Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Misplaced Memory of the Rosy Rings


                      Yesterday I mentioned Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son and I’d like to begin today by quoting from one of the most familiar of those letters – Letter XXX, dated February 22nd 1748 (Old Style), which towards the end has this, 
Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket: and do not pull it out and strike it; merely to show that you have one. If you are asked what o’clock it is, tell it; but do not proclaim it hourly and unasked, like the watchman.” 
Good advice, indeed. Nobody likes a clever clogs. So, now I turn to a nasty little book by Norman Cantor called In the Wake of the Plague (2001). 

Norman Cantor - In the Wake of the Plague - 2001

In this volume Cantor’s takes his learning out of his pocket and strikes it like a drunken campanologist. He is, (or was, he died in 2004), we read in the blurb, Emeritus Professor of History, Sociology and Comparative Literature at New York University and Cantor is not backward at coming forwards, letting us know about his former position as Fulbright Professor at Tel Aviv University and so forth. 

In the critical bibliography, Cantor sets about the works of previous writers about the Black Death with undisguised relish. One book is dismissed as being ‘out of date’, another is ‘verbose, unfocussed and now out of date’. The next on his list (I won’t give the titles or authors, out of respect for them), gets ‘The text could have been much better’, whereas the next is ‘puff pieces of speculative nature’ and the list continues; ‘fragmentary and superficial’, ‘almost unreadable’ and perhaps most damning of all, ‘The best part of this book is the pictures’. 

Wow, from this we’d expect Norman to be on his game in his own, as I say, nasty book (I call it that because it’s one thing to be ‘critical’ but quite something else to be so downright nasty). Right, Chapter One and I quote, 
In the England of 1500 children were singing a rhyme and playing a game called ‘Ring Around the Rosies [sic].’ When I grew up in Canada in the 1940s children holding hands in a circle still moved around and sang: Ring around the rosies, A pocketful of posies, Ashes, ashes, We all fall down. The origin of the rhyme is the flulike symptoms, skin discolouring, and mortality caused by bubonic plague. The children were reflecting society’s efforts to repress memory of the Black Death of 1348-49.” 
Let me stop you right there, Norman. As Emeritus Professor and Fulbright Professor and whatever else you’ve been, you should know the value of going back to the primary sources. Just where in England were these 1500s youngsters singing this rhyme? I only ask because the earliest sources of the rhyme date from around about 1790, with the earliest written source dating from Kate Greenaway’s 1881 book Mother Goose; or, the Old Nursery Rhymes

Kate Greenaway - Ring a Roses - from Mother Goose - 1881

The great English folklorist Alice Gomme includes a variety of versions collected throughout the English counties in her magisterial Traditional Games of England (1894) and compares them. She notes the ring of roses, speculating that the children making up the ring could stand for the rose children or sun children of pagan myth, and also notes the sneezing element that is common to them and how it changes in the American versions to ‘ashes, ashes’, and how this may be related to the many folk superstitions about the sneeze. 

Alice Gomme - Ring o' Roses - from Traditional Games - 1894

What she doesn’t do is mention either the plague or the Black Death. And neither does anyone else. This is odd if, as Cantor tells us, this rhyme has been doing the rounds since the 1340s or, to put it another way, since the days before Chaucer. Not one mention. Anywhere. Not in Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or Milton. Not in a poem, or a song, or a play. That’s a bit weird, don’t you think? 

Ring o' Roses

Indeed, the first mention of the plague theory doesn’t come until after World War II, when the idea was first put about that the Ring of Roses referred to the circular rings that appeared under the armpits of the plague victims. The pocketful of posies were the bunches of herbs carried to fend off the smell of the plague, the sneezing Atishoo, atishoo was the ‘flulike’ sneezing before the plague finished you off, and ‘all falling down’ speaks for itself. 

A Plague Doctor

Obviously. Except. With bubonic plague you don’t get rings of roses under your arm. You get buboes but these are black or purple swellings of the lymph nodes in the armpits and groin (hence the name, from the Greek βουβών - boubos meaning groin). The posies could be posies of herbs, or the herbs stuffed into the beaks of plague doctors, or wreathes placed on graves, or even a euphemism for pus (posy - pusy), oozing out of the buboes. Or something else that your fancy might like to apply to them. And sneezing? Not with bubonic plague. You might cough a lot with pneumonic plague, and you might shiver and shake a lot but not sneezing overly. And all falling down – well, it refers to the curtseying that happened in the children’s game. That’s been recorded in the past. But not falling down, as the plague would have already forced you to take to your bed before you died. It was quick but not that quick. 

Ring o' Roses

The whole plague associations are a modern invention, making something up from an existing rhyme by shoehorning a new interpretation onto it. And as with yesterday’s tale of the riots that didn’t take place, lazy historians have taken it as read, without bothering to check their sources. Lazy, if you’re an undergraduate History student, unforgivable if you’re an Emeritus Professor of History. And not in Chapter One, if you expect us to give any credence to whatever follows next.


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