It’s one of the most famous playground rhymes in the English-speaking world, and it drives folklorists nuts:
Ring around the rosey
pocket full of posies
we all fall down
The reason it drives folklorists nuts is that everyone and their uncle has heard that it’s about the black plague, which is one of those things that SOUNDS true enough to be repeated as fact, but actually isn’t true at all. Peter and Iona Opie noted that “we ourselves have had to listen so often to this interpretation we are reluctant to go out of the house.”
Regardless of the various stories going around, the fact is that the rhyme doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the plague. The “origin” story seems to have come out around the time of World War 2, when making up origins for nursery rhymes (almost none of which are true) became something of a cottage industry. Practically every old “singing game” that involved groups standing in a circle has been said to have some sort of origin in a pagan ritual. Most often, they were just amusements, and the only evidence we have that they had some connection to a ritual is that “witch finders” of the period SAID they were relics of the pagan era. Witch finders were pretty generally full of it. Certainly many old pagan customs survived well into the modern era, particularly in the UK, but very few singing games are likely to be among them.
The connection between “ring around the rosie” and the plague would probably hold some weight if the rhyme dated to the days of the plague, but, well, it doesn’t. Various people in the days of the plague wrote extensively on the folk beliefs and customs that sprung up surrounding outbreaks, and none mentioned the rhyme. As far as anyone can tell, the rhyme itself, in its current form, only dates to the late 19th century.
Interestingly, “ashes, ashes” is a fairly new line. When the rhyme was first recorded, the line was “Atchew, atchew” (a sneezing noise, which MAY hold a clue why people thought it was to do with the plague in the first place). It morphed into “Ashem, ashem,” a weirder sneezing noise, before becoming “ashes, ashes.”
There were, however, earlier versions. These suggest that it probably started not as a plague song, but as a sex song:
Ring around the rosie
bottle full of posie
all the girls in our town
ring for little josie
This makes me wonder if it can actually be connected to all those bawdy songs about Rosie that still come up (usually in cleaned-up forms) on playgrounds everywhere!
In America a century later after the “Josie” version was published, the rhyme was pretty well known, but sneezing was no longer a part of it. The big thing in American versions at the time was not sneezing or falling down, as it was in England, but squatting:
Ring around the rosie
squat among the posies
one, two, three, SQUAT!
Given that it’s a children’s rhyme, one can sort of guess WHY they were squatting. Any time a kids’ rhyme mentions squatting, you can bet they’re not squatting down to get a look at a flower!