Was “Ring Around the Rosie” about the Bubonic Plague?

“Ring Around the Rosie” has been a popular nursery rhyme for a very long time. Many of us learned it when we were children. But we often hear people claim that the rhyme is traceable to the time of the Black Death, and that each line is a morbid reminder of the horrors of Bubonic Plague.

Here’s the most common version of the rhyme:

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

“A ring around the rosie” is said to refer to skin lesions that were symptomatic of plague infection, and “a pocketful of posies” is said to refer to flowers whose scent many people believed could prevent them from becoming sick. Finally, the lines, “Ashes, ashes – we all fall down” sound a lot like an oblique reference to dying, as in “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.”

At face value, this myth seems plausible. Even though the words sound like nonsense, the explanation seems almost obvious in hindsight. But alas, Buzzkillers, Ring Around the Rosie is just a nursery rhyme that, like most nursery rhymes, has no particular reference to any event. In other words, it is what you always thought it was before somebody told you otherwise: a silly rhyme for children to play games with.

How do we know that this rhyme is just as innocent as it sounds?

Well, for one thing, the earliest printed copy of Ring Around the Rosie does not appear until 1881, in the Mother Goose book famously illustrated by Kate Greenaway. But the Bubonic Plague began around 1347. In order to believe that this rhyme has anything to do with the Plague, you must first believe that millions of children and their parents transmitted the rhyme orally – exclusively orally – for over 500 years. Had the rhyme really been popular for over half a millennium, it would likely have been written down during that time, but there’s no evidence that anybody ever did.

Further, there are many variations on Ring Around the Rosie that obviously have nothing to do with death or disease – and all of them originated in the 19th century, not the 14th century. To take just one example, you would need a lot of imagination to read any plague reference into the version of the rhyme that goes like this:

Ring, a ring o’ roses
A pocketful o’ posies
Upstairs and downstairs,
In my lady’s chamber –
Husher! Husher! Cuckoo!

Finally, the first published record of anybody interpreting Ring Around the Rosie as a plague rhyme is The Plague and the Fire, by James Leasor, published in 1961. If this nursery rhyme is really about death and disease, it sure took us a long time to find out.

What does Ring Around the Rosie really mean? Not much. It’s like “A Tisket, A Tasket” or “Hey Diddle Diddle.” Almost all these children’s rhymes and songs are made up of words that sound good together, that are easy to remember, and perhaps most of all, that can have physical play (like forming a circle and all falling down at the same time) attached to them.

So there you have it, Buzzkillers. Ring Around the Rosie is just as silly as it sounds.

Buzzkill Bookshelf:

Iona Opie and Peter Opie (editors), The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1997).

The classic anthology of nursery rhymes–over 500 rhymes, songs, nonsense jingles, and lullabies traditionally handed down to young children.

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