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Ring a Ring o' Roses
Tales Behind Nursery Rhymes

Ring a ring o' roses

London Bridge is Falling Down

Little Miss Muffet

Mary Had a Little Lamb

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Ring a ring o' roses
A pocket full of posies
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down

This rhyme is widely believed to describe the Great Plague - a rosy rash was the first sign of infection, posies of herbs were carried to ward off infection, and sneezing was a sign that death was near, when all fell down dead. Children hold hands and dance round in a ring, tumbling to the floor as they sing 'A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down.'

In the spring and summer of 1665, an outbreak of bubonic plague spread across London. Bubonic plague was called the Black Death. It was a dreadful disease resulting in a horrible death. Black patches on the skin, swollen, painful glands called 'buboes' in the groin, vomiting and headaches were some of the symptoms.

The plague started in the East, perhaps in China, and was brought to Europe by rats and fleas carried on trading ships from the east. It spread rapidly all across Europe.

The disease began in London in the parish of St Giles in the Field, a poor and crowded part of the city. At first the disease spread slowly, killing 43 people by the end of May; but by August, when the disease was at its peak, it had killed more than 31,000 people. Huge pits were dug outside the city walls for the bodies, but very soon these pits became full. As more and more people died, hardly anyone remained to collect and bury the dead, so that bodies were left out in the road to rot. This epidemic is known as the Great Plague. In 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed most of the centre of the city, but it also put an end to the Great Plague as it killed off the rats and fleas that carried the disease.

The rhyme was not printed till the nineteenth century, and some scholars believe that it has nothing at all to do with the Great Plague, and is simply a tumbling game for children.

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Last updated: April 2010. Copyright © Rohini Chowdhury 2002. All rights reserved.

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