We have all heard it repeatedly. I even recall my teachers discussing it in class. Supposedly, the well-known children’s chant “Ring Around the Rosie” is about the Great Plague of London which wiped out 100,000 people in about a year and a half during the 1600s. Or in some versions of the urban legend, the children’s game is about the Black Plague which is from the 1300s.
I even recall a teacher breaking down the poem in relation to the plague. “Ring around the rosie” was said to be the black circles that would appear on victims. “Pockets full of posies” were flowers carried to mask the smell of dead bodies. “Ashes, Ashes” was said to be a reference to burning the bodies, and “we all fall down” was about how the plague struck down everyone, young or old, rich or poor.
Well, your teacher was a dirty, dirty liar. This rhyme is not about black death or any other plague. And though it is morbidly fascinating to think that a seemingly innocent kid’s rhyme is actually about an infectious pandemic, this is likely not the case. It is more likely just an urban legend of pandemic proportions.
It is theorized that the “game” and rhyme go back much further and are Pagan in origin. We all remember how the game works, right? Kids hold hands, run in a circle, and then fall down. Usually there is subsequent giggling. But now let’s think of this in more Paganistic terms. Picture a bunch of people dancing in a circle around a flowering tree or “rosie” (which was the common term for a rose bush). They’re all holding flowers and singing. Maybe painting on each other with sacred ash. It now reads much more like a full-on hippy May Day celebration straight out of THE WICKER MAN and less about boils and burning bodies. It is also thought that “we all fall down” likely meant to curtsy or bow before god or maybe nature, not necessarily die a horrible death.
It is also worth noting that first instance of this rhyme even remotely being linked to the plague didn’t happen until 1961 in James Leasor’s book THE PLAGUE AND THE FIRE. If the original rhyme had been created about the plague, one would think that someone might have mentioned it somewhere in the prior 200 years.
Then there is the fact that there are many different versions of the rhyme and game all over the world, and though the one we know (the English version) can be wedged into a possible plague application, many of the other variants don’t comfortably fit. For instance, the Serbian/Croatian variant of the song is about eating eggs, then the children crash down on the word “DUCK”. In the Swiss version, children dance around a rose bush singing about the month of May (likely linking back to the Pagan Mayday ritual). The German version is about children sitting around a floral bush that are told to “hush, hush”. Some versions swap out the “ashes, ashes” line, and instead say “atishoo” or “achoo” indicating a sneeze which is thought by folklorists to be a holdover from Paganism or other early religions which viewed sneezing as a superstitious or supernatural act. Plus in some cultural variations, the act of falling down is a game in itself, the children all racing to sit down with the last person standing being the loser. So falling down is a good thing that you rush to do.
The endless variants on the rhyme (most of which emerged by the 1800s) are the clearest indictor that the poem is likely not about the plague. For a rhyme to travel so far and evolve into this many different versions, it must be much very old, much more than just the 150 years from the date of the plague to when rhyme variations were first recorded.
Another theory is that the rhyme and dance were ancient in origin, but remerged and gained popularity during the 1800s when Protestants in both the US and Europe decided to ban dancing. Considered to be sexually suggestive, the entire religion went the FOOTLOOSE route and outlawed dancing of any kind. So, teens found a way around this ban through what became known as “play parties”. They would sing children’s chants as if playing, but would include dancing and movement. Read more about this theory here.
There is also the theory that the rhyme means absolutely nothing. Like “Rama-lama-ding-dong”, “Tutti Frutti”, or “Mmmbop,” the words just sounded kinda cool together and were fun to sing. But whatever the real origin, it is likely not plague.