A plague on your roses?

Ring a Ring o’ Roses” or “Ring a Ring o’ Rosie” is an English nursery rhyme or folksong and playground singing game. It first appeared in print in 1881, but it is reported that a version was already being sung to the current tune in the 1790s and similar rhymes are known from across Europe

It is unknown what the earliest version of the rhyme was or when it began. Many incarnations of the game have a group of children form a ring, dance in a circle around a person, and stoop or curtsy with the final line. The slowest child to do so is faced with a penalty and takes their place in the centre of the ring.

We probably recognise this version:

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down

Since after the Second World War, in the UK the rhyme has often been associated with the Great Plague which happened in England in 1665, or with earlier outbreaks of the Black Death in England. Interpreters of the rhyme before World War II make no mention of this; Peter and Iona Opie, the leading authorities on nursery rhymes, remarked:

‘The invariable sneezing and falling down in modern English versions have given would-be origin finders the opportunity to say that the rhyme dates back to the Great Plague. A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and “all fall down” was exactly what happened’.

However, folklore scholars regard this explanation of the rhyme as baseless for several reasons: it didn’t appear until the mid-twentieth century, the symptoms described do not fit especially well with the Great Plague, and European and 19th-century versions of the rhyme suggest that the “fall” was not a literal falling down, but a curtsy or other form of bending movement that was common in other dramatic singing games.

In March 2020, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a letter to Private Eye, the rhyme was jokingly proposed as the “ideal choice” of song to accompany hand-washing in order to ward off infection.

What do you think?