You are here

A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

Ring-a-ring-a-roses, or Round the ring of roses, or Ring around the rosie, or many, many other variations1Library of Congress:, including written in German, Swiss, Greek, Indian and even Māori2Wikipedia: Ring a Ring o’ Roses – Wikipedia, is a song which many will have learnt as children and been told that it originates from the time of The Plague, and describes its symptoms. Unfortunately, that cannot be corroborated!

BBC Bitesize (a free, on-line set of blogs aimed to help home-learning during the recent Covid outbreak) mentions the

Some people claim the nursery rhyme ‘Ring-a-ring-o’-roses’ is about the plague:

  • The ‘roses’ are the red blotches on the skin.
  • The ‘posies’ are the sweet-smelling flowers people carried to try to ward off the plague.
  • ‘Atishoo’ refers to the sneezing fits of people with pneumonic plague.
  • ‘We all fall down’ refers to people dying.

Others believe that it’s just a nonsense rhyme. The fact that people are willing to believe that the nursery rhyme is about the plague shows how much importance it is still given today. 

And that succinct paragraph encapsulates the whole argument.

The Library of Congress mentions that many variations do not use the ‘sneeze’, sometimes it is a curtsey, or that the posy is in some variations described as ‘pots’ or ‘bottles’ of flowers, and finally if the ‘all fall down’ is to indicate death, why get up again? Their interpretation leads towards a childlike courtship ritual as recorded by John & Ruby Lomax in 1939, Wiergate Texas:

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!

The children dance in a ring, then suddenly stoop, squat, curtsey, 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; the roses and posies signify what flowers often signify in traditional European culture, not suffering and death, but joy and love!

There are no references to ‘Ring a rosie’ immediately post-plague, and neither are there any earlier than 1881 according to K Greenway4K Greenway, Mother Goose; or, The old nursey rhyme, pub Routledge 1881. The earliest, uncorroborated, variation supposedly coming from Connecticut in the 1840s5Newell, William Wells (1884) [1883]. Games and Songs of American Children. New York: Harper & Brothers. pp. 127–128 refers to “this little round, universally familiar in America, Germany and Provence”, and was collated from New Bedford, Mass., (about 1790).

Thought must also be put to the specific symptoms: the ‘ring ‘a rosie’ supposedly represents the rash which appeared on the afflicted, however the Bubonic Plague was named after buboes, or large swellings of the lymph system which could become blackened. Posies could suggest herbs which were used as a preventive and cure, but not in ‘pots’ or ‘bottles’. Sneezing was not necessarily a widespread sign of the common plague but more usual in the least prevalent version, the pneumonic plague.

Overall, opinion has to be that a song with so many difficulties, no provenance to the period concerned and not even faithful to the symptoms cannot be believed to represent a sickness so tragic.

However, credence must be given that the basic, child’s ditty can be found world-wide and why would that happen for this particular song? Did it follow the transmission of the disease?

We may never know!