MAY
1993

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

05-13-93

Ring Around the Rosy

I saw some children playing “Ring Around the Rosy” the other day. Anyone who has lived as a child anywhere in the English-speaking world knows this game.

It’s a fun game. Children join hands and dance around in a circle chanting the words to the rhyme.
The game originated under less-than-happy circumstances, though. The nursery rhyme and game apparently originated during the time of the bubonic plague.

Also known as the black death, the bubonic plague is an insect-borne disease. It is transmitted by the rat flea when the insect bites. The disease caused great suffering and loss of life in three waves across Europe.

Epidemics of the plague occurred first about 543, then again in the 14th and 17th centuries. It was the plague of the 14th century that effectively put an end to a way of life — the feudal system of the time. The small, self-contained communities were devastated by the disease. Some communities were entirely destroyed; in others the disease killed more than half the people.

The University of Oxford, for example, lost two-thirds of its professors and students in 1352. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote Decameron from his plague observations. Boccaccio stated, “How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfasted with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world!”

Diseased people died in the streets and, as Boccaccio states, “made it known that they were dead by the stench of their rotting bodies.” It was in such an atmosphere that “Ring Around the Rosy” originated.

The words to the nursery rhyme tell us something about the disease. Ring around the rosy probably refers to a rash — a rosy red rash — that likely was common on people infected with the bacteria that caused the disease. “Pockets full of posies” tells of one of the measures taken to avoid the disease. Attempts were made to purify the air by breathing the perfume of flowers. You could carry a bouquet or place a few posies in your pocket.

There are two common versions to the next line of the rhyme. One version is “ashes, ashes” which could be a reference to fires that were also used in an attempt to cleanse the air. Or it could be a reference to “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, another commentary on the number of dead people. Another version goes “a-choo, a-choo” an obvious reference to the sneezing that was associated with the disease.

The last line leaves little doubt about the meaning. “We all fall down” is a chilling commentary on the ultimate fate of most of those who contacted the disease. But in the best tradition of children everywhere, the game ends happily. The kids all laugh and jump up and play the game again. Kids of the Middle Ages, even when faced with the worst insect-borne epidemic the world has ever known, somehow managed to have fun. That says a lot about kids!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann