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Is the Children's Game Ring Around the Rosy Really Referring to the Black Plague?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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It is commonly believed that the child’s game and rhyme, Ring around the Rosy, refers to the bubonic plague. This allegation has never been proven. The song Ring around the Rosy didn’t appear in print until the 19th century. Of course, it may have been sung or played much earlier. Accounts of Ring around the Rosy connect it to elements that suggest the plague, and are often explained as the attempt of folklorists to find real world or historical explanations for certain songs and folklore tradition.

The argument made that Ring around the Rosy references the Black Plague is due to viewing the lyrics symbolically. It helps to examine the full lines to see how each has been connected to plague reference. Though the song has many versions, a recognizable one is the following:
Ring around the Rosy
Pocket Full of Posies
Tisha! Tisha!
We all fall down.

Many know the third line as “ashes, ashes, “ or “achoo, achoo.” Numerous variants exist but many suggest a sneezing sound. The first line, according to some, references the rash common to the Black Plague. On plague victims, large pustules developed that were often marked by a red ring, which gradually turned black.

In the song, the "pocket full of posies" line has a couple of interpretations. It could be associated with people carrying flowers in their pockets, or more often up to their noses in order not to smell the horrendous stench of the dead and dying. Alternately, it has been suggested that posies is a pun on the word pus, again suggesting the boils produced by the plague.

The sneezing in the third line would be obviously connected to the symptoms of the illness. If the variant with ashes is used in Ring around the Rosy, this might suggest a biblical allusion to “ashes to ashes.” Clearly the falling down part references dying.

While a strong case might be made for Ring around the Rosy referring to the Black Plague or some say the Great Plague of London in the 17th century, this cannot be verified by any historical evidence. Of course, you can certainly say that fear of illness might be in the unconscious mindset of the people and might work its way into something as innocent as a child’s song. Some nursery rhymes and songs can reference pretty awful events.

Yet the argument can’t be made that the song Ring around the Rosy or its associated game consciously references the Black Plague or the Great Plague. It may merely be a simple child’s game, with no intent whatsoever to provoke anything more than a great deal of fun.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon150738 — On Feb 08, 2011

Just so you're clear. The ashes part refers to the ashes of burned bodies that are burned to try to help stop the plague

By anon90095 — On Jun 14, 2010

Ring around the rosy actually applies to the "ring" that is formed around the lymph nodes. They are the symptoms of the bubonic plague. During the final stages of the illness, the lymph nodes under the armpits or groin enlarge and swell, causing a ring to appear.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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