by Jon Schladweiler, Historian of the Arizona Water Pollution Control Federation

One of the more fascinating parts of life is to realize that everything around us has a basis or a derivation, i.e., a history. Even one of folklore’s most familiar rhymes — that many of us remember from our childhoods — Ring Around The Rosie, tells (according to many) a story about tragic times in civilization’s past … i.e., the great plagues that killed hundreds of thousands of people through the ages. One of the more popular versions of this rhyme reads as follows:

Ring around the rosie,
Pockets full of posies;
Atischoo, atischoo, (or, Ashes, ashes)
We all fall down.

Two of the more well-known plagues that devastated the European area in the Middle Ages were the Black Death in the years 1347-50, and the great London Plague of 1665. Rhymes/songs were a way for common folk to tell stories to each other, and a way of carrying those stories over to succeeding generations.

One of the more common interpretations of this rhyme is as follows:

Ring around the rosie,
[refers to the rosie-red (or purple-ish) round rash marks on the skin —one of the first signs a person had the plague]
A pocket full of posies;
[one of the superstitious ways used by people in the Middle Ages to try and fend off the plague was to stuff their pockets with posies (flowers)]
Atischoo, atischoo,
[sneezing was also an early sign of the plague if it was a pneumonic plague; however, not all types of plague involved sneezing]
or, Ashes, ashes
[the dead were often cremated]
We all fall down.
[most of the people strickened with the plague died]

One of the puzzling pieces of information regarding this rhyme, is that its first known/recognized date of existence was in the early 1880’s — 215 years after the London Plague and over 530 years after the Black Death. Such time differences don’t mean (in and of themselves) that the story wasn’t told (about these plagues) until hundreds of years later. It may just mean that this particular rhyme about the plagues wasn’t written until long after the event. Or, maybe it was written much earlier, but it was not then considered appropriate to say; so it may have gone dormant until the 1880’s — when the terribleness of the plagues was much forgotten, and the rhyme could resurface. We may never know for sure. Several versions of the rhyme exist; however, most are interpreted to mean much the same thing. We may never know the actual reason behind the words chosen for this rhyme — but it is interesting to try and surmise this folk rhyme’s true meaning.

Information on Plague

From the 1300’s to the 16th century, the word plague was used indiscriminately to describe epidemic illnesses. The bubonic plague, the most well-known type of the disease, was transmitted by the bite of a parasitic insect. Another form, pneumonic plague, was mostly transmitted by droplets sprayed by the mouth and nose of infected persons. Septicemic plague, still another form, was spread by direct contact with contaminated hands. However, during the 1347-50 plague, when the disease eventually called the Black Death wiped out as much as one-third of Europe’s population, physicians and scientists were at a loss to find its cause, much less a cure.

The Black Death swept through Europe, reaching Italy in 1347. It is reported that at the onset of the plague, both men and women were affected by a sort of swelling in the groin or armpits, which sometimes attained the size of a common apple or egg. Some of these swellings were larger and some were smaller, and all were commonly called “boils.” From these two starting points, the boils began shortly thereafter to spread and appear generally all over the body. Later, the manifestations of the disease changed into black spots on the arms, the thighs and the whole person. Hence perhaps, the phrase, the Black Death. Today, historians estimate that perhaps one-third of Florence’s 80,000 inhabitants died between the spring and summer of 1348.

Today, researchers believe that the Black Death was most likely a plague in a pneumonic form, infecting the lungs and spreading from person to person through sneezing or coughing. The people in the Middle Ages did not understand how the disease was spread. It was, obviously, very contagious. No actual cures were known; many different types of cures were tried however … many of them quite gruesome by modern standards.

All in all, we (today) should be happy that today’s sanitation techniques/standards (including our modern day sewer systems, and potable water systems), and our present medical knowledge, have made the world a much more healthful place to live.

– February 19, 2002