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.