Fact or Fiction: Debunking Ring a Ring a Roses

Copper Engraving of Plague Dr. Beak, circa 1656
Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [that is, Dr. Beak], a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome, with a satirical macaronic poem, circa 1656. The weird looking beak structure held a variety of herbs thought to protect the doctor from his patients. Ian Spackman

There is a myth that the British children’s rhyme "Ring a Ring a Roses" is all about the plague—either the Great Plague of 1665-6 or the Black Death centuries earlier—and dates from those eras. The words describe the contemporary practice in treating it, and refer to the fate so many befell.

The Truth

The earliest known use of the rhyme is the Victorian era, and it almost certainly doesn’t date back to the plague (any of them). While the lyrics can be interpreted as being loosely connected to death and disease prevention, this is believed to be just that, an interpretation given in the mid-twentieth century by overeager commentators, and are not a direct result of plague experience, or anything to do with it.

A Children’s Rhyme

There are many variations in the words of the rhyme, but a common variant is:

Ring a ring a roses
A pocket full of poses
Atishoo, Atishoo
We all fall down

The last line is often followed by the singers, usually children, all falling down to the ground. You can certainly see how that variant sounds like it might be something to do with the plague: the first two lines as references to the bundles of flowers and herbs which people wore to ward away the plague, and the latter two lines referring to illness (sneezing) and then death, leaving the singers dead on the ground.

It’s easy to see why a rhyme could be connected to the plague. The most famous of these was the Black Death, when a disease swept across Europe in 1346–53, killing over a third of the population. Most people believe this was the bubonic plague, which causes black lumps over the victim, giving it the name, although there are people who reject this. The plague was spread by the bacteria on fleas on rats and devastated the British Isles as much as continental Europe. Society, economy, and even war was changed by the plague, so why wouldn’t such a massive and horrifying event have ingrained itself into the public consciousness in the form of a rhyme?

Robin Hood’s legend is about as old. The rhyme is linked to another outbreak of plague too, the "Great Plague" of 1665-6, and this is the one which was seemingly stopped in London by the Great Fire burning a huge urban area. Again, there are surviving stories of the fire, so why not a rhyme about the plague? One common variant in the lyrics involves "ashes" instead of "atishoo," and is interpreted as either cremation of corpses or skin blackening from the diseased lumps.

However, folklorists and historians now believe that the plague claims date only from the mid-twentieth century, when it became popular to give existing rhymes and sayings older origins. The rhyme began in the Victorian era, the idea it was plague-related began only a few decades ago. However, so widespread was the rhyme in England, and so deep in children’s consciousness did it lodge, that many adults now connect it to the plague.

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "Fact or Fiction: Debunking Ring a Ring a Roses." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/debunking-ring-a-ring-a-roses-1221610. Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 25). Fact or Fiction: Debunking Ring a Ring a Roses. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/debunking-ring-a-ring-a-roses-1221610 Wilde, Robert. "Fact or Fiction: Debunking Ring a Ring a Roses." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/debunking-ring-a-ring-a-roses-1221610 (accessed March 28, 2023).