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The Opies give versions from Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, among other places. Newell, writing in , asserted that the rhyme was known in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in , but he gave no evidence, and none has come to light. What evidence is there it survived undocumented since ? Title page of The Dreadful Visitation: in a short account of the progress and effects of the plague by Daniel Defoe. The claim that the rhyme is related to pestilence is even younger; the folklorists who diligently recorded the rhyme itself in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries never mention the plague interpretation, although they surely would have had they known it.

In , we find the first direct reference to the plague interpretation: Iona and Peter Opie state that some people believe the rhyme refers to the plague, but are not themselves convinced. Even if the rhyme itself remained unrecorded for two hundred years after the plague, various types of evidence might exist: a description of children playing dancing-games referring to roses and mocking the plague, or oral traditions of the earliest informants making the link. As it turns out, though, neither of these kinds of evidence has turned up, despite meticulous day-to-day accounts of life in London in , and accounts of the Plague by people who lived through it.

All this makes scholars skeptical, to say the least. Still, the story only seems to have grown stronger in the second half of the twentieth century, and this itself is interesting to folklorists.

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After all, the story is itself folklore: a tale that was passed on by word of mouth first, then in writing and online media. If the plague story is folklore, we would expect to encounter it in different versions and variants. And so we do. Within these two main variants, there are sub-variants: in particular, FitzGerald and others say the rhyme originated in London, while others say it came from Eyam , a village in the English Midlands that was also infected with plague in There are also innumerable individual versions of this story, each with its own quirks.

Part of the task of such historians is to explain how the plague has continued to influence our lives, and the chance to mention a rhyme everyone knows and connect it to this deep history is irresistible. Secondly, the story is often told by advocates for particular places. Finally, there are many people with a love of the macabre, and nothing is more disturbing than the idea of little children playing to a description of pestilence and death.

Our love for the plague story goes deeper than the agendas of a few interest groups, though.

Maybe it reminds us too much of ourselves. In any case, we certainly understand its appeal: in the marketplace of ideas, a good story often outsells mere facts. Leave us a comment below! Several of the books cited above with links to their Library of Congress catalog records are also available elsewhere as free electronic resources.

These items are in the public domain:. I have my doubts, but would be interested in knowing more about the idea. Thanks, Lisa. That idea has been around for a long time, but there are competing interpretations too. The bells are the church bells, the shells were worn as badges by pilgrims, and the maids are the nuns. The tune fits the rhyme, and goes back at least to , which suggests the rhyme could be that old. They are well-researched, well-written, and often both amusing and enlightening. I would be very interested in seeing links to old books go to the scans of the actual old books where copyright or other impediment is not at issue.

This seems to be an increasing trend among libraries and museums to maintain such archives. I would find it very interesting to correlate and a page of fixed links could do it the many political conversations that could not be had openly for fear that you would be killed, but a tune hummed or a nursery rhyme could be equally devastating and no individual could be charged with actual advocacy. Thanks, this is great. The infected fleas are supposed to have arrived in a parcel of cloth delivered to a village tailor.

You know, the way it was explained to me had nothing to do with the traits of the disease itself. Rather, it was about the morality of it all.

Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason | Folklife Today

Both Catholicism and Church of England have this tradition. In fact, given the multiple variations and interpretations above, it is unlikely that it was ever written specifically to reference the plague. After all, Folklore is replete with examples of cultural appropriation. Ross, thanks for your comment and your unusual version of the Plague story.

But it is certainly true that the rhyme was appropriated and repurposed to tell a story about the plague after the fact. So the emphasis, as you say, is on the moral and spiritual aspects rather than the physical and medical. Bob Danforth, thanks for your comment. In three cases I used the Hathi Trust versions, although others are available on the internet.

8 Nursery Rhymes With Horrifying Origins

For the Pepys diary, I opted for another site, because the diary is a multivolume work and the relevant entries spread over three of the volumes. Great article! Well done! I can make a personal note that corroborates the Texas Lomax version of this song.

Red Bird, Blue Bird, Squat! Rosie was the child in the middle and the last child in the ring to squat became the next Rosie. But I do know that my grandmother and mother did not bake light or yeast breads. They only made quick breads like corn bread and biscuits. Thanks for the interesting North Carolina version and the description of the game, Ann. Thanks, Joe. Certainly taking a whiff of strong smelling fresh flowers might induce that reaction in many, especially of course if you have allergies.


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Thanks for the suggestion! Love that Texas version! Hi, this rhyme was also used in a childrens television series, in which a girl living or visiting an old manor house has visions of soldiers marching through the same house in past times. Does anyone know the name of this TV show?? It seems to be a game where the words describe the actions the kids are supposed to do. In some versions, kids kiss other kids, so your reaction might depend on the version and on what you think is proper behavior! The specifics about the whipping, the broth, etc.

Has anyone ever looked into the possibility? Thanks, Brigita, for your comment. All such stories are metafolklore, and so far none of them has any good evidence to back it up. As I said in the post, it is possible for metafolkloric stories to also be true, but in these cases no reference to the rhyme at all turns up before , and public executions ceased in England in ; after that executions were usually conducted in private within the prison where the prisoner already was kept, so there was no journey to a place of execution. In general, most folklorists would call that story a fascinating variant of the general idea that the seemingly simple and innocent nursery rhyme actually has a dark and secret history.

Thanks, Jessica. I have seen that interpretation, but I do not know its origin. The version I saw did not mention the inquisition, just the generally impoverished conditions of many Catholics in the south of Italy, which does suggest certain historical periods over others.

This reading turns up in various dark corners of the web, such as this one. As he so often does, he flits from folklore item to folklore item, discussing at greater length another rhyme:.

People love to create and spread invented backstories for simple nursery rhymes.

This rhyme can also be found in the classic collections by Iona and Peter Opie. However, as with much humorously sexual folklore, there is also an innocent explanation: they were planning to go to a dance, where he would have contributed to the music and she to the dancing. Hi I am Irish,and was born in Ireland in and remember when I was very young that our elders explained,. They would regularly remove a bunch of lavender from their pockets and crush and wash their hands and face with it. Thanks for those details, Pat.

It shows that, while the legend can serve to associate the rhyme with the Middle Ages, other versions can be more up to date while preserving the same basic story!

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Thanks, Bill! How is it metafolklore? The figurative meaning of these proverbs saves them from tautology.