ring around the rosie

The children’s rhyme Ring Around the Rosie is not a reference to the Black Death of the Middle Ages, as is commonly touted by some. Instead, it is simply a rhyme about picking flowers and falling asleep after a long day of play.

The earliest recorded version of the rhyme appears in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose from 1881:

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Hush! hush! hush! hush!
We’re all tumbled down

The rhyme appears almost simultaneously in America, published in an American book of children’s rhymes in 1883. In that book, Games and Songs of American Children, William Wells Newell claims, that the following version was common among the children of Massachusetts in 1790 (although he provides no evidence to support this earlier date):

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

Newell also published a different version of the rhyme, one that explains the falling down line and he provides some commentary on how the children played the game and what the words mean:

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

Newell comments:

At the end of the words the children suddenly stoop, and the last to get down undergoes some penalty, or has to take the place of the child in the centre, who represents the rosie (rose-tree; French, rosier).

The modern version is commonly repeated as:

Ring around the rosie
A pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes
We all fall down

The bubonic plague goes like this. Ring around the rosie refers to buboes on the skin. A pocket full of posies refers to flowers kept in the pocket to ward off the disease. Ashes, ashes is a reference to death, as in “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The common variant of the third line, Atishoo, atishoo, is a reference to sneezing and sickness. Finally, falling down is a representation of death.

The biggest problem with this explanation is that it does not conform to the earliest versions of the rhyme. If the rhyme were truly some sort of tribal memory of the Black Death, then the earlier versions should match the explanation more closely, not less. Another issue is the the claim that rose or rosie refers to buboes. There is no evidence that these words were ever used to describe the lesions caused by the disease. Finally, the earliest printed version of the rhyme is from 1881, some 225 years after the last great plague struck England, and some 550 years after the Black Death of the 14th century—the outbreak most commonly associated with the bubonic plague. For the folkloric explanation to be true, the rhyme would have to have remained underground for over two centuries, defying the efforts of numerous recorders of folklore, and then finally appear in the form of a children’s nursery rhyme. Words and phrases can remain underground a long time, but not that long.

(Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Newell’s Games and Songs of American Children.)

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