Ring Around The Rosie, The Plague, and The Black Death

by Lindsay Shapka in ,

Ring Around the Rosie (or Ring-a-Ring o'Roses if you are from the UK) is a nursery rhyme that many of us have recited on the playground at one time or another. Though it has been part of the Mother Goose collection of folksongs since 1881, this rhyme may have been recited as early as the 1790s all over Europe, and has a pretty dark history.

Though some scholars disagree, legend says that the song describes either the Black Death of 1347 or the Great Plague in 1665. The Black Death was a horrible plague that struck Europe, Asia and Africa killing 30-60% of Europe's population and giving rise to a culture of death. The Great Plague stayed mostly in England, but wiped out entire families, filling the streets with bodies.

Swollen lymph nodes with a red, rosy rash around them was a symptom of the plague relating to the line "Ring-a-round a rosie."

"A pocket full of posies" refers to the posies of herbs that were carried by those that were not yet ill to ward off the smell (essentially a 14th century air freshener, as those cursed with the plague gave off a horrible smell as their bodies began to rot from the inside out) and as superstitious protection.

Bodies, and the homes of the dead, were burned to try and rid the streets of the infection, hence the line "Ashes! Ashes!" In the British version of the rhyme, this line reads "A-tishoo! A-tishoo!" which could refer to the sneezing and coughing that was one of the final symptoms of the disease.  

The apocalyptic nature of the plague is felt in the final line of the poem "We all fall down", as hundreds of people literally dropped dead, often without warning.

Makes you think twice about teaching this nursery rhyme to any of the children in your life, doesn't it....