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Monday, September 10, 2012

Whimsical songs about ghastly death

Jeremy and both want to use the iPad, but neither of us wants to be the one to take the iPad from the other, so we just had a minor tussle in which the iPad was shoved back and forth between us. He has the iPad, so it seems I won... or lost. Good grief. You expect this sort of thing from newlyweds, but we're approaching six years of this nonsense. Can a relationship be too functional?
Last time we met, I rained on the parades of museum tour guides the world over with my chilling expose on the false origins of the phrase sleep tight. This week, it seems I'll have to do something similar to black plague enthusiasts. Probably.
Yes, there are black plague enthusiasts. I am one. Really, it's a miracle I have any friends at all. I mean who, upon being accosted by a graphic description of the blackening of the skin caused by the necrosis that is part of the last phase of the disease things "I should like to be friends with this person"? My friends, that's who. Because they're awesome.
To feed my creepy obsession with the black death, I read a lot of books on the subject, most of which at some point told me that the children's song Ring Around the Rosie was an allegory for the black death of the 14th century. The ring of roses was said to refer to the red rash that was often a first sign of the disease. The posies of the second line referred to the fact that people carried flowers to ward off death or to mask its stench (dude... you know how using floral air freshener to mask the smell of poop usually just makes your bathroom smell like floral poop Imagine the smell of floral death... ugh). The ashes of the third line are said to refer to the dust to which the victims turn, and we all fall down refers to keeling over dead. There are variations on the meanings - the posies refer to the flowers buried with the dead, ashes is meant to mimic the sound of sneezing, etc.
None of which really holds up to logical scrutiny. The red rash, as it turns out, isn't so much a symptom of the plague as a symptom of the fleas that gave one the plague... and considering the filth in which the folks of the 14th century lived, I imagine just about everyone experienced rings of rosies pretty much all the time. Further, the rosies don't really form the shape of a ring, they mostly form the shape of a bunch of flea bites. 
And the non-ring of non-roses was most certainly not the most obvious symptoms of the plague. That honor would belong to the bubos - really gross bloody, pussy lumps found in the groin and armpits of the stricken. So logically, you'd think the song would begin with Ring a bunch of big-ass disgusting puss balls. Although I admit it doesn't have the same ring.
Further, the song doesn't show up in print until the 19th century. Sure, it was probably around for some time before it was recorded, but the idea that kids had been celebrating the plague in song for five hundred years before anyone thought to write the thing down is a stretch. Even if the song actually referred to the last great outbreak in the sixteen hundreds, that's still a pretty long gestation period.
The final nail in the Black Plague coffin, however, comes from, which tells me that the whole plague interpretation doesn't show up anywhere in print until the middle of the 20th century. That makes it speculative etymology, a field about as credible as cryptozoology
Plus, why in the holy hell would children be skipping around in circles singing about one of the most horrible things that happened in human history? Wouldn't that be a lot like children in WWII Germany playing dancing games to lyrics about the holocaust?
Snopes sums up their article on the subject with a quote from John Lennon that I find particularly apt...
We've learned over the years that if we wanted we could write anything that just felt good or sounded good and it didn't necessarily have to have any particular meaning to us. As odd as it seemed to us, reviewers would take it upon themselves to interject their own meanings on our lyrics. Sometimes we sit and read other people's interpretations of our lyrics and think, 'Hey, that's pretty good.' If we liked it, we would keep our mouths shut and just accept the credit as if it was what we meant all along.
Wait. Does that mean "I am the Walrus" doesn't mean that Paul is dead?


CNC said...

Ah, Snopes, the ruiner of so many trivia games for me. Because when questions about items like this pop up, I have to think "do they want the real answer, or the urban legend answer they think is real and that everybody knows?"

Anonymous said...

Reading this post was a flashback do 1994 and those term papers we had to do for history/English and Anne G. showing pictures of plague art with some a look in her eye that other people reserve for luxury cars and large diamonds.