The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

As I was having coffee during fellowship hour at the church, the conversation turned toward old sayings. You know them—sayings like: “A penny saved is a penny earned”; “It’s raining cats and dogs”; “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey (one of my favorites, which I did NOT bring up in church).

This turned into a round robin, where for a time, we exchanged sayings along with their meanings. “Raining cats and dogs” refers to a time in England when everyone lived in a little house with a roof made of thatched grasses. When it got cold outside, cats and dogs would burrow into that roof to keep warm. If it rained real hard, they’d come sliding out.

A brass monkey is a metal device used on ships during the early years of sailing. It held cannon balls ready for use in case of a naval attack. When it was really cold, freezing moisture would push the balls off, hence the saying.

A woman whom I did not know turned her chair around and said: “How about this one—did you know that the “ring around the rosie” poem is really a referral to the black plague that hit Europe?” 

(I later looked this plague up. One-third of the population of Europe perished in that plague in and around 1347. It was properly called the bubonic plague, and was carried by rodents with fleas. The fleas then transmitted this plague to humans.)

”No. We don’t know that one.” She went on to explain it line by line.

“Ring around the rosie” refers to the round, red rash that forms on the skin when victims first contract the plague.” We all quit drinking coffee and suddenly the circular sweet rolls in front of us didn’t seem so appetizing.

She went on: “A pocket full of posies” refers to flowers that everyone carried in the belief that they would ward off the evil spirits that were killing everyone.”

As for the flowers, they were used at weddings way back when to cover up the smell of humans who hadn’t bathed all winter. Furthermore, flowers at funerals were there for the same purpose, kind of, to cover up the smell of a body before embalming became popular. Maybe that was what the posies were really for back in 1347—covering up the smell of death. All this in church came to me, but I didn’t bring it up. This lady was doing well enough on her own.

“Ashes, ashes,” she went on to explain, referred to what was left after the diseased bodies were burned. The source to which I have since referred also speculated that “ashes, ashes” might have referred to the sneezing sound that people with the plague made, so if you got the ring around the rosie, and obviously the pocket full of posies didn’t work, you went “a-choo, a-choo” which later turned into the sound made by the word “ashes.”

Another possible explanation for this “ashes, ashes” was to the homes which were immediately burnt after the victims expired. Likely they were burned with the homes. Since everyone back then had a thatched roof, this part could have been pretty tricky.

Another explanation provided was that the term “ashes, ashes” referred to the blackish color of the victim’s skin, which, since this was called the black plague, might make some sense.

“We all fall down” is almost self explanatory. With one out of three people succumbing to this disease, it must have seemed indeed like they were all falling down.

And now, the truth: First, no recorded version of this little children’s song popped up until the early nineteenth century. For something to exist that long and not be written down is extremely unlikely. In fact, the first “plague” explanation of this rhyme popped up in the early 1900’s, in a piece of written fiction. A parallel today exists in the book “The da Vinci Code,” which purports to explain all sorts of weird connections between his painting and the bible.

The more likely explanation, according to research, is that the Protestant ban on dancing in the 19th century was gotten around by adolescents who came up with their “ring” dances, with sing-song rhymes. “Ashes, ashes” is a variation on “husha, husha,” which refers to stopping the ring and becoming silent. The rest is pretty much self explanatory.

More coffee, anyone?