"Ring Around the Rosy"

"Ring Around the Rosy"

In preschools throughout the country one nursery song is among the first in toddlers' repertoire of circle games. A group of small children will, with very little prompting, form a ring, join hands, and dance together in a circle, singing merrily at the top of their lungs, "Ring around the rosy." This delightful little song comes from a time when death was the byword in Europe. It was the time of the Black Death.

In the mid—fourteenth century the devastating bubonic plague struck Europe. The name referred to the black spots, or buboes, that appeared on the victims as the result of hemorrhages under the skin. The spots were always surrounded by large, distinct reddish rashes. The Black Death was caused by the bacterium Pasteurella pestis and carried by fleas on rodents. The plague entered Europe by way of Asiatic black rats on merchant ships, arriving in southern Italy in 1347. It quickly spread, via the trade routes, to Spain and France. It reached England in 1348, Germany in 1349, and Russian in 1350.

When the disease struck, Europe was almost helpless to combat it. The people had no natural immunity to the disease, and standards of public health and personal hygiene in those days were, to say the least, quite low. Medical science and the clergy couldn't cope and, whenever possible, retreated from contract with infectious people. In the absence of any known cause, people arrived at the inescapable conclusion that it was a pestilence visited by an angry deity on a very sinful world.

It was not until the end of the fourteenth century that the rat was suspected. Rats had overrun Europe since the beginning of the century, destroying crops, grain, and property and attacking children and infants. This is when good and evil were sharply divided, and aligned with Satan, witches, and demons were domestic cats. They were persecuted, hunted down, and killed in every European country. Cat owners also faced the fires of the Inquisition, so most people acquiesced to the legal and religious ruling to exterminating them. The rare, outlying homes and farms that harbored cats were relatively free of rats and the plague.

No one is sure just what the mortality rate was, because public records were kept very haphazardly during the climax of the plague. Since the records were unreliable, modern researchers can only estimate how many people died. Authorities now agree that about one—third of Europe's population succumbed to the Black Death between 1347 and 1350. This means that over twenty—five million people died of the disease.

It was in England that the nursery rhyme originated, but certainly not as a child's game. During the high point of the plague people became so accustomed to the struggle with death that mass hysteria was not uncommon. The populace gathered frequently in the streets and danced hysterically in anticipation of "tomorrow we die." Dancers leaped, screamed, and sang verses to the overshadowing Black Death. People of all ages often danced and sang together in large groups until complete exhaustion took hold and the revelers dropped to the ground. There is little doubt that frantic dancing relieved the anxiety that people felt.

The dancing and singing continued long after the plague was over, but no longer did people of all ages participate. The dance became light—hearted and was taken up by children who continued to dance in circles, singing similar words, but with a rhyme. The essential meaning of the song has been forgotten as younger children transformed it into what is now a dancing game. They could not understand that they are describing a disease that devastated populations of their ancestors and rewrote the history of Europe.

Thus, in all innocence, children have for centuries sung a nursery rhyme with strangely somber undertones. Between 1347 and 1881, when the rhyme first appeared in print in Kate Greenaway's Mother Goose, "Ring Around the Rosy" ceased to be the gruesome parody of the Black Death of fourteenth—century England.

Originally, "ring—a—ring o' roses" referred to the red rashlike areas on people who were afflicted. "A pocket full of poises" alluded to the belief that evil smells associated with the plague were the poisonous breath of demons who cause the disease. Therefore, the aroma of herbs or flowers would ward off the evil smell of death. "A—tishoo! A—tishoo!" addressed the constant sneezing of plague victims, a common symptom. This line, now sung "ashes, ashes," suggests the final demise, or "ashes to ashes." The concluding line, "We all fall down," refers to what millions of people did. They fell down dead!

Some of the words have changed through the centuries, but as nearly as the original rhyme can be reconstructed, it went as follows:

"Ring—a—ring o' roses, A pocket full of posies, A—tishoo! A—tishoo! We all fall down."

With modern modifications it is very probably that many readers, as children, sang and danced in a circle to "Ring Around the Rosy." Both of the writers of this book did.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth