Is A Children’s Song About The Deaths Of Millions? – Lessons from History

“Ring Around The Rosie” and the great plague

Artist: Jessie Willcox Smith (1863–1935), published 1912 [Public domain]

For the longest time I heard a story. It was often repeated even by reputable sources, such as the History Channel. This fantastic story revolved around a children’s song most have heard at some point in their life — Ring Around The Rosie (English version: Ring A Ring O’ Roses.)

The story told how this children’s song was a cryptic reference to the Black Death. This was an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in 1347 to 1351 which killed untold millions of people in Europe. According to medieval poet and historian Jean Froissart, 1/3 of Europe’s population succumbed to the disease.

Just to give you an idea of the devastation, imagine this event in today’s world. Currently, the United States has a population of 329 Million people. If an event like this occurred today, that would mean almost 110 Million people dying in a matter of a few years. An event of that type would be unimaginable.

The numbers seem staggering, but the horror is catalyzed when you read a human voice from that era. Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, a writer from that time period, produced a written record of what happened in Sienna from 1300 to 1351. He writes:

“And I, Agnolo di Tura, called ‘The Fat’, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed that it was the end of the world. And no medicine or any other defense availed…And those that survived were like persons distraught and almost without feeling. And many walls and other things were abandoned, and all the mines of silver and gold and copper that existed in Sienese territory were abandoned as is seen; for in the countryside . . . Many more people died, many lands and villages were abandoned, and no one remained there. I will not write of the cruelty that there was in the countryside, of the wolves and wild beasts that ate the poorly buried corpses, and of other cruelties that would be too painful to those who read of them ….”

So connecting this innocent children’s song to this cataclysmic event is kind of startling to say the least. When I heard this connection, it stuck in my brain and I never forgot it. Everything as it was explained to me made total sense. It was utterly logical.

Ring around the rosy
Pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes
We all fall down

The ring was a reference to the marks that appeared on the skin from the disease. Pockets full of posies were remedies thought to keep the illness away. It was thought that the disease was transferred by smells in the air and fragrant flowers could keep it away. Ashes referred to the large amounts of bodies being cremated. We all fall down was a reference that all was hopeless and humanity was going to be wiped out. Our friend Agnolo could have written the lyrics himself.

Kate Greenaway’s illustration from Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes (1881) — Public Domain

Although the lyrics to the modern version of the song seem to correlate well with the idea of the plague, there are many issues that appear off base. For example, explains the first written appearance of Ring Around The Rosie occurred in 1881 in Kate Greenaway’s The Old Nursery Rhymes. So even if you claim that this song was based on the most recent outbreak in the 1600’s, there was a span of a few hundred years — over 500 for the outbreak in the 1300’s.

This song was extremely popular in Europe. Many versions of the song are sung by playing children in many different languages. It would be odd to think if a song was that popular, it would take a few hundred years before it first appeared in print. If you claim that the song has been around since the 1300’s, then that’s even more bizarre that the song never appeared in print until 1881.

Another bit of damning evidence against the plague explanation revolves around another time issue. The idea of Ring Around The Rosie being associated with the Plague didn’t start until 1961. The first connection was made by James Leasor in his book The Plague And The Fire. That’s another oddity that nobody made the connection between the two until the 1960’s if the song has been around all that time.

It’s also a strange coincidence this connection was made at a time when a marketing campaign for a book was going on.

One final piece of evidence is that there are many different versions of this song in many different languages. Many of the versions leave out pieces in the modern song used to refer to the plague. For instance, there’s a version of the song from Shropshire England that removes many of these elements.

A ring, a ring o’ roses,
A pocket-full o’ posies;
One for Jack and one for Jim and one for little Moses!
A-tisha! a-tisha! a-tisha! also references Folklorist Philip Hiscock, who believes the song may have been children’s way of getting around protestant bans on dancing in the 19th century.

So what I and many thought was a tribute to a horrific virus could just be a simple children’s song. But, there are reasons why so many would be willing to believe there is a connection.

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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !

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