Kate Greenaway’s mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes (1881) to be the very first publication of “Ring roughly the Rosie” in English. Her illustration was published in 1881 and is because of this in the public domain.

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A current blog post at Londonist describes “Five London Nursery Rhymes depicting Death and Ruin.” The rhymes in question have varied origins and also histories, yet what seems incontrovertible indigenous James FitzGerald’s work is the they describe dark and portentous matters from English history.

Or do they? Looking carefully at these rhymes, and at scholarship bordering them, argues other interpretations. I’ll talk about one of the rhymes in particular, due to the fact that it speak us amazing things about folklore and our ideas about folklore: “Ring about the Rosie,” or “Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses,” together it’s occasionally known.

FitzGerald’s message goes favor this:

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

FitzGerald states emphatically that this rhyme developed from the an excellent Plague, break out of bubonic and also pneumonic pester that influenced London in the year 1665:

Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses is all around the an excellent Plague; the evident whimsy being a foil for among London’s many atavistic dreads (thanks come the black color Death). The fatalism the the luck is brutal: the roses are a euphemism for deadly rashes, the posies a claimed preventative measure; the a-tishoos pertain to sneezing symptoms, and the implication of anyone falling down is, well, death.

This interpretation emerged in the mid-twentieth century, and has become widespread, but it has never been embraced by folklorists, for numerous reasons. First, like many folklore items, this rhyme exist in plenty of versions and also variants. This enables us to ask whether the specific images connected with the plague occur in all or even most versions. It turns out they don’t. Plenty of versions have actually no words the sound choose sneezes, and also many execution don’t mention falling down. Because that example, Iona and Peter Opie offer an 1883 version (in i m sorry “curchey” is language for “curtsey”):

A ring, a ring o’rosesA pocket complete of posiesOne because that Jack and also one because that Jim and also one for small MosesA curchey in and also a curchey outAnd a curchey all together

Moreover, in numerous versions , everyone gets increase again once they have actually fallen down, i beg your pardon hardly makes sense if falling under represents death.

“Posies,” or bouquets of flowers, are practically universal in the song. However, plenty of versions execute not make them portable yet install lock in in pots or bottles, which doesn’t to the right well with the plague interpretation. Wilhelm Wells Newell, writing in 1883, provided several versions, including:

Round the ring that rosesPots full of posiesThe one that stoops lastShall tell who she loves best


Ring about the rosieBottle complete of posyAll the girl in our townRing for little Josie

On may 16, 1939, in Wiergate, Texas, John and also Ruby Lomax accumulated an exciting version for the Library of Congress, native a group of african American schoolgirls. You have the right to hear it in the player below. The words were together follows:

Ring about a RoseyPocketful o’ posiesLight bread, sweet bread, squat!Guess that she called me, tralalalalaMr. Red was her lover, tralalalalaIf you love him, hug him!If you hate him, stomp!

None of this versions fits the afflict interpretation really well, but they carry out reveal other functions and also meanings: the happiness is regularly used together a happy courtship game in which kids dance in a ring, then suddenly stoop, squat, curtsey (“curchey”), or in some cases fall to the ground. The critical to execute so (or the one that jumps the gun) has to pay a penalty, i beg your pardon is periodically to profess love for (or hug or kiss) an additional child. In some versions, this son then takes up a ar in the middle of the ring, representing the “rosie” or increased bush. Newell clearly states that the video game was played prefer this in America in the 1880s, and European analogs native the same time and also later room similar. In numerous versions, then, the roses and posies signify what flower often denote in timeless European culture: not suffering and also death, yet joy and love.


Children playing “Ring roughly the Rosie” in Chicago, Illinois, April, 1941. Photo by Edwin Rosskam. Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.centregalilee.com.gov/centregalilee.com.pnp/fsa.8a15771

The over observations present that “Ring roughly the Rosie” is a “singing-game” or a “play-party song,” both that which space names because that children’s run songs. Plague theorists say it’s still feasible that the torment was the original meaning, and that youngsters pressed the happiness into service for your games and also dances. However there are other reasons, too, no to think the plague story. For example, this rhyme and dance are around the world distributed, and also records turn up ~ above the europe continent before they execute in England. The Opies offer versions from Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, among other places. Meanwhile, there’s no proof the rhyme exist in English until the so late 19th Century. Newell, composing in 1883, asserted the the rhyme was known in brand-new Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1790, yet he gave no evidence, and also none has involved light. After ~ this unsubstantiated claim, the rhyme doesn’t rotate up in English till 1881. What evidence is there it survived undocumented because 1665?


Title web page of The disastrous Visitation: in a quick account of the progress and effects the the plague by Daniel Defoe. This is among several contemporary accounts the the pester year, nobody of i m sorry mentions anything resembling “Ring approximately the Rosie.” Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.centregalilee.com.gov/centregalilee.com.pnp/cph.3b41405

The case that the luck is regarded pestilence is also younger; the folklorists who diligently videotaped the rhyme chin in the nineteenth and also early twentieth centuries never point out the pester interpretation, although they surely would have had actually they known it. The first evidence I’ve checked out that civilization were connecting the rhyme with death and also disaster is from 1949, once the newspaper The Observer ran a parody the the rhyme start “ring-a-ring-o’-geranium, a pocketful that uranium” and also referring to the bombing of Hiroshima. In 1951, we discover the first direct recommendation to the pester interpretation: Iona and Peter Opie state that some people think the rhyme describes the plague, however are no themselves convinced.

Finally, there’s simply no straight evidence. Also if the luck itself remained unrecorded because that two century after the plague, various species of evidence can exist: a description of youngsters playing dancing-games referring to roses and mocking the plague, or oral traditions of the earliest informants do the link. Together it transforms out, though, neither of these type of evidence has turn up, in spite of meticulous day-to-day account of life in London in 1665, and also accounts of the torment by people who lived through it. For this reason today’s scholars desire to know: exactly how did the first person who declared a connection in between the events of 1665 and also this rhyme find out around that connection, and why can’t we uncover whatever proof he or she had?

All this makes scholars skeptical, come say the least. In 2010 English folklorist and librarian Steve Roud detailed that “the Plague beginning is finish nonsense,” and also in the 1980s, the Opies (who an initial recorded and debunked the belief in 1951) wrote: “We ourself have had to hear so often to this interpretation we room reluctant to go the end of the house.”

Still, the story just seems to have grown stronger in the second half of the twentieth century, and this itself is exciting to folklorists. After ~ all, the story is itself folklore: a tale that to be passed ~ above by native of mouth first, climate in writing and online media. And also because the is also around folklore, folklorists divide it as “metafolklore”: folklore around folklore.


The cover of Leonard Leslie Brooke’s Ring O’ Roses shows nursery rhyme characters performing “Ring roughly the Rosie.” The book was first published in 1922 and the image is as such in the general public domain.

If the afflict story is folklore, we would intend to encounter it in different versions and also variants. And so we do. The two main variants space the Londonist’s insurance claim that the rhyme describes the an excellent Plague the 1665, and also others’ cases that that stems native the Black fatality of 1347. Within these two key variants, there are sub-variants: in particular, FitzGerald and others to speak the 1665 rhyme originated in London, while others say it come from Eyam, a village in the English Midlands the was likewise infected with plague in 1665. One short article even cases Eyam kids sang it “while dancing around the victims!”

There are likewise innumerable separation, personal, instance versions that this story, each v its own quirks. Because the plague have the right to infect various parts that the body and cause different symptoms, because people know about or imagine various historical wellness practices, and also because different versions the the rhyme have actually different certain words, plague stories vary widely in the dong 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 rose skin rash, if for pendant of the bubonic pester it’s a red inflammation about a black color buboe. In fact, observing the countless different means in which “Ring approximately the Rosie” has been said to conform to genuine or supposed symptoms, it seems clear the the story go not grow from compelling evidence; rather, evidence has to be gathered to support a compelling story.

Metafolkloric stories have the right to be either accurate or inaccurate, yet in either case, there’s typically a compelling reason we save telling them, or a deeper reality they express. So one question folklorists like to asking is: “What has actually been so exciting to people about this story?” That’s a difficult question come answer, however we have the right to note particular patterns in the kinds of human being who phone call it. It’s an extremely appealing come historians, because that whom a glimpse of the remote past in the existing is constantly exciting. It’s particularly compelling to chroniclers of the plagues themselves; in fact, typical works about the 1347 plague and also the 1665 pester recount the story together fact. Part of the job of such historians is to explain how the pester has continued to affect our lives, and the chance to cite a rhyme anyone knows and also connect it to this deep background is irresistible. Secondly, the story is often told by proponents for specific places. Take trip centregalilee.com spread out the Eyam story, while Londonist “celebrates London and everything the happens in it.” supporters for clinical education and also even because that sanitary sewers have used the song’s supposed connection to disease to indicate that their details expertise remains appropriate to everyone who has heard this common rhyme. Finally, there are many world with a love the the macabre, and nothing is much more disturbing than the idea of little children playing to a summary of pestilence and death.

Our love for the pester story go deeper 보다 the agendas that a couple of interest groups, though.  even professors who recognize it’s not true can’t withstand telling it!  Folklorists know far better than anyone the fascination with things that room older than they seem, and also with “extraordinary origins of daily things.” some founders that the discipline of folklore espoused the theory of survivals, which held that social materials such together nursery rhymes preserved information from the previous that to be otherwise forgotten. Come adherents that this theory, a shard of pottery, a riddle, or a child’s jingle could be the key that uncentregalilee.comked the mythology the the remote past, and the folklorist’s task was to interpret or decode the cryptic messages within these fragments. In fact, the irony is the the torment story each other nothing so much as a nineteenth-century folklorist’s translate of the rhyme, but today’s folklorists regularly express annoyance v the tale’s persistence. Maybe it reminds united state too much of ourselves.

In any case, we definitely understand the appeal: in the marketplace the ideas, a an excellent story regularly outsells just facts.

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Do you know an exciting story around a nursery rhyme that you’re curious about?  Leave us a comment below!


Several the the publications cited over with links to your Library of Congress magazine records are also available elsewhere as totally free electronic resources.  The Library of congress can’t always vouch because that the top quality of reproduction, the accuracy the the text, or the beauty, beauty of the presentation, however they might be valuable to our readers.  these items room in the general public domain:

Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes, illustrated by Kate Greenaway

Ring O’ Roses, by Leonard Leslie Brooke

A journal of the torment Year, by Daniel Defoe

The Diary the Samuel Pepys, 1659-1669, edited by Henry B. Wheatley


Lisa P.July 24, 2014 in ~ 3:32 pm

One that I have sometimes heard is that “Mary, Mary, quite Contrary” is a reference to mary Stuart, Queen the Scots. I have actually my doubts, yet would be interested in knowing an ext about the idea.

Patricia A. AtkinsonJuly 24, 2014 in ~ 3:56 pm

” naught is an ext disturbing 보다 the idea of tiny children play to a description of pestilence and also death” – Actually, the idea of tiny children dancing and also singing approximately actual torment victims is much more disturbing, at the very least to me!