A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down”
We all have heard these lines in our childhood as the ‘ring-a-ring-a-roses’ English rhyme gets transcended to the children of every generation.
But did you know that the apparently vibrant and light hearted poem is speaking of death and misery from another pandemic that had hit London and other parts of Europe in the form of the Bubonic plague?
The Black Death that had started in the middle of the 1300s had never really ended for hundreds of years. Caused by a bacteria called the Yersinia pestis, the global pandemic had resulted in over 50 million deaths across Europe.
According to a blog by James FitzGerald published in the Londonist, the ‘ring-a-ring-a-roses’ was born sometime in the 17th century in London, most likely during the Great Plague of London that caused in over 70,000 deaths in the city within a year between 1665-66.
He writes that the famous ‘roses’ in the poem actually are a euphemism for the deadly red rashes that were associated with the patients suffering from the bubonic plague. On the other hand, the ‘posies’ must have been some preventive measure. Now coming to the ‘A-tishoo’ part, this obviously points to the sneezing symptoms and the last line of ‘We all fall down’ signifies everyone’s quick approaching death.
Although the rhyme might have found its origins in the death and misery of a global pandemic, it has been widely adapted and modified through the years. An 1883 version of the folklore presents us with a different form of poem:
“A ring, a ring o’roses
A pocket full of posies
One for Jack and one for Jim and one for little Moses
A curchey in and a curchey out
And a curchey all together”
A report in the Library of Congress suggests that this version included in a book called ‘The Singing Game’ by Iona and Peter Opie does not mention any form of sneezing or the action of falling down. Similarly, many popular versions exist where everyone gets up again and resumes play - thereby giving a happier playful note to the rhyme.
There are also counter-arguments to this theory which say that the popular limerick perhaps, did not originate from the Bubonic Plague, and also claims 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, which would mean that children recited this nursery rhyme for over five centuries until someone wrote it down.