Sunday, June 12, 2005

Origin: Ring a Ring of Roses

The seemingly innocent nursery rhyme, Ring a Ring of Roses portrays groups of children laughing and dancing as they hold hands and swirl around in circles. However, the nursery rhyme has a more sinister beginning.

In 1665, the Bubonic Plague so prevalent in Europe reached the shores of England, hitting the coastal areas first and then migrating into the English countryside. The transmission method was unknown but later was attributed to the fleas that used rats as their hosts. The rats arrived in the cargo ships from Europe and once the ships were docked, the rats were free to roam the City of London spreading the disease through the densely populated area.

It seemed that nobody escaped the disease noblemen fell victim to the plague along with the average man in the street. It was not until September of 1665 when the Great Fire of London destroyed the city. As the wooden houses burned to the ground, so did the rats and, for a while at least the plague was kept under control.

It was not until centuries later that the rhyme came into being. There are slight differences in the English and American versions – the American version is slightly softer in tone. Following is the English version.

Ring a Ring of Roses
The rash consisted of tiny blisters, which formed a ring similar to that of a rose
A pocket full of posies
People believed that if they held a bouquet of flowers or herbs to their nose or kept a nosegay in their pockets, it would help ward off the disease
Atishoo, atishoo
Final stages of the disease, sneezing, running eyes and nose and congestion in the lungs of victims.
All fall down
Victim has died.

In some villages, only one in four people survived the Great Plague of 1665-6. Some good came from this awful experience. London was rebuilt using brick and stone instead of wood; enterprising men came up with the idea of insurance companies and introduced a new phenomenon, their own firefighter teams. And of course we are left with our very special nursery rhyme that hopefully will continue to be sung by children for centuries to come.