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Poor little posies, what did they ever do to deserve an unfair association with something as horrible as the Great Plague?
I recall, many years ago, a college professor of mine telling our history class about the "true" basis for the children's rhyme, "Ring Around the Rosie." There are many variations of this rhyme, depending on where you grew up, and in which century, but the version I learned as a child goes like this:
Ring around the rosie Pocket full of posies Ashes, Ashes We all fall down!
Children sing it while holding hands and walking in a circle, and all plop down on their little behinds on the last line, amidst a fit of giggles. Earlier versions start with "Ring a ring o' rosies" and replace the "Ashes, Ashes" line with "Hush, hush, hush, hush" or "Atishoo, atishoo," assumed to be the sound you make when sneezing. The final line, too, has variations, including, "We're all tumbled down." Historians note that in other children's rhymes and songs, this would call for a deep curtsey, rather than the less-dignified falling on the ground that I practiced as a child! One version, traced back to 1790, goes:
Ring a ring a rosie A bottle full of posie All the girls in our town Ring for little Josie.
Other versions exist, with similar tunes and similar words, in German, Italian, and Swedish. As I was humming it under my breath the other day, I noticed that the first line has the same rhythm and tune as the schoolyard chant, "nanny-nanny-boo-boo" that was used to provoke a classmate into chasing you!
My professor very solemnly explained to us that each element of the rhyme referred to a symptom or result of the Great Plague that swept through England in 1665. The "pocket full of posies," he maintained, were sachets or small bouquets of herbs and flowers that either helped ward off the illness, or masked the horrible odors of death and uncleanliness that lingered everywhere. Other lines, he insisted, referred to the ring-like pustule rash, the ashes of the cremated bodies, and "all fall down" referred to the fact that everyone died.
Thankfully, folklorists have since proven this interpretation to be wrong, and we can go back to enjoying the innocence of the childhood game and the simple pleasure of a handful of blossoms. A couple of links are at the end of this article, presenting the history of the nursery rhyme, and the reason it is so very unlikely to have anything whatsoever to do with the plague, either pneumatic or bubonic. Versions of this children's song were recorded in literature more than a hundred years before the Great Plague struck England, and the symptoms described don't correlate well to the earlier Black Plague, or bubonic plague. In fact, there is no record anywhere of any correlation between the song and the diseases until the mid 1900's, when someone published an explanation of "the true meaning" of the song, and everyone accepted it as fact.
Historically, posies have gone by many different names and spellings. If you do a search on posie, you might find it alternately spelled as posey, posy or even poesy. It usually refers to a small cluster of flowers or herbs, or even a single flower presented to someone special. In some instances, it can also refer to a brief verse of poetry inscribed on a ring or trinket and given to a young lady by an admirer.
In the 15th century, this diminuitive bouquet was called a nosegay. As you can imagine, hygiene was practically unheard of in medieval Europe. Baths were believed to endanger the bather, exposing them to certain illness. Though some cultures had introduced sewer systems of sorts, most of Europe still emptied their chamber pots out their upstairs windows into the streets below. Have you ever wondered about the origin of the tradition of men walking nearer the curb, and their lady friends walking nearer the buildings? This was because of the double risk of a chamber pot being emptied on your head, and also of mud and raw sewage being splashed up onto the walkers by passing horses and carriages. During this time, women would carry nosegays of fragrant flowers or herbs (the name literally means "to make the nose happy,") and men would tuck them into their pockets or lapels, where they could easily turn their heads to take a deep sniff, and cover the unpleasant odors.
In Victorian times, it was more commonly referred to as a tussie-mussie. The Victorians were enthralled with the idea of flowers having specific meanings, so they would assemble their little tussie-mussies with great care to communicate a specific message to the recipient. This Victorian language of flowers was called floriography. Whole books and dictionaries were published with the proscribed meanings of the flowers, based on mythology, religious references, and local traditions. Even the manner of presenting a tussie-mussie carried meaning. The traditional shape for a Victorian posie was a small, round ball-shaped bouquet. The stems were bound together with ribbons, or bound up in a lace doiley or intricate little metal holder, sometimes of silver filigree, which was also called a tussie mussie.
Bouquets of this shape are now most often used as wedding bouquets, though recently longer, more assymmetrical bouquets have come into favor. Corsages are still occasionally worn, generally by men in wedding parties, or by women at formal attire events, like prom. When I was a child, my father would buy my mother a corsage, usually an orchid, for special occasions like Easter or Mother's Day. It is a little sad that this custom of wearing fresh flowers has gone by the wayside.
A tussie-mussie may also be arranged in a vase for display. Quite an industry has been built up around the purchase of cut flowers. Elaborate floral arrangements are displayed at funerals and church services, at hotel desks, in the lobbies of businesses, and at fancy parties. However, many home gardeners still plant what is known as a "cutting garden," full of a variety of flowers that are suitable as cut flowers for bouquets. I'm sure many tables this spring are sporting home-cut arrangements of iris, tulips, and the oh-so-fragrant hyacinths and lilacs. The next time I bury my nose in a handful of lilacs, I'll remember the original meaning of the word nosegay. It is one of my favorite fragrances! I am always torn over when considering whether to cut a bouquet from my garden to enjoy indoors. I love having fresh flowers in my home, but I always feel like it leaves holes in my borders. I don't hesitate to cut from my long row of peony plants, or the lilac that is covered with blooms, but the flowers that only produce a very few showy blooms are harder to cut. I would rather leave them in the garden, where people passing by can enjoy them!
My favorite form of posie, however, is much simpler than anything professionally arranged by a florist, or artfully collected into a vase by a dedicated gardener. My favorite posies are those presented to me by my children. The earliest variations were made up mostly of dandelions. This final picture is of my youngest son with a fistful of violets that he picked especially for me.
Thumbnail image at start of article: .Jill Nicholaus (DG member Critterologist). Long-time Dave's Garden members, and especially those who frequent the Prayer forum, will recognize the model. Thanks, Jill and Joyanna, for your contribution! All rights reserved.
Purple and lavender bouquet: MrBG (Basil Gilbert), courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
Violets in small crystal vase: David Carson, all rights reserved.
Bridal bouquet: Jenny Downing, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
Bouquet of Pansies: EssjayNZ, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
Bouquet of tulips and bleeding hearts in green vase: David Carson, all rights reserved.
Bouquet of alstromeria in square glass vase: ijokhio, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
Child in blue shirt holding violets: Angela Carson, all rights reserved.
About Angela Carson
I was bitten hard by the gardening bug when I was just a child, and have been doing my best to infect as many people as possible ever since! I particularly have a passion for spring bulbs and home-grown vegetables, which I am teaching the next generation how to preserve. My two sons have obviously inherited my interest in growing things, and my husband is starting to see the benefits of less lawn to mow, as long as he doesn't have to do the work of digging up new beds for my latest schemes!