The Black Death and Ring Around the Rosie

Nursery rhymes are written for little children, so they should be sweet and innocent, right? Little children should not have experienced the horrors and reality of life yet, and these rhymes made to entertain them should not talk about them either. But not all nursery rhymes have innocent meanings. “Ring Around the Rosie” is one such nursery rhyme.

The Black Death, otherwise known as the bubonic plague, swept through London, England, in the spring, summer, and fall of 1665. I am sure that the mere mention that this disease might be present in one’s household brought terror.

What did the victims think when the rosy red rash (ring around the rosie) first appeared on their skin? Did they fill pockets on their clothing with pouches of sweet-smelling flowers and herbs (a pocket full of posies) to try to hide that fact that the disease was tearing through their body? Not to mention that unplanned sneezes (A-tishoo! A tishoo!) would come along all too frequently.

A pocket full of posies
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down!

(English version)

children playing ring around a rosie,

children playing ring around a rosie,

I doubt there was any way to hide all the vomiting that was one of the symptoms of this horrific disease. A swollen tongue would also be difficult to hide. And when patches of your skin turned black? Well, that may be able to be covered up for so long, but when combined with the other flu-like symptoms, the one feeling them would most likely be too weak to try to hide anything. When death finally paid a visit to the unfortunate victim, cremation (ashes, ashes) was in order.

A pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes
We all fall down!

(American version)

When the house doors of the infected were sealed shut until their death (We all fall down!), what went through their minds? By this time, were they so delirious that they couldn’t think straight? If not, the horrible things that I’m sure ran through their mind may have even brought death to their doorstep quicker.

Ring Around the Rosie,

Ring Around the Rosie,

The plague was spread by the bite of an infected rat or a flea that had bitten one of these rats. Conditions in 1665 London were not very sanitary, so the plague spread quickly and killed many. When the Great Fire of London happened in 1666, it destroyed many of the rats and fleas responsible for spreading the disease. The cold weather of late autumn took care of the rest of the fleas.

Maybe this nursery rhyme was written to try to ease the pain of this horrible thing, although I don’t see how it could have done so. But, no matter what is going on in the world, children must still play, and this nursery rhyme was used as they did so.

Bubonic Plague in the News Today
I ran across some thrilling news as I was researching the bubonic plague for this article. This dreadful disease has not gone completely away.

CDC Reports 11 Cases of Human Plague Since April
A Teenage Girl Contracted Bubonic Plague in Oregon By. . .
Bubonic plague cases are on the rise in the U.S. Yes, really.
Bubonic Plague in the US: Disease Still Present From Colorado to Madagascar

Writing Prompts
There are so many ways this rhyme can be used in our writing. The true meaning of the rhyme is creepy enough on it own, but the above version of it is even creepier. Put it to use and come up with a story (maybe even two or three) based on this rhyme.

All of you who love horror stories, this is the perfect rhyme to base one one.

girl writing,

girl writing,

Imagine you are the person (child or adult) who penned this rhyme. Why did you do it?

Imagine you a child living during these horrific times. Did this rhyme comfort you, or did it increase the number of nightmares you had?

A person is drowning in darkness. What is the darkness? There are so many possibilities.

What is the evil thing that knows you? Is it present in the ghosts that surround you, or is it separate from them? If so, are they terrified of it too?

Try writing your own nursery rhyme about a tragic time in history. Are you able to make it sound innocent?

Now jump to the present time. Write a story about an almost uncontrollable outbreak of this dreaded disease. I know we have medicine to cure it now, but what if a new strain of this disease appears? Is it able to be stopped before it kills everyone? How?


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