Historical note: After a discussion yesterday regarding plague doctor costumes, I was reminded of this article. This piece was written back when the fact-checking source Snopes, which came out of the old alt.folklore.urban Usenet groups, was primarily devoted to debunking urban legends. This explanation of the “true” meaning of the song is still out there (for instance, here is one from 2015 and here is another from 2017), although I’ve heard it circulating far less in SCA circles. The piece’s main premise–that assuming that something is true because someone gives a plausible explanation without citing sources should be avoided–is even more true today. This article was published in Tournaments Illuminated.
I remember the first time I heard the explanation of the “real meaning” of “Ring around the Rosie.” It was at a historical talk I was helping present to a group of fourth graders, and a fellow participant gave the kids an explanation that, to my ears, made some sense: this rhyme referred to the Black Death. Doubtless, many of you will have heard it:
—“Ring around the Rosie”–refers to a red mark, supposedly the first sign of the plague
—“A pocket full of posies”– refers to sachets of herbs carried to ward off infection
—“Ashes, ashes” –either a reference to the cremation of plague victims or to the words said in the funeral Mass…”Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Sometimes line three is rendered as “Atischoo, atischoo”–sneezing, another sign of infection.
—“We all fall down.” — The Plague was not selective in its victims; both rich and poor, young and old, succumbed.
This explanation is seemingly plausible. Many rhymes and fairy tales are quite old; and tales which the modern reader might consider “gruesome” were certainly in circulation in the Middle Ages and early modern era. Why not this one? I know I passed it on myself a number of times. However, when I started reading the Internet newsgroup devoted to the study of urban legends (alt.folklore.urban) (1), I quickly discovered that folklorists generally discounted the plague origins theory.
I know a number of people have read this explanation in credible (or seemingly so) sources such as medical journals and Smithsonian magazine. Many have also seen reference made to it in history programs on A&E and the like. Surely, these people have done their research! Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Even academics sometimes spread misinformation, especially tasty tidbits like this one. So, where to turn for a reliable explanation? The people who spend their lives studying the oral and written tradition of rhymes like this one are folklorists, and it is to them that we should look for evidence of the rhyme’s antiquity and origins.
But first, a bit of historical background. 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 century.
From a purely historical standpoint, there are inherent 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 any variety (bubonic, septicemic, 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. Even in these cases, coughing is the more frequently-observed symptom.
So let us turn to the evolution of the rhyme itself. The first reported version of the rhyme is in William Wells Newell’s Games and Songs of American Children, 1883. Wells dates it to 1790 in New Bedford, Mass., and it goes as follows:
Ring a ring a rosie
A bottle full of posie
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie.(4)
Notice here in this earliest version (which is still more than 100 years after the last cited outbreak of the plague in England in 1665) how difficult it would be to interpret this as having anything to do with the plague.
The earliest published version is in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose, (1881). It goes as follows:
Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Hush! hush! hush! hush!
We’re all tumbled down. (5)
There are numerous other variants in the late 19th and early 20th century extant in collections of childrens’ rhymes and songs. Here are two of them:
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! (6)
Ring, a ring o’ roses,
A pocket full o’ posies;
Up-stairs and down-stairs,
In my lady’s chamber–
Husher! Husher! Cuckoo! (7)
Clearly, many of these variants 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 the 20th 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.
(1) Alt. folklore.urban (was) a very active newsgroup devoted to the study of urban legends. A classic urban legend, for example, is “The Mexican Pet”–where a tourist brings home with her from Mexico what she believes is a Chihuahua, and what turns out to be a large sewer rat. “Ring around the Rosie” is not a classic urban legend in this sense, but does fall under the larger heading of folklore which “everyone knows” is true.
(2) Hiscock, Philip. “Said and Done,” St. John’s Express, 27 January 1991.
Hiscock mentions that the most recent important article on the rhyme, and the interpretation he follows, is that of Marion Bowman, “Ring-a-ring-a-roses: A Play on Plague or a Plague on Play?”, Talking Folklore 7 (August 1989) pp.1-14.
(3) I have my own theory as to why popular imagination believes that burning the bodies of plague victims impedes the spread of the disease: The Great Plague of London of 1665-6 was followed almost immediately by the Great Fire of 1666. Although by that time, the plague had mostly subsided, it disappeared completely after the Fire, which destroyed 4/5 of the City of London (and likely either killed or drove out many of the city’s rats and eliminated a great many old and unsanitary buildings.)
(4)Cited by Munro, Ian. Ring around the Rosie Mini-FAQ http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~imunro/ring.html (1996). This is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in a succinct debunking of the “Rosie” myth.
(6) Jackson, G.F. Shropshire Folk-Lore (1883), cited by Ian Munro’s FAQ.
(7) Gomme, Alice The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1898), cited by Ian Munro’s FAQ.
(8) Hiscock, op.cit.