September 21st, 2012

Schnabel

Before the Opies there was Pepys

We all know that "Ring a Ring o' Roses" goes back to the Great Plague, right? Or rather, we all know it doesn't. It must be one of the most thoroughly exploded myths in existence, though I'm sure there's still a smithereen or two in circulation.

Too much myth busting can be a dispiriting experience, and lead to the assumption that all such stories are inventions; but surely this is a myth in itself. Did you know that the still more macabre game of "Light as a Feather, Stiff as Board", beloved of American slumber parties, goes back at least to that time? For witness whereof here is Mr Pepys on July 31st, 1665, reporting the observations of his friend Mr Brisband, who had lately been in France:

He saw four little girles, very young ones, all kneeling, each of them, upon one knee; and one begun the first line, whispering in the ear of the next, and the second to the third, and the third to the fourth, and she to the first. Then the first begun the second line, and so round quite through, and putting each one finger only to a boy that lay flat upon his back on the ground, as if he was dead; at the end of the words, they did with their four fingers raise this boy high as they could reach, and he [Mr. Brisband] being there, and wondering at it, as also being afeared to see it, for they would have had him to have bore a part in saying the words, in the roome of one of the little girles that was so young that they could hardly make her learn to repeat the words, did, for feare there might be some sleight used in it by the boy, or that the boy might be light, call the cook of the house, a very lusty fellow, as Sir G. Carteret's cook, who is very big, and they did raise him in just the same manner.


Pepys notes in the same entry that 1,700-1,800 had died of plague in London that week, and although Brisband's anecdote refers to French children it seems well suited to such a time. He also recorded the rhyme the girls were speaking:

Voyci un Corps mort,
Roy comme un Baston,
Froid comme Marbre,
Leger comme un esprit,
Levons te au nom de Jesus Christ.

Behold, a dead body,
Still as a stone,
Cold as marble,
Light as a spirit,
We lift you in the name of Jesus Christ.


I'm reminded of the old bedtime prayer to the Evangelists, which stations angels around the bed: "One to watch and one to pray/ And two to bear my soul away." But the genealogy of these matters is hard to trace.