Ring a ring o’ roses

It was when I was reading Louise Penny’s latest book Glass Houses that I discovered that in some parts of the world – mainly the ‘new world’ – the words to Ring a ring o’ roses are slightly different with the word ‘ashes’ being substituted where atishoo should be. It’s a bizarre word to choose I think and makes no sense, but that’s what happens as things evolve, a sort of Chinese whisper ensues.

At school we were all taught that what seems like a charming nursery rhyme is actually about the Black Death/Plague as it describes the different stages of the disease.

The ‘ring of roses’ is the red rash that appeared on victim’s skins, usually at the top of the leg to begin with before moving on to under the arm and all over. So the pocketful of posies is describing the rash.

Atishoo atishoo (not ashes) – the next stage is sneezing and a chill, followed by fever, breathing problems and –

We all fall down is – death.

A cheery subject for a nursery rhyme – not. But that’s par for the course. Mary, Mary, quite contrary is about Bloody Queen Mary (Tudor) who had thousands of non-Catholic people executed after Henry VIII’s death.

Most fairy tales in their original guise are quite terrifying, but they’re all warnings of what can happen to children if they don’t take care. For instance Rumpelstiltskin is about the need for young girls to keep away from old men, that needle that they might get pricked with was something much more dangerous – a rumpled stilt in a skin in fact!

I would normally avoid putting children on here but as the clip below has been put on You Tube by a nursery group, I’m still not sure if that’s a good idea. Anyway, they get the song right.

7 thoughts on “Ring a ring o’ roses

  1. I’ve heard it suggested that the “pocketful of posies” referred to the nosegays carried as protection against infection, when contagion wasn’t understood and infection was associated with unpleasant smells. So a sweet-smelling posy or pomander was intended to counteract them.
    The folklore associated with old rhymes and stories is fascinating – as you suggest, many were intended as Awful Warnings.
    As a child I was convinced there were wolves in most dark places, which included forests, and the “outhouse” at my grandparents’ farm cottage!

    • Valerie,
      Interesting. I know that the doctors went around wearing big long beaks with herbs inside them in an attempt to ward off infection.
      It’s no wonder that some children have the heebie jeebies and think that there’s a monster in the wardrobe or under their bed! It was only Doctor Who that scared me though, particularly the music for some reason.

  2. So, this post leads me to another question. What is a Chinese whisper?

    And yes, of course. As your said in reply to my previous comment, plague victims weren’t burned they were buried. Interesting that several of us were told that as children though.

    • Jennifer,
      Chinese whispers is an old ‘parlour’ game. In a gathering of people one of them whispers a phrase very quickly into another’s ear. Then that person passes it on in the same way to the next person, until everybody has been whispered to and the last person says what the phrase is. It’s hilarious as it’s always completely different from the original phrase – back in the days when we all entertained ourselves, it was very popular. My husband has just said it is known as ‘Telephone’ in the US.

  3. In my 1950s childhood in Toronto, we said “Ring a round a rosie” and “Husha husha.” Probably learned it in nursery school.

    The Annotated Mother Goose (Wm & Cecil Baring-Gould) is full of this kind of info. Fascinating.

    By the way, in Rumpelstiltskin, I’d be far more concerned about marrying a guy who only wants you for your ability to spin straw into gold, and threatens to put you to death if you don’t. :^0

    • Susan D,
      True, although I suppose that’s a good warning that not all men are Prince Charming!
      I did intend to do one of those free online courses on fairy tales, but haven’t got around to it yet, maybe this year I will. I must look up that book, thanks.

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