Posts Tagged ‘plague’

Ring a ring a rosie

A pocket full of posie

Ashes, ashes,

We all fall down!

Innocent enough children’s rhyme, right? Hold hands and dance around in a circle before falling to the ground and giggling. Yeaaaa!!!!!


Like many children’s rhymes, songs, and poems, this particular rhyme contains a hidden meaning. In medieval Europe, they had outbreaks of the plague. The first symptom was a circular red sore (ring of roses). As people started dying, the bodies piles up in the streets. The stench was unbearable and some people put herbs and flowers around their neck or in pockets to try and mask the smell of decaying flesh (pocket full of posies). When the bodies were burned, the ashes would rain down on the city, on young and old alike (ashes, ashes). Ultimately, many people could not escape the plague and ended up dead (we all fall down…dead).

Wonderful. And kids sing this like it’s the happiest song ever.

After having kids of my own and reading many of these poems and songs, I realized just how many of these things have a deeper darker meaning.

Here’s another.

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

Like many things from hundreds of years ago, this rhyme has several meanings, but the version I like best is that  the duke is Richard, Duke of York born in 1411. There are a few other contenders like James II born in 1633 and Prince Fredrick born in 1763.

Richard, with 8,000 of his troops, was surrounded in Sandal Castle which was built on a hill. (he marched them Up) He was awaiting reinforcements, but decided to instead sally forth (down the hill) and fight the siege army nearly three times his number. Richard and many of his army were killed, and having ceased to exist, were (neither up nor down)

The next rhyme may be from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Sing a Song of Sixpence,
A bag full of Rye,
Four and twenty
Black Birds,
Bak’d in a Pye.

When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Was not that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?

The king was in his counting-house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlor,
Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
There came a little blackbird,
And snapped off her nose.

Apparently there really were recipes that instructed how to bake a pie with live birds inside so that they would fly out when the pie was cut open. At least if the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes is to be believed, an Italian cookbook from 1549 tells the baker just how to accomplish this feat. There is no explanation why a maid would be forced to suffer such a fate in a rhyme. Maybe it made the Nobles feel better to subject their servants to abuse in song, in addition to real life. At least some later versions include:

They sent for the king’s doctor,
Who sewed it on again,
He sewed it on so neatly,
The seam was never seen.

Another one that always struck me as terrible is the classic lullaby:

Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetops,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

There are many theories as to the meaning of this rhyme. One popular theory is that it originated in America in the 1600s when colonists saw Native American women rocking their babies in birch bark cradles swung from tree limbs. The idea being that the wind would rock them to sleep. However, the poem first appears in print in England in 1765, so this would appear to invalidate the American ownership.

Another theory comes from a local legend in Derbyshire England where Luke and Kate Kenyon lived with their eight children in a huge Yew tree. They hollowed out one of the limbs for a cradle while Luke made charcoal in Shining Cliffs wood in the Derwent Valley.

There are some cool political overtones to the rhyme though. Another theory focuses on a footnote ( “This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last”) published with the original, and goes along with a second lesser-known verse:

Rock-a-bye, baby, thy cradle is green;
Father’s a nobleman, mother’s a queen;
And Betty’s a lady, and wears a gold ring;
And Johnny’s a drummer, and drums for the king.

The baby is said to be James II, who was believed to be someone else’s child smuggled into the birthing room to provided a Roman Catholic heir to King James I. The “wind” may have been the Protestant wind blowing from the Netherlands, bringing James’ nephew and son-in-law William of Orange, who would eventually depose King James II in the revolution. The “cradle” is the royal House of Stuart

This post is by no means exhaustive on the subject, and I only did my research online. But I hope I have been able to illuminate some commonly sung rhymes that we memorize when we are kids and don’t know the hidden, darker history to. As always, I’d love to read your thoughts and reactions. Thanks!

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