A recent blog post at Londonist 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.
Or do they? Looking closely at these rhymes, and at scholarship surrounding them, suggests other interpretations. I’ll discuss one of the rhymes in particular, because it tells us interesting things about folklore and our ideas about folklore: “Ring Around the Rosie,” or “Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses,” as it’s sometimes known.
FitzGerald’s text goes like this:
A pocket full of posies,
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:
Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses is all about the Great Plague; the apparent whimsy being a foil for one of London’s most atavistic dreads (thanks to the Black Death). The fatalism of the rhyme is brutal: the roses are a euphemism for deadly rashes, the posies a supposed preventative measure; the a-tishoos pertain to sneezing symptoms, and the implication of everyone falling down is, well, death.
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.
If the plague story is folklore, we would expect to encounter it in different versions and variants. And so we do. The two main variants are the Londonist’s claim that the rhyme refers to the Great Plague of 1665, and others’ claims that it stems from the Black Death of 1347. Within these two main variants, there are sub-variants: in particular, FitzGerald and others say the 1665 rhyme originated in London, while others say it came from Eyam, a village in the English Midlands that was also infected with plague in 1665. One article even claims Eyam children sang it “while dancing around the victims!”
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.
Our love for the plague story goes deeper than the agendas of a few interest groups, though. Even professors who know it’s not true can’t resist telling it! Folklorists know better than anyone the fascination with things that are older than they seem, and with “extraordinary origins of everyday things.” Some founders of the discipline of folklore espoused the theory of survivals, which held that cultural materials such as nursery rhymes preserved information from the past that was otherwise forgotten. To adherents of this theory, a shard of pottery, a riddle, or a child’s jingle could be the key that unlocked the mythology of the distant past, and the folklorist’s task was to interpret or decode the cryptic messages within these fragments. In fact, the irony is that the plague story resembles nothing so much as a nineteenth-century folklorist’s interpretation of the rhyme, but today’s folklorists often express annoyance with the tale’s persistence. Maybe it reminds us too much of ourselves.
In any case, we certainly understand its appeal: in the marketplace of ideas, a good story often outsells mere facts.
Do you know an interesting story about a nursery rhyme that you’re curious about? Leave us a comment below!
Several of the books cited above with links to their Library of Congress catalog records are also available elsewhere as free electronic resources. The Library of Congress can’t always vouch for the quality of reproduction, the accuracy of the text, or the beauty of the presentation, but they may be useful to our readers. These items are in the public domain:
Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes, illustrated by Kate Greenaway
Ring O’ Roses, by Leonard Leslie Brooke
A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1659-1669, edited by Henry B. Wheatley