Controversy, Plague, And A Nursery Rhyme

Some things about England:

In England, Bob The Builder is called Robert The Construction Engineer.

In England, Spongebob Squarepants is translated into the local dialect as “Spongerobert Squaretrousers”.

These facts have two things in common: 1) that they are fun to say, and 2) they are completely untrue.

But there are occasionally cultural differences that I bump into.

Over here, there is this nursery rhyme:

Ring around the rosie,
A pocket full of posey,
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down.

To someone used to a different version, it doesn’t seem to make much sense, like it came to American English from British English through a third-party language.

Of course, the version I grew up with doesn’t make much sense without the commonly-held explanation (which I also grew up with).

(A) Ring, a ring of roses
A pocket full of posies
Atishoo, atishoo,
We all fall down.

The commonly-held explanation is that it refers to The Black Death, Bubonic Plague, or the Great Plague Of London.
The theory goes that a red circular rash (the “ring of roses”) was a symptom of the disease, as was sneezing. The bunch of flowers was some uneducated attempt to keep the disease away, and the falling down was the afflicted patient falling off the mortal coil. So to speak. The “ashes” from the American version may be associated with cremation, according to Wikipedia, and the “posey” is written as “posies” in the American version, too, so it could just be that the kids are singing it slightly wrong. Though “posie” in the singular is found on Snopes.

Wikipedia says that folklorists now dispute this association, but the short version of the explanation that appears there, isn’t entirely convincing. Not that it’s necessarily wrong, but doesn’t necessarily take everything into account, either.

1. The plague explanation didn’t appear until the mid-20th Century.
Seems to be the best point they make. No mention is made of where the Opies got that association: whether it was received, or whether they connected some dots and reached that conclusion.

2. The symptoms don’t correspond very well to the disease in question.
The footnote says the Opies (the ones who first published the connection between rhyme and disease) “note that neither cure nor symptoms (except for death) feature prominently in contemporary or near contemporary accounts of the plague.”
I find this to be interesting, because if the Opies were coming to this conclusion by dots-joining, wouldn’t this discrepancy lead them to some other conclusion instead?
There are some interesting things to note with this, too:
Another commonly-held belief about the spread of the plague, is that it was spread by rats and their fleas. You’d think that flea bites, while technically not a symptom of the plague itself, might leave itchy red spots.
And while the flowers may not have been an effective cure, or talismanic barrier, the Wikipedia page on the Bubonic plague mentions “There were many ethno-medical beliefs for avoiding the Black Death. One of the most famous was that by walking around with flowers in or around their nose people would be able to “ward off the stench and perhaps the evil that afflicted them”.”
So, that would be the pocket full of posies accounted for in the explanation, and not the detraction.
I didn’t spot sneezing per se as a symptom, but coughing is mentioned (which would also require use of a handkerchief). Also, “The plague is also known to spread to the lungs and become the disease known as the pneumonic plague.” Pneumonic also lists coughing but not sneezing. One could imagine a conflation…

3. There are rather a lot of forms of the song, and only a few could have this meaning applied to them.
How often is there a song, and someone modifies the lyrics to it? There are plenty of examples of popular songs being reworded for advertising purposes. To claim (as both Wikipedia and Snopes do) that for this version of the song to have this meaning, it must be the original version, and other versions must be divergences from it, doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Other printed variants may not see much use today as culture homogenises, but before such things as mass media and standardised education, local variants of things could hold on quite tenaciously. The number of versions of this song that are mentioned rather attest to this.
So I wouldn’t say the articles are necessarily wrong that this version of the song is unlikely to be the original, the trunk from which the others split. That does not necessarily preclude the possibility that it’s a local branch that gained more widespread popularity in later years. And if the interpretation was a received one, rather than formulated, then it’s pretty likely to have come through the same locality.

4. Talks about European variants, and other English 19th Century variants, which end up mattering not a bit if this version and its explanation are a localised branch variant.

Snopes on the subject goes on about mostly about trying to tie the American variant with the plague, which is trickier. “Ashes”, it notes, could either be a corruption of the sound in other variants (atishoo, hush, and several others), or it can mean “ashes” and have an explanation for that. which is a fair point if you’re talking about “Ring Around The Rosie”, and not a version that actually has “atishoo” in it.

Snopes also has a paragraph looking down its snooty nose about the late publication date of the rhyme in any form. I’m just going to copy the lengthy paragraph:

[“Ring Around the Rosie” is sometimes said to have originated with a later outbreak of the plague which occurred in London in 1665, to which all of the following reasoning applies as well.]

Although folklorists have been collecting and setting down in print bits of oral tradition such as nursery rhymes and fairy tales for hundreds of years, the earliest print appearance of “Ring Around the Rosie” did not occur until the publication of Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose or The Old Nursery Rhymes in 1881. For the “plague” explanation of “Ring Around the Rosie” to be true, we have to believe that children were reciting this nursery rhyme continuously for over five centuries, yet not one person in that five hundred year span found it popular enough to merit writing it down. (How anyone could credibly assert that a rhyme which didn’t appear in print until 1881 actually “began about 1347″ is a mystery. If the rhyme were really this old, then “Ring Around the Rosie” antedates even Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and therefore we would have examples of this rhyme in Middle English as well as Modern English forms.)

With a few earlier exceptions, nursery rhymes weren’t really documented on any scale until the end of the 18th Century, with most of the work done in the 19th. And the geography factor would be an issue. A different version with the same tune is mentioned at the beginning of this period, according to Wikipedia. So while some 17th century plays started noting down nursery rhymes, it wouldn’t be surprising that a large proportion of popular rhymes weren’t recorded there, and were only documented later.

Also, there’s the literacy factor (writing rhymes for the wider population when a lot of them can’t read), the preservation factor (exactly what percentage of writings from 350-ish years ago do you think actually survive, that you can make such a blanket statement about all of them). Could there be a class factor? If the locality of this version of the rhyme being popular, was at the low end of the social scale (anyone doubt there were areas like that in London?) how long would it take, after publishing nursery rhymes became a thing, for such a rhyme (or version of one) to appear on the radar?

That’s the thing about history. It’s messy, and most of it’s missing. I don’t spend a lot of time on Snopes, I don’t like its tone. The heavy-handed “you’d have to be stupid to believe this” tone evidenced above, is far too common. And it didn’t take a lot of research, and wasn’t exactly hard, to find any number of possible reasons for the shortage of documentary evidence. We Westerners love stuff in print, but it’s historically ignorant to expect to see absolutely everything documented down to the smallest degree.

Is there any truth to the association between one particular version of this rhyme, to its commonly-held meaning? Much as some would like to, I don’t think that it can be dismissed out of hand. One way or the other, there’s some extant pieces of the puzzle, but I think we can only speculate about the final picture.

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