Ring-Dancing Monkeys and Black Death Rubbish

At Got Medieval, Carl Pyrdrum re-debunks the persistent, authentic-sounding story that the nursery rhyme “Ring around the Rosies” has anything whatsoever to do with the Black Death of the 1340s.

It does not.

As any good English plague survivor********** could tell you, the plague was caused by sin and best warded off by extreme piety and making sure your humours were in balance.***********

His version includes dancing monkeys, a feral cat, and Lancelot.

Here on the banks of Hardscrabble Creek, which is starting to rise as the snows are melting, we are fairly suspicious of authentic-sounding stories about surviving medieval practices. See also St. Patrick and the “snakes” who were not Druids.

4 thoughts on “Ring-Dancing Monkeys and Black Death Rubbish

  1. Pitch313

    What we “know” is many times very different from what some of us know.

    A proposition that I sometimes translate for myself as “Folklore is flukey!” And sometimes as “Popular culture may be popular, but it doesn’t have to be accurate.”

    California has sylvatic plague, but I don’t recall anybody associating that with the lore about ring a rosy and plague in Europe. And neither did anybody associate it with early 20th Century plague outbreaks in SF. Flukey folklore…

  2. Mej

    Herpes zoster used to be called “rosen” in Scandinavia (still is many places) and the folklore said that if the rash grew in a ring around the waist of the patient, he or she would certainly die.

      1. Mej

        Not a nursery rhyme, but a circle game. It’s not connected to the sickness called “rosen” specifically, but it was believed when I grew up that it talks about passing on some Medieval sickness. I’ve tried looking for some research regarding this song and the game that goes with it, but have found nothing (so far). It’s Norwegian, and known as “Take this ring and let it wander” or simply “Take this ring”.

        Ta den ring og la den vandre,
        fra den ene til den andre.
        Ringen er skjult, du ser den ei.
        Nettopp nå er ringen hos meg.
        Jeg gikk meg ut på den grønne eng.
        Der gjettet jeg på
        hvem ringen skulle få.
        Ser du hvem har fått den?
        Ser du hvem har fått den?
        Tra la la la la la lalla lalla la.


        Take this ring and let it wander
        From one to the next
        The ring is hidden, you cannot see it
        Right now the ring is with me.
        I went out onto the green meadow.
        There I guessed
        who would get the ring.
        Can you see who got it?
        Can you see who got it?
        Tra la la la la la lalla lalla la.

        This game was played a lot among children from 4-5 to 10-12, particularly at birthday parties when I grew up. If I remember it correctly, it went like this: all the children but one (usually the host) are standing in a circle facing each other with their eyes closed and with their hands on their back with the palms up one on top of the other curved like a ladle. The host walks along the circle on the outside touching their palms with some small object one by one pretending to give it to them. Somewhere along the way s/he drops the object into a random hand, but continues like before pretending to give it to each child. At the “can you see who got it” in the song, the children in the circle open their eyes and stretch out their closed hands, while another child is chosen by the host to guess whith whom the object is. If s/he guesses right, she gets to carry the object next and pass it on, if s/he guesses wrong, the one who got it steps forward and gets to pass it on *OR* the one who was guessed on but didn’t have it gets to make a guess. If s/he guesses right s/he gets to pass the object, if s/he guesses wrong, that person again gets to guess, and so on until the object is found, and the one who has it gets to pass it on.

        I have always understood the “ring” in the song to be the object you pass, which sometimes was a finger ring (allthough we used bottle caps, small rocks, and wrapped sweets, etc., as well), but I hear others claim it points to the circle of children, which in Norwegian is called “ring” as well, but this doesn’t make much sense when you listen to the lyrics, where it clearly says that what is passed is a ring.

        In this recording from 1977 Rolf Just Nilsen (best known for his amazing imitations of stars and politicians) leads a group of children in this game: http://youtu.be/cAtEYwZcwec I have no idea what the counting ritual at the end is about – it isn’t in the version I used to play. The lyrics are slightly different as well, but it’s clearly a finger ring they are passing.

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