Ring-a-Ring o' Roses
[ Issue 14 ]

'Ring-a-Ring o' Roses' intrigues Emily Bronto

Bikwil is pleased to present 'Ring-a-Ring o' Roses'

Ring-a-Ring o' Roses

Tony Rogers here poses the following question:

"Does the nursery rhyme Ring-a-Ring o' Roses really commemorate an outbreak of bubonic plague?"

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Rhyme or Reason — Tony Rogers


There I was, happy and secure in the conviction that the following nursery rhyme commemorates a specific historical event:

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

That event being, of course, either the Great Plague of London (1664-6) which killed 70,000 people in south-east England, or possibly the Black Death, which in five years in the middle of the 14th century wiped out a full third of Europe‘s population.

Well, I’m here to confess to you that I’ve learned the error of my ways. It would seem that modern experts, including Iona and Peter Opie (editors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, 1951) and Gloria T. Delamar (Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, 1987), are very sceptical of the idea of any bubonic plague being the inspiration for Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses.

It is tempting, of course, to see a plague as the source of the rhyme. The “roses” could plausibly refer to the rash that always accompanies the disease, the “posies” to herbs and spices used to sweeten the air, while “a-tishoo” would represent the sneezing, and “we all fall down” would imply inevitable death. A related conjecture would have it that the “ring” referred to the red spot that marked the onset of the disease.

No doubt, the belief arose because a handful of nursery rhymes do derive from historical events or personalities, like Little Jack Horner (Thomas Horner of Mells), The Brave Old Duke of York (probably George III’s son, Frederick), Jack Sprat (Archdeacon Pratt), and Humpty-Dumpty (Richard III — maybe). Nevertheless, as a rule,

[a]lthough many ingenious theories have been advanced attributing hidden significance, especially political allusions, to nursery rhymes, there is no reason to suppose they are any more arcane than the popular songs of the day. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

For Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses the case today seems clear. It is no more than a nursery chant, first recorded in print in 1881, one “which instantly rises from the lips of small children whenever they join hands in a circle”. (Opie) There are several variants of the song, and in none of them do the words imply any reference to the Great Plague. Furthermore,

. . . the time-lapse between the plague and the appearance of the game, diminishes . . . [the plague] theory. Satires are almost always written about then-current events . . . The [plague] interpretations continue to surface, however, probably because people in some perverse way would like to believe that the innocent rhyme has a grim history. (Delamar)

(The Black Death, of course was even more remote in time from the first appearance of Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses, and thus even less likely to be the idea behind the verse.)

In short, the whole far-fetched bubonic edifice can be seen — if I may be so bold to put it in this non-Shakespearian way — as no more than the speculative jerry-building of “a house on both your plagues”.

Yet if you thought all that was too much, consider this. There’s a fellow on the Internet, one Rich Stoney, who believes strongly that “some versions of Ring a-round a Rosy are based on the mythology of the Hindu god Shiva”.

In particular, he identifies the rhyme’s source as Shiva’s Dance of Bliss, which “re-energizes life”. From his point of view, the sneezing interpretation of “A-tishoo!” is quite wrong:

I suggest that in reality, it is coughing as a result of his violent dance actions during which mountains are flattened and the cosmos themselves [sic] are destroyed.

Those who have recovered sufficiently to read on may now relax to the sound of a nice example of a 1949 parody which the Opies provide:

Ring-a-ring o’ geranium,
A pocket full of uranium,
Hiro, Shima,
All fall down.

The Oxford Dictionary has a germane quote, too, albeit a quite mysterious one, from The Times (1/4/1974, 1/8):

Strong men blenched and broke into a sweat of embarrassment when made to dance "Ring-a-ring o’ roses" in public outside Guildhall.

Tarnation seize me! What was going on outside Guildhall? If one of our readers gets to check this out before I do, I’d love to hear the full story.

But note that date.

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