Is A Children’s Song About The Deaths Of Millions?

“Ring Around The Rosie” and the great plague

Erik Brown
Dec 5, 2019 · 7 min read
Artist: Jessie Willcox Smith (1863–1935), published 1912 [Public domain]

For the longest time I heard a story. It was often repeated even by reputable sources, such as the History Channel. This fantastic story revolved around a children’s song most have heard at some point in their life — Ring Around The Rosie (English version: Ring A Ring O’ Roses.)

The story told how this children’s song was a cryptic reference to the Black Death. This was an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in 1347 to 1351 which killed untold millions of people in Europe. According to medieval poet and historian Jean Froissart, 1/3 of Europe’s population succumbed to the disease.

Just to give you an idea of the devastation, imagine this event in today’s world. Currently, the United States has a population of 329 Million people. If an event like this occurred today, that would mean almost 110 Million people dying in a matter of a few years. An event of that type would be unimaginable.

The numbers seem staggering, but the horror is catalyzed when you read a human voice from that era. Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, a writer from that time period, produced a written record of what happened in Sienna from 1300 to 1351. He writes:

“And I, Agnolo di Tura, called ‘The Fat’, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed that it was the end of the world. And no medicine or any other defense availed...And those that survived were like persons distraught and almost without feeling. And many walls and other things were abandoned, and all the mines of silver and gold and copper that existed in Sienese territory were abandoned as is seen; for in the countryside . . . Many more people died, many lands and villages were abandoned, and no one remained there. I will not write of the cruelty that there was in the countryside, of the wolves and wild beasts that ate the poorly buried corpses, and of other cruelties that would be too painful to those who read of them ….”

So connecting this innocent children’s song to this cataclysmic event is kind of startling to say the least. When I heard this connection, it stuck in my brain and I never forgot it. Everything as it was explained to me made total sense. It was utterly logical.

Ring around the rosy
Pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes
We all fall down

The ring was a reference to the marks that appeared on the skin from the disease. Pockets full of posies were remedies thought to keep the illness away. It was thought that the disease was transferred by smells in the air and fragrant flowers could keep it away. Ashes referred to the large amounts of bodies being cremated. We all fall down was a reference that all was hopeless and humanity was going to be wiped out. Our friend Agnolo could have written the lyrics himself.

Evidence Against The Connection

Kate Greenaway’s illustration from Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes (1881) — Public Domain

Although the lyrics to the modern version of the song seem to correlate well with the idea of the plague, there are many issues that appear off base. For example, Snopes.com explains the first written appearance of Ring Around The Rosie occurred in 1881 in Kate Greenaway’s The Old Nursery Rhymes. So even if you claim that this song was based on the most recent outbreak in the 1600’s, there was a span of a few hundred years — over 500 for the outbreak in the 1300's.

This song was extremely popular in Europe. Many versions of the song are sung by playing children in many different languages. It would be odd to think if a song was that popular, it would take a few hundred years before it first appeared in print. If you claim that the song has been around since the 1300’s, then that’s even more bizarre that the song never appeared in print until 1881.

Another bit of damning evidence against the plague explanation revolves around another time issue. The idea of Ring Around The Rosie being associated with the Plague didn’t start until 1961. The first connection was made by James Leasor in his book The Plague And The Fire. That’s another oddity that nobody made the connection between the two until the 1960’s if the song has been around all that time.

It’s also a strange coincidence this connection was made at a time when a marketing campaign for a book was going on.

One final piece of evidence is that there are many different versions of this song in many different languages. Many of the versions leave out pieces in the modern song used to refer to the plague. For instance, there’s a version of the song from Shropshire England that removes many of these elements.

A ring, a ring o’ roses,
A pocket-full o’ posies;
One for Jack and one for Jim and one for little Moses!
A-tisha! a-tisha! a-tisha!

Snopes.com also references Folklorist Philip Hiscock, who believes the song may have been children’s way of getting around protestant bans on dancing in the 19th century.

So what I and many thought was a tribute to a horrific virus could just be a simple children’s song. But, there are reasons why so many would be willing to believe there is a connection.

Horrible Nature Of Children’s Stories

Brothers Grimm, 1843 — Ludwig Emil Grimm Via Wikipedia Creative Commons

It’s not entirely odd that a strong connection could be made from a children’s story to something terrible. The original versions of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales were pretty horrific.

The versions you’ve seen made into films by Disney were really cleaned up for public consumption. If the originals had been made as written by the Grimm brothers, you’d probably be sitting in therapy sessions right now.

For instance in the Grimm version of Cinderella, the evil stepsisters hack parts of their own feet off in order to fit into the slippers. If this isn’t enough, their eyes are eventually pecked out by doves. Maybe Wes Craven is a long lost relative of the Grimm Brothers?

The original Grimm version of Snow White has the huntsman taking her away at the age of 7 to be killed in the woods. The huntsman’s orders were to bring back Snow White’s heart and lungs so the queen can eat them.

Fortunately, the queen gets what she deserves — not in the Disney way, but in the Grimm sort of way. The queen is made to wear burning iron shoes that were heated in a fire and she dances herself to death. Good wholesome fun for the kiddies, huh?

Children Didn’t Last Long Before The Modern Age

Photo by Fey Marin on Unsplash

“It’s much safer to alive now than it used to be…The fact that we live in an age where we don’t expect a large percentage of our children to die in childhood makes us the historical anomaly.”

— Dan Carlin, The End Is Always Near

You begin to wonder why people would tell such awful stories to children. However, we are looking with a modern eye into a world we’re not familiar with. We’re also dealing with psychology it would be difficult for us to understand as well. Before the modern age, children lived in a world of death. Mortality rates for children before the 1900’s were horrific.

In the year 1800, 43% of the world’s children didn’t make it past the age of 5. In 2015 that rate went down to 4%. So if we extrapolated the 1800 mortality rate into the world of today, let’s see the carnage we would get. In 2017 in the United States, there were approximately 23.3 million children younger than 5. So, nearly 10 million of those children wouldn’t have seen their sixth birthday.

It would be hard to imagine a life where almost half the children you knew didn’t make it past 2nd grade. What would your world be like if you had to attend children’s funerals that frequently?

You might tell stories like the Brothers Grimm too.

Conclusion

I started out this little trip with an examination of a story that may be incorrect. Along the way, I took a peak in the bleak world of the Brothers Grimm. I also took a look at the horrific life for children before the modern age. This trip in history makes you appreciate modern life that much more.

I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child and what that must do to one’s mind. Now imagine living before the 1800s and bumping that number up to 43% of the population of children. Those awful children’s stories may have been a way of dealing with pain. It’s easy for us to criticize our ancestors, but we’ve never lived with horrors they encountered daily.

A childhood mortality rate at 4% is a great win for humanity when you consider the past. However, to my modern eye, even this number looks too high. But, I’m sure if someone from the year 1800 saw the 2015 statistic, they’d fall on their knees and praise the modern world.

In the end, no one can say with 100% certainty if Ring Around The Rosie is or isn’t connected to The Plague. But, my opinion has been changed. My appreciation of the modern world has also been renewed.

Thank you for reading my ramblings. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, please share.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Erik Brown

Written by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. CantWriteToSaveMyLife@yahoo.com

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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