Nursery Rhymes and the Plague

Nursery Rhymes and the Plague 

Ring-a-ring o’roses,

A pocket full of posies,

Ah-tishoo ahtishoo,

We all fall down.


It’s strange you know how things come back to you after a lifetime has passed. I remember as a wee one, dancing around in a circle and chanting this little verse. It didn’t mean much then. They were just words to keep time with—a chant to skip to—and when we all fell down we giggled. Actually, the rhyme first appeared in the 1881 edition of Mother Goose


Last night when I couldn’t sleep and the thinking machine would not turn off, I whispered the little rhyme aloud into the darkness. It came to me because I had heard it again just a couple of nights ago on a special TV program about the Bubonic Plague—the Black Death as it was called. The Great Plague of London which occurred in the mid sixteen hundreds… 1665-1666 to be exact.


The connection is that the victims of the plague broke out in red, circular eruptions, hence Ring-a-ring o’roses. The stench was so bad that the victims could smell their own bodies rotting. In order to quell some of that awful stench, flowers were sprinkled over the victims, hence A pocketful of posies.  The third line in the English version is a representation of a sneeze, Ahtishoo ahtishoo. The last line, We all fall down, is the representation of death.


It’s strange to think that an innocent child’s verse can be based on such a terrible happening such as the plague.


I wonder what other meanings there are beneath the words of nursery rhymes.



~ by woodnymph on February 2, 2007.

7 Responses to “Nursery Rhymes and the Plague”

  1. I hear there are lots of rhymes with meanings behind them. Food for thought in the wee hours 😉

  2. We sang “ashes, ashes, we all fall down”. Same idea, I guess, since many of the dead were burned to the plague wouldn’t spread. Hope you sleep through the night tonight!

  3. If you want to look into the history of rhymes you can visit this site:

    There was this really annoying pop up that came on at first but I hit the refresh key and it went away.

    Anita Marie

  4. Like fairy stories nursery rhymnes were used to pass on important messages. Marina Warner is one of the best at working with this sort of thing.

  5. Like Quinn, we sang “ashes, ashes” too. My granddaughter (almost 2 years old) has just learned this song and it’s a favorite (because of the “all fall down” part).

  6. Yes, Heather, I love Marina Warner’s work. These are fascinating things, indeed.

  7. Being Welsh born and bred, the version I posted above is British. I believe though that there was an earlier European version wherein the third line was “:ashes, ashes.”

    Thanks all of you for your comments.

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