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Origins: Ring-a-ring o’ Roses

Ring-a-ring o'roses

Ring-a-ring o’ roses
A Pocket full of posies
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down!

If that mobile network operator can have Orange Wednesdays, TreasuryIslands can have Origin Wednesdays. Thus, welcome to the first of such posts. We begin with Ring-a-ring o’ Roses.

Received knowledge dictates that Ring-a-ring o’ Roses stems from a belief during the Black Death that carrying herbs – a pocket full of posies – would protect one against infection. We are told that any early symptom of the plague was the appearance of red welts on the skin resembling ‘a ring o’ roses’, followed by sneezing which would indicate that the sufferer had not long to live. So far, so straightforward.

There are two problems with this hypothesis. Firstly, bubonic plague doesn’t present with rosy coloured welts on the skin. Rather swellings of the lymph nodes, typically in the groin or armpit, distinctly unroselike would appear, and sneezing may not occur at all. Secondly, Ring-a-ring o’ Roses was not written down in the UK until 1881, when it appeared in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose, raising the question of why no one had thought to write it down in the intervening 500 years.

In fact, when Greenaway did include the rhyme in her compendium, it appeared not as we know it today, but as:

Ring-a-ring-a-roses,

A pocket full of posies;

Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush!

We’re all tumbled down.

Thus weakening the plague connection further.  Kate Greenaway is not the author of the rhyme, though. American folklorist William Wells Newell recorded a version of the rhyme three years later than Greenaway:

Ring a ring a rosie

A bottle full of posie,

All the girls in our town

Ring for little Josie.

Newell claims the rhyme in this form was popular in Massachusetts in or around 1790. Unfortunately, no sources are cited.

So it seems that Ring-a-ring o’ Roses is nothing more than a simple playground song with no particular meaning. Which is much less interesting than the plague explanation, isn’t it?

I will be returning to this subject in a weeks’ time. If there’s a nursery rhyme, playground song or traditional verse that you’ve always wondered about (or even if you want to issue me a fiendish challenge) drop me a comment and I’ll see what I can do!

One response »

  1. I like Origin Wednesdays!

    Have always wondered about Wee Willie Winkie origins…

    Reply

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