Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down
So we're locked down self-isolating and yesterday heard the neighbour's children singing Ring-a-ring o' roses making us laugh out loud. According to one theory the nursery rhyme has its origins in the Great Plague which happened in England in 1665, but this is far from certain. Anyway, since its pandemics are somewhat topical and we have some time on our hands we thought we might as well knock out a quick blog about it.
It's unknown what the earliest version of the rhyme was or when it began, but it first appeared in print in 1881, while it is reported that a version was already being sung to the current tune in the 1790s. Many incarnations of the rhyme are accompanied by a game where a group of children form a ring, dance in a circle around a person, and stoop or curtsy with the final line. The slowest child to do so is faced with a penalty or becomes the "rosie" and takes their place in the center of the ring.
In 1898, A Dictionary of British Folklore contained the belief that the rhyme and game were of pagan origin. This theory states that it's in reference to Pagan myths and cites a passage in Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie which states, "Gifted children of fortune have the power to laugh roses, as Freyja wept gold." It claimed the first instance to be indicative of pagan beings of light.
The plague theory, which associates the rhyme with the the Great Plague of 1665, or with earlier outbreaks of the Black Death going back to the 14th century, came to fore in the mid-twentieth century. According to the folklorists Peter and Iona Opie:
"The invariable sneezing and falling down in modern English versions have given would-be origin finders the opportunity to say that the rhyme dates back to the Great Plague. A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and "all fall down" was exactly what happened."
However, there are a number of good reasons why this theory lacks strength, notably that the theory did not appear until the mid-twentieth century, that the symptoms described do not fit especially well with the Great Plague and that European and 19th-century versions of the rhyme suggest that this "fall" was not a literal falling down, but a curtsy or other form of bending movement that was common in other dramatic singing games.
Nevertheless the interpretation has entered into popular culture and it gives us an excuse to shoehorn a topical blog into our schedule!
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