Ring Around The Rosie

Related to the previous post, and mondegreens in general. I first wrote about this years ago.

One of my favorite stories, up in smoke. The idea that “Ring Around The Rosie” is actually about the plague – “all fall down” meaning falling over dead? It’s completely untrue. The first written versions of Ring Around Roses show up in the late 1800’s, some with posies and falling down, some not. But the Great Plague was in 1346, and later plagues didn’t have the sneezing part. It is not credible that a little poem would be passed down orally, unchanged for 500 years, then suddenly break into half-a-dozen versions that all get written down for the first time. Things can fragment quickly, as the research about flashbulb memories and 9/11 illustrate. It’s the staying the same that’s the problem. Ancient stories do come down to us in symbolic or coded form, but even then, you have to accept a lot of stretching.

Darn. There are stories we wish were true. But anything that is too good to be true is usually…too good to be true. See also, all those stories of what our naughty words are acronyms for (acronyms are new – like from WWII), or those phrases “from Elizabethan times” about sleeping tight, wet your whistle, rule of thumb, and so forth. Ain’t so.

9 thoughts on “Ring Around The Rosie”

  1. 1. There was a plague in ~1665 or so, no? So that would knock a few centuries off the timeline involved.
    2. If it showed up written in Victorian times and wasn’t acknowledged as new, there’s a good chance it would be very, very old.
    3. In America all I’ve ever heard was “Ashes, ashes”, not the sneezing part (I remember–reliably?–being very confused by an English nursery rhyme book that said “At-choo, at-choo”), so there is of course drift in space and time.
    4. I’m always amused by the fact that non-Western oral traditions are considered sacrosanct while Western oral (even some written) traditions are just made up and worthless.

  2. Also several cholera epidemics throughout the 1800s could tighten up that collective memory even further. Perhaps the ‘ashes, ashes’ line came about from contaminated ash heaps and pits. They were a fixture around homes and buildings for collecting coal ashes. People used to throw trash and dung in there along with the ash, and the contaminated mix would often become airborne. We now know diseases are caused by pathogens, but they were once thought to be caused by bad air floating around.

    The miasma theory was accepted from ancient times in Europe and China. The theory was eventually given up by scientists and physicians after 1880, replaced by the germ theory of disease: specific germs, not miasma, caused specific diseases. However, cultural beliefs about getting rid of odor made the clean-up of waste a high priority for cities.

  3. Flowers were used to fill the nose cone of the plague doctor’s mask.

    I have one I bought in Venice years ago.

    In the 17th and 18th centuries the plague doctors invented masks to protect themselves from “bad air” and prevent contagion. These masks have lenses on the eyes and a long cavity in the nose, which was filled with drugs and aromatic items. This cavity measuring about half foot in length, had 2 small vent holes, and its shape was very similar to beaks of birds. At the beak were used substances such as ambergris, mint leaves, storax, myrrh, laudanum, rose petals, camphor, cloves and straw.

    Hence “pocket full of posies.”

    Not all “Plagues” were Pasturella pestis. It is unknown to this day what the Plague of Athens was. It killed Pericles and may have therefore led to the fall of Athens to the Spartans.

    A different answer was found in a DNA study of teeth recovered from an ancient Greek burial pit, led by Manolis Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens, which found DNA sequences similar to those of the organism that causes typhoid fever.

    Typhoid, however, is usually water borne. Bubonic plague is not contagious from victims unless the pneumonic form has developed.

  4. I’m pretty skeptical that any of these nursery rhymes mean anything. They seem far more likely than rock lyrics to be random and meaningless, picked for just the rhyme scheme and easy memorization by children.

  5. @ Brian – they may have meant something topical originally, but as the Important Topic faded into the past, it would release its pressure on the words, which would then be free to move about the country. This seems a likely explanation to me why there are so many puzzling things. All those nursemaids and campfire storytellers misheard and misunderstood their root material, but had a good sense of what might hold an audience. Those competing forces interacted in strange and wonderful ways.

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