Sunday, February 24, 2008

A pocket full of Rumour

Just a quick footnote to my last post. I mentioned that people would hold a nosegay of flowers to ward off disease-harbouring miasmas. I should add that this has led to a common urban myth that the symptoms of Bubonic Plague were, in some macabre way, commemorated in the children’s rhyme Ring-a-ring o’ roses. Sorry, but this is almost certainly untrue.

According to Professor Ian Munro of Harvard University, who has made a long and in-depth study of the rhyme, the earliest printed version of the rhyme dates from only 1881(1), some 225 years after the last great plague, and some 550 years after the Black Death pandemic. Words and phrases can remain underground a long time, but two centuries seems a bit unlikely. Plus, the 1881 version is markedly different and not so easy to attach to the plague:

Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Hush! hush! hush! hush!
We're all tumbled down

Munro states that:

‘This version appears not so much as a story about death and disease, but rather about falling asleep after a day of picking flowers.’ (2)

Another origin is suggested by the researchers at QI who, in The Book of General Ignorance (3), state that the first recorded instance of the rhyme was from Massachusetts in 1790. This is still a long way from 1665 … and a very long way from London. The 1790 version goes:

Ring a ring a rosie
A bottle full of posie
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie.

But the rhyme is apparently much older, probably having grown out of ancient ring dancing games. There are variants in almost every culture on the planet. (I should point out that Lloyd and Mitchinson do not cite their source in the book. However, just this once, I’ll accept their word for it.) The current version sung by American schoolchildren is different again and certainly doesn't hint at plague symptoms:

Ring around the Rosie
A pocket full of posie
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down

On that subject ... most medical books joyfully explain (in gruesome detail) that the first major symptom of plague is fever and there are generally no respiratory symptoms. Even in the pneumonic form, the infection is in the lungs. So coughing, and not sneezing, is the main symptom. Which is yet another reason to dismiss the theory.

Oh, and the first link between the rhyme and the great plague comes from a 1961 novel written by James Leasor entitled The Plague and the Fire. Before then, no one had even suggested such a thing - certainly not in writing anyhow.

Sorry to burst your buboes.

(1) In Kate Greenaway's Mother Goose (1881)
(3) John Lloyd and John Mitchinson (2006) QI/Faber and Faber.

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