Is the Children's Game Ring Around the Rosy Really Referring to the Black Plague?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

It is commonly believed that the child’s game and rhyme, Ring around the Rosy, refers to the bubonic plague. This allegation has never been proven. The song Ring around the Rosy didn’t appear in print until the 19th century. Of course, it may have been sung or played much earlier. Accounts of Ring around the Rosy connect it to elements that suggest the plague, and are often explained as the attempt of folklorists to find real world or historical explanations for certain songs and folklore tradition.

The line "ashes, ashes" in Ring Around the Rosy may relate to sneezing, an early symptom of the plague.
The line "ashes, ashes" in Ring Around the Rosy may relate to sneezing, an early symptom of the plague.

The argument made that Ring around the Rosy references the Black Plague is due to viewing the lyrics symbolically. It helps to examine the full lines to see how each has been connected to plague reference. Though the song has many versions, a recognizable one is the following:
Ring around the Rosy
Pocket Full of Posies
Tisha! Tisha!
We all fall down.

Some believe that "posies" refers to pus, which fills many types of skin lesions.
Some believe that "posies" refers to pus, which fills many types of skin lesions.

Many know the third line as “ashes, ashes, “ or “achoo, achoo.” Numerous variants exist but many suggest a sneezing sound. The first line, according to some, references the rash common to the Black Plague. On plague victims, large pustules developed that were often marked by a red ring, which gradually turned black.

In the song, the "pocket full of posies" line has a couple of interpretations. It could be associated with people carrying flowers in their pockets, or more often up to their noses in order not to smell the horrendous stench of the dead and dying. Alternately, it has been suggested that posies is a pun on the word pus, again suggesting the boils produced by the plague.

The sneezing in the third line would be obviously connected to the symptoms of the illness. If the variant with ashes is used in Ring around the Rosy, this might suggest a biblical allusion to “ashes to ashes.” Clearly the falling down part references dying.

While a strong case might be made for Ring around the Rosy referring to the Black Plague or some say the Great Plague of London in the 17th century, this cannot be verified by any historical evidence. Of course, you can certainly say that fear of illness might be in the unconscious mindset of the people and might work its way into something as innocent as a child’s song. Some nursery rhymes and songs can reference pretty awful events.

Yet the argument can’t be made that the song Ring around the Rosy or its associated game consciously references the Black Plague or the Great Plague. It may merely be a simple child’s game, with no intent whatsoever to provoke anything more than a great deal of fun.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Just so you're clear. The ashes part refers to the ashes of burned bodies that are burned to try to help stop the plague


Ring around the rosy actually applies to the "ring" that is formed around the lymph nodes. They are the symptoms of the bubonic plague. During the final stages of the illness, the lymph nodes under the armpits or groin enlarge and swell, causing a ring to appear.

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