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A-Z of Blogging: R is for...Ring a Ring o' Roses

Kate Greenaway's Mother Gooseillustration of children playing the game 
A pocket full of posies.
Atishoo! Atishoo!
We all fall down.

Although this nursery rhyme didn't appear in print until 1881, it was being sung almost a hundred years before that to a similar tune to the one that we sing today.

For years many people believed that this rhyme was associated with the Great Plague of 1665 and some believed it to go even further back, to the time of the Black Death. The reasons for this were as follows:

Ring-a-ring-o'-roses - one of the first signs of plague was a rosy, red circular rash on the skin.

A pocket full of posies - sachets of flower petals and sweet smelling herbs were carried around so that people could hold them to their noses to cover up the smell of the disease.

Atishoo, atishoo - sneezing was one of the final symptoms of the plague before death occurred.

We all fall down - that's exactly what happened. They all fell down dead!

In another version the words 'atishoo, atishoo' were replaced with 'ashes, ashes' and it was thought that this referred to the cremation of the plague victims and the burning of the plague ridden houses.

However, folklorists claim that this rhyme actually has nothing to do with the plague for various reasons.

  • The symptoms don't fit fully with either plague.
  • The first mention of the rhyme being connected to either of the plague outbreaks didn't appear until after the Second World War.  
  • It is thought that 'falling down' actually meant curtsying which was commonly found in children's circle games.
  • There are several variations of the rhyme and it is unlikely that this one is the oldest version.

It would be interesting to find out the real meaning of the rhyme if it isn't about the plague although perhaps there is no hidden meaning. Maybe it's just a simple rhyme made up for children to dance to. However, I think that people have associated it with the plague for a long time now and they will continue to do so for many years to come


Luana Krause said…
I've heard of the Plague connection; it's rather depressing for a children's rhyme. I wonder which version is true?
Denise said…
Luana - it is a bit depressing but I quite like the plague connection although I thought it went further back than WW2. I'm not sure we'll ever find out now.
Laura Clipson said…
I'd hoped that you'd use this one for 'R', I think the plague connection makes sense, so I'm just going to carry on thinking that that's right :)
Denise said…
Loopyloo - it makes a lot of sense to me too so I will also carry on thinking that it's connected to the plague.

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