symptoms, it seems clear that the story did not grow from compelling evidence; rather, evidence has been gathered to support a compelling story.

Metafolkloric stories can be either accurate or inaccurate, but in either case, there’s usually a compelling reason we keep telling them, or a deeper truth they express. So one question folklorists like to ask is: “What has been so interesting to people about this story?” That’s a hard question to answer, but we can note certain patterns in the kinds of people who tell it. It’s very appealing to historians, for whom a glimpse of the distant past in the present is always exciting. It’s especially compelling to historians of the plagues themselves; in fact, standard works about the 1347 plague and the 1665 plague recount the story as fact. Part of the task of such historians is to explain how the plague has continued to influence our lives, and the chance to mention a rhyme everyone knows and connect it to this deep history is irresistible. Secondly, the story is often told by advocates for particular places. Travel blogs spread the Eyam story, while Londonist “celebrates London and everything that happens in it.” Advocates for medical education and even for sanitary sewers have used the song’s supposed connection to disease to suggest that their particular expertise remains relevant to anyone who has heard this common rhyme. Finally, there are many people with a love of the macabre, and nothing is more disturbing than the idea of little children playing to a description of pestilence and death.”….

Excerpt #4
Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Ring-a-ring-of-roses
Date: 08 May 00 - 05:41 PM

"I don't think any modern folklorist would accept any association of the song with the plague. Steve Roud, Secretary of the Folklore Society, London, specifically denounced that association several months ago on a subscription newsgroup."

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