The Black Death

In 1333 an epidemic which would eventually kill two-thirds of China's inhabitants struck the northeastern Chinese province of Hopei, claiming up to 90% of the population - some five million Chinese. Then the disease began to spread to Europe. In 1347, it was in Constantinople, where it was called "The Great Dying." This black curse quickly moved from China to the Balkan states and on into Europe. After just a few years, the black death spread northward. The plague reached Russia, Scandinavia, and beyond. 25 million people died in Europe. About a third of the people in England were killed. Regular outbreaks followed for centuries after. Medieval magicians and healers believed that flowers and herbs would prevent the plague, and those disposing of the corpses wore leather headgear with long beaks stuffed with concoctions of flowers and herbs.

The children's rhyme "Ring Around the Rosie" refers to this magical practise. In plague times, the "rosie" was a rash that appeared as victims first came down with the disease. "Pocket full of posies" refers to this belief that flowers and herbs were a defense against sickness. The posies did sometimes help with the overpowering smell of death. "Ashes, ashes," is from the funereal "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." And the final line, "all fall down" refers to the many that dropped dead of the Black Death.


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