Spring is turning to summer here in the Northern Hemisphere, and the world is in blossom. Flowers always make me think of Chairman Mao, who once vowed to “let a hundred flowers bloom” in China, meaning that the nation would be healthier if a diversity of ideas could compete for attention. But in real life, sometimes the wrong flowers win the war of ideas, leading us up a primrose path of misconceptions and misinformation. This month, Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings digs up all kinds of floral falsehoods from the fertile soil of his mind, separating the weeds of legend from the pick-me-up bouquet… of truth.
Flower Myth #2: “Ring Around the Rosie” is about the Bubonic Plague.
A fun thing to do with kids is to tell them that one of their beloved kindergarten games is actually a graphic depiction of the deaths of over 100 million people, LOL! This is now the “smart” thing to do when “Ring Around the Rosie” comes up: give a knowing nod and explain the “little-known” fact that the rhyme is actually about the “Black Death” of bubonic plague that killed off half of medieval Europe. The “rosies” are the red sores caused by the disease; the “posies” were carried around by survivors to mask the smell of the dying. “Ashes” is a sneezing sound, and “we all fall down” is, well, slow, inevitable death. Good times!
But no professional folklorist believes this story. “Rosie”-like children’s rhymes are attested back to around 1800, and the oldest forms have little in common with the supposed “Black Death” lyrics. The plague explanation didn’t actually appear until the 1950s, which seems suspiciously after-the-fact. Peter and Iona Opie, editors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, point out the most of the earliest British versions of the song don’t include sneezing—the most suggestive plague connection—at all, and that many circle-dancing games of the period end with a curtsy, which is probably what the “all fall down!” finale refers to.
For some reason, there was a 20th-century vogue for “investigating” the historical roots of nursery rhymes, and many a dissertation was written on how “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” was actually Mary Queen of Scots and “Cock Robin” was actually Robert Walpole and so on. Folklorists today are much more cautious about such claims. The general feeling seems to be that a series of nonsense words describing the actions of a children’s game might have originated as—well, as a series of nonsense words to describe the actions of a children’s game. Sometimes a pocketful of posies is just a pocketful of posies.
Quick Quiz: In what classic work of medieval literature do ten people escape from the Black Death in Florence and tell each other stories in an abandoned country villa?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Illustration by Michael Wolgemut (1493) is in the public domain.