Ring A Ring O’Roses
There are a number of variants to this familiar nursery rhyme which was not published (in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose) until 1881. The version that English readers will be familiar with goes as follows, “Ring-a-ring o’roses/ a pocket full of posies/ A-tishoo! A-tishoo!/ We all fall down”. A common American version replaces the last two lines with “Ashes! Ashes! / We all fall down” and another, which dates from around 1790 in Massachusetts, went “Ring a ring a Rosie/ A bottle full of posie/ All the girls in our town/ Ring for little Josie”.
But the rhyme is not restricted to English-speaking countries. A very similar one was published in Germany in 1796 where three children sit under an elder bush and going hush, hush, hush (Ringel, ringel, reihe). There is a Swiss version where the children dance around a rose bush and in Venice, the rhyme gira, gira rosa features a game where girls dance round a girl standing in the middle of the circle who skips and curtsies as demanded by the narrative until the end when she kisses her favourite who then has to stand in the centre.
The game which is most closely associated with the English variant has a group of children forming a circle by holding hands As the rhyme demands they then mimic the act of sneezing and all fall down. The Old Homestead, a novel by Ann S Stephens published in 1855, describes a game of Ring, ring a rosy played by children in New York. So the game, and probably the rhyme, is far older than its first English citing.
So what is it all about? Before I started looking into the subject I had assumed that it had something to do with disease, either the Great Plague of 1665 or, perhaps, the bubonic plague. Some have argued that the rosy rash was a symptom of the plague and that bunches of herbs were carried as posies to ward off the disease and protect against the smell of putrefying flesh. Of course, sneezing could be one of the symptoms of disease and the act of falling down could represent the death of the victim. At first sight, this explanation is very plausible. The ashes variant could refer to the either the burning of victims or the blackening of the skin as another symptom.
But there are a number of reasons to believe that this isn’t the real origin of the rhyme. Firstly, there are other variants of the rhyme which, together with the actions of the dance which accompanies it, suggests that the fall was not a literal fall but rather akin to a curtsey or some other form of acknowledgement. The European variants of the rhyme also suggest that the English version is not necessarily the original. The Great Plague of 1665 was a variant of the bubonic plague and the key symptoms were swellings of the lymph glands and vomiting and fever – not sneezing.
But the killer argument against this interpretation is that the plague theories have only appeared pretty much after the Second World War. Earlier attempts to explain the rhyme did not draw the connection. What we have, I believe, is a rhyme which describes a folk custom of dancing around a bush with accompanying actions and a conclusion which adds a dramatic end to the game or, as in the Venetian variant, a means whereby the next person to stand in the centre of the circle can be selected. Attractive as it may be I think we can consign the plague theory to the bin of rustic myths.