This is a nursery rhyme, folksong, and playground singing game. It first appeared in print in Kate Greenaway’s 1881 edition of Mother Goose, but apparently a version was already being sung in the 1790s and similar rhymes are known from across Europe. In 1892, folklorist Alice Gomme could give twelve versions. Urban legend says the song originally described the Great Plague of London, or the Black Death, but folklorists reject this idea. No evidence has turned up, despite meticulous day-to-day accounts of life in London in 1665, and accounts of the Plague by people who lived through it.
We don’t know the earliest version of the rhyme or when it began. Most incarnations of the game have a group of children form a ring, dance in a circle around a child, and bow or curtsy with the final line. The slowest child to do so is faced with a penalty or becomes the “rosie” (rose tree) and takes his or her place in the center of the ring.
A common British version:
Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
Cows in the meadows
We all jump up.
An 1855 novel, The Old Homestead, by Ann S. Stephens, describes children playing “Ring, ring a rosy” in New York. Two more versions were reported in America a short time later (1883) and another was known in New Bedford, Massachusetts around 1790.
The origins and meanings of the game have long been unknown and subject to speculation. In 1898, A Dictionary of British Folklore stated a belief that the game was of pagan origin. Again in 1898, sneezing was then noted to be indicative of many superstitious and supernatural beliefs across differing cultures.
Since the 20th century, the rhyme has often been associated with the Great Plague which happened in England in 1665, or with earlier outbreaks of the Black Death. However, interpreters of the rhyme before the Second World War make no mention of this. Peter and Iona Opie, the leading authorities on nursery rhymes, remarked, “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.”
Folklore scholars regard the theory as baseless for several reasons:
— The plague explanation did not appear until the mid-twentieth century.
— The symptoms described do not fit well with the Great Plague.
— The words on which the interpretation is based are not found in many of the earliest records of the rhyme.
— 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.
Folklorists who diligently recorded the rhyme itself in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries never mention the plague interpretation, although they surely would have had they known it. The first evidence that people were connecting the rhyme with death and disaster is from 1949, when the newspaper The Observer ran a parody of the rhyme beginning “ring-a-ring-o’-geranium, a pocketful of uranium” and referring to the bombing of Hiroshima. And, in 1951, we find the first direct reference to the plague interpretation.
In fact, the rhyme is often used as a playful courtship game in which children dance in a ring, then suddenly stoop, squat, curtsey, or in some cases fall to the ground. The last to do so (or the one that jumps the gun) has to pay a penalty, which is sometimes to profess love for (or hug or kiss) another child. In some versions, this child then takes up a place in the middle of the ring, representing the “rosie” or rose bush. In many versions, then, the roses and posies signify what flowers often signify in traditional European culture: not suffering and death, but joy and love.
I had no idea that nursery rhymes could be so fraught with meaning and terrible implications. It makes me think I might gain more by reading Mother Goose than by struggling through philosophers with deep thoughts.