Monday, July 9, 2007

Nursery Rhymes - Simply Child's Play?

The other day I had gone to spend the day at a friend's and was playing with her one and half year old son who is truly adorable and we were singing all these old nursery rhymes and having a merry old time.

Most of us have grown up with nursery rhymes, such as Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty, Georgie Peorgie or Baa Baa Black Sheep, and all the others. Although singing with kids we add effects and movements to make them cute and fun, most of these rhymes have historical connotations behind them some of which are downright sinister.

We still recite these stories without knowing the colorful history or gossip behind them as these rumors and stories do not affect us. The story may have disappeared but the music is still repeated each time we sing along with kids. So I thought why not create a post and try to re-create the past hidden in these inconspicuous sounding rhymes. So I did a bit of research and compiled a few nursery rhymes and the meanings that were supposed to be behind them.

Most of the popular ones came from British politics, in fact they were invented as a way of spreading gossip about royalty. Almost every nursery rhyme has a story behind it. Baa Baa Black Sheep was about taxation, The Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe was referring to the British Empire trying to control its colonies.

Ring around the rosies,
Pocket full of posies,
Ashes, ashes
We all fall down.

This one is the one I called sinister, its about the black plague- the symptom of which included circles around the eyes (ring around the rosies), and coughing up dried blood from the lungs, resembling ashes. The pocket full of posies was a medieval belief that posies held some curative measures against the plague, so carrying around that flower would keep you safe. Finally, the last line spells out the unavoidable ending to the story, of everyone falling down, dead.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again!
Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon during the English Civil War (1642-49). It was mounted on top of the St. Mary's at the Wall Church in Colchester defending the city against siege in the summer of 1648. (Although Colchester was a Parliamentarian stronghold, it was captured by the Royalists who held it for 11 weeks.) The church tower was hit by the enemy and the top of the tower was blown off, sending "Humpty" tumbling to the ground. Naturally the King's men* tried to mend him but in vain. * The "men" would have been infantry, and "horses" the cavalry troops.
- From the East Anglia Tourist Board in England

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.

Naughty "Georgie Porgie"of the Stuart era!
The origins of the lyrics to "Georgie Porgie" are English and refer to the courtier George Villiers, 1st duke of Duke of Buckingham (1592–1628). King James I took Villiers as his lover and nicknamed him "Steenie" (a reference to St. Stephen whom in the Bible describes as having the "face of an angel"). Villier's good looks also appealed to the ladies and his highly suspect morals were much in question!

Affair with the married lady - the Queen of France!
Villiers most notorious affair was with his liaison with Anne of Austria, (1601–1666) who was the Queen of France and married to the French King Louis XIII badly injured both of their reputations. This, however, was overlooked due to his great friendship with the English King, James I (1586 - 1625). He was disliked by both courtiers and commoners, not least for helping to arrange the marriage of King James' son to the French Catholic princess Henrietta Maria (1609-1669) - he later became King Charles I (1600-1649).

George Villiers ( Georgie Porgie )exercised great influence over the King who allowed him many liberties. Villiers private liaisons and political scheming were questioned and Parliament who finally lost patience and stopped the King intervening on behalf of "Georgie Porgie". The romantic elements of of George Villiers and Anne of Austria are featured in the novel 'The Three Musketeers' by Alexander Dumas.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after

A picture of a French Revolution execution Scene during the Reign of Terror

The roots of the story, or poem, of Jack and Jill are in France. Jack and Jill referred to are said to be King Louis XVI - Jack -who was beheaded (lost his crown) followed by his Queen Marie Antoinette - Jill - (who came tumbling after). The words and lyrics to the Jack and Jill poem were made more acceptable as a story for children by providing a happy ending! The actual beheadings occurred in during the Reign of Terror in 1793. The first publication date for the lyrics of Jack and Jill rhyme is 1795 - which ties-in with the history and origins.

Rock-a-bye-baby On the treetop
When the wind blows,
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall
And down will come baby
Cradle and all

The author of this well-loved lullaby was reportedly a pilgrim who sailed on the Mayflower. The Wampanoag Indians, who befriended the colonists, carried their infants in cradleboards on their backs. In temperate weather, they suspended the cradles from tree limbs so that passing breezes could rock the babies while their mothers tended the maize and beans. With typical motherly indulgence, the cradles were decorated with shells, beads and porcupine quills. For sober-minded puritans, the sight of a birch tree festooned with such cradles must have been very memorable indeed.

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

The Mary alluded to in this traditional English nursery rhyme is reputed to be Mary Tudor, or Bloody Mary, who was the daughter of King Henry VIII. Queen Mary was a staunch Catholic and the garden referred to is an allusion to graveyards which were increasing in size with those who dared to continue to adhere to the Protestant faith - Protestant martyrs.

Instruments of Torture!
The silver bells and cockle shells referred to in the Nursery Rhyme were colloquialisms for instruments of torture. The 'silver bells' were thumbscrews which crushed the thumb between two hard surfaces by the tightening of a screw. The 'cockleshells' were believed to be instruments of torture which were attached to the genitals!

The " Maids" or Maiden was the original guillotine!
The 'maids' were a device to behead people called the Maiden. Beheading a victim was fraught with problems. It could take up to 11 blows to actually sever the head, the victim often resisted and had to be chased around the scaffold. Margaret Pole (1473 - 1541), Countess of Salisbury did not go willingly to her death and had to be chased and hacked at by the Executioner. These problems led to the invention of a mechanical instrument (now known as the guillotine) called the Maiden - shortened to Maids in the Mary Mary Nursery Rhyme.

This drawing was created by the talented Scottish artist Shona Penny - was inspired by the origins of the 'Mary, Mary Quite Contrary' Nursery Rhyme.

Goosey Goosey Gander where shall I wander,
Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady's chamber
There I met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers,
I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.
Goosey, Goosey Gander is a Rhyme with Historical undertones - an attention grabber for a nursery rhyme which uses alliteration in the lyrics designed to intrigue any child. The 'lady's chamber' was a room that once upon a time a high born lady would have her own chamber, (also referred to as a solar). The origins of the nursery rhyme are believed to date back to the 16th century and refer to necessity for Catholic priests to hide in 'Priest Holes' ( very small secret rooms once found in many great houses in England) to avoid persecution from zealous Protestants who were totally against the old Catholic religion. If caught both the priest and members of any family found harbouring them were executed. The moral in Goosey Goosey Gander's lyrics imply that something unpleasant would surely happen to anyone failing to say their prayers correctly - meaning the Protestant Prayers, said in English as opposed to Catholic prayers which were said in Latin!

ALTERNATE VERSION: The rhyme possibly could also refer to Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads. The first line is a reference to "goose-stepping" Roundheads who would search houses for Royalists. Anyone who refused to accept Puritan ways was arrested and thrown in jail.

There are many who will possibly have different interpretations to each and some who will even refute that this is actually what they mean, but still it's fun to read the stories and rumours circulating behind some of our favorite memories of oft-repeated rhymes from our childhood which we undoubtedly want to pass on to our kids.


Bush Mackel said...

Nice post. I forgot about some of the real stories behind the rhymes, but truthfully - Most of them I never knew! The nightmares I'm gonna have tonight!

The Real Mother Hen said...

Very good research Random! Very impressive. I didn't even realize there were stories behind.

Jod{i} said...

I had a whole semester of analyzing children's stories, rhymes and fables...interesting stuff! Great post!
And..Messages template, I did a while back..Surprised anyone really goes there!

Greg said...

Great post. The next question is why would anyone write nursery rhymes like this? Well they were never intended to be nursery rhymes; they were intended to be tongue-in-cheek pokes to those in power or enemies. The kind of things recited in pubs like a dirty joke that nobody else is to hear. I've even heard that some were created as a sort of password for clandestine meetings.

insanity-suits-me (Dawn) said...

What amazes me is how well they "stuck" through the years. I knew every one by heart as a child and even when I learned the gruesome meanings behind them - I still taught them to my weird...

HollyGL said...

Great post, Random. I'll never think of Jack and Jill the same way again! Yikes!

Epimenides said...

Fascinating! I never knew that those nursery rhimes had anything to do with history!
Important info: My favourite one is "The Grand old Duke of York and his 100,000 men". I needed to share this information with the world! :)

Epimenides said...

Oops! It was actually 1,000 men, wasn't it!

Random Magus said...

bush mackel: Sorry for being th one responsible for giving you nightmares

The Real Mother Hen: There are so many more but had to keep the post short as it is its so long

Jodi: My next research is going to be for the stories.

Random Magus said...

Greg: Sing a song of six pence was supposed to be a code for recruiting pirates

Insanity-suits me: I love kids, so at one point I used to teach kids in Kindergarten and would act out these rhymes. They would love it

Hollygl: Hey sorry! I feel bad now thank God I didn't add more.

Epimendides: I don't remember that one though

Anonymous said...

That really was impressive...I had no idea...will never think of them in the same light!

meleah rebeccah said...

awesome! post! excellent research!

(personally ...I happen to be frightened of some of the nursery rhymes)

Random Magus said...

I feel quite terrible for ruining happy memories... never thought about that

the domestic minx said...

Oh I do so love it when there is something lurking behind the facade. I love fairytales for this very reason!!
A brilliant post!!

I love your blog, you gorgeous girl, and am adding you to my blogroll so I can visit you on a daily basis xxx

Random Magus said...

The sentiment is completely reciprocated - your blog's so alive and so much fun to read

Titania Starlight said...

Awesome post. I knew about some of these but not all of them. Good thing children do not pay attention to the devious ways of adults.

Looney Mom said...

That's all pretty creepy. Wonder if I should ever read these to the kids again... LOL!

QUASAR9 said...

lol Random,
and you still feel like singing lullabys - with all those maccabre connotations behind them?

Blur Ting said...

Wow, I would have never known the meanings behinds these popular poems if not for you. think that these are some of the first things kids are exposed to from birth.

Amel's Realm said...

VERY interesting!!! Back in Indo we didn't know anything about English Nursery Rhymes, so I never thought about the real stories behind the rhymes.

rp said...

Neat post. I know many of the nursery rhyme origins, and am puzzled anew as to why we insist on perpetuating them, albeit in a seemingly innocuous form...must be the human penchant for an oral history.

BTW, I thought ashes, ashes, we all fall down referred to the fact that bodies from the black plague were cremated in the only real form of infection control available at the time. I could very well be wrong.

Random Magus said...

rP: Hi.. the one I did in school was

Ring a Ring O' Roses,
A pocketful of posies,
Atishoo! Atishoo!
We all fall down!

'Atishoo' was the sneezing that would accompany before they all 'feel down' and died!

Weirdly enough one part of brain processes all this but the other part still clings to the wonder of these nursery rhymes - the abridged verison of course!

Goldy said...

Really interesting. I knew about Ring Around the Rosie but that's it. It's amazing how things get passed down and lose or change their meaning.

QUASAR9 said...

I know, I know
that is one nursery rhyme that you see kids having fun with - the last thing on the childs mind is the concept of death ...

But then even as we grow older, we still sing certain songs longing for heroes or feats of love, sometimes unaware of the barbarities we profess we would commit or condone to achieve our desires

Random Magus said...

Goldy: I remember the first time I found out that these had actually other meaning I was fascinated but strangely enough not horrified. Still am not

Quasar9: I think when you are singing along with a child and they look so happy because they are dancing and twirling with you that all the macabre thoughts are kept on one side. It's amazing the facility of our brain to partition things - which is a great thing!

Empress Bee (of the High Sea) said...

wow what a lot of information! thanks. never knew most of it!

smiles, bee

Random Magus said...

And this is even after cutting it short

Anonymous said...

Very informative, I never knew some of the stories behind the nursery rhymes you mentioned. I grew up reading these same tales. Thank you for such an insightful posting. I really enjoyed reading it. Bravo on such in-depth research.

tigergirl said...

Hi Random - I've been away for a bit but now I'm back. I knew the background of a couple of these but certainly not all of them - what an eye opener!

Cindy said...

This is brillant! I love tales and rhymes so much, so reading this post, and finding the meanings behind the ones I didn't know what brillance. You wrote it really well and I enjoyed it a great deal. :D

Random Magus said...

John M. Justice: Thank you - it was fun finding there were so many others I had to leave out for brevity's sake

Tigergirl: Hey glad to have you back!!

Cindy: Thank you - my contribution was the stuff that didn't talk about the particular rhymes ie the beginning and end and some of the middle :)

Blog Author Ann Clemmons said...

I love this post! I've always wondered what in the world was behind them! Now I know! "Ring Around The Rosie" is by far the creepiest one!

Great job!


A Nice Place In The Sun

Random Magus said...

Thanks Ann - I know imagine roses and a ghastly death in the same verse

eastcoastdweller said...

Darned if I can remember where, but just recently I read a refutation of the Ring Around the Rosies -- Black Plague thing.

Said that the earliest versions of that rhyme don't have some of the plaguish-sounding elements and that the earliest known versions of the rhyme appear to have come out centuries after the worst of the plague.

eastcoastdweller said...

That it was, after all, just an innocent rhyme about children picking flowers.

I can't speak for the other rhymes, though.

Ian said...

A very interesting post. Thank you for doing the research and posting it.

Random Magus said...

eastcoastdweller: Probably in Wikipedia. Thanks for stopping by.

Ian: Thanks Ian - it was fun to do the research. And thank you as well for stopping by

Adrian said...

I've always wondered about the origins of those nursery rhymes! Some are a little morbid like the three blind mice and the carving knife LOL Most of the fairy tales are morbid too. Nice post! :)

Random Magus said...

According to one interpretation [these rhymes have various ones] "The origin of the words to the Three blind mice rhyme are based in English history. The 'farmer's wife' refers to the daughter of King Henry VIII, Queen Mary I. Mary was a staunch Catholic and her violent persecution of Protestants led to the nickname of 'Bloody Mary'. The reference to 'farmer's wife' in Three blind mice refers to the massive estates which she, and her husband King Philip of Spain, possessed. The 'three blind mice' were three noblemen who adhered to the Protestant faith who were convicted of plotting against the Queen - she did not have them dismembered and blinded as inferred in Three blind mice - but she did have them burnt at the stake!"

Anonymous said...

"Jack and Jill" is actually much older than the French Revolution - although it's possible that people adopted and adapted it to that meaning. The origin of the rhyme is considered to be a Norse myth about two children on the moon. Didn't know most of the other stuff though. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Don't believe a word of it. Do some proper research and I suggest you will find that this is mostly out of date speculations repeated by poorly trained schoolteachers.

Nika Dubrovsky said...

great post!
thank you!!
I am doing a book about this poetry now,
it was translated into Russian (I am from USSR), but I never new about the origin of all this!!

Anonymous said...

nice post. I would love to follow you on twitter.

Anonymous said...

Unbelievable, that' s exactly what I was seeking for! You just saved me alot of work

Beth said...

Actually, Humpty Dumpty was based on the signing of the Magna Carta, in 1215 AD. This ended the rule of Prince John, who could no longer rule his people for his own gain. His subjects secretly wrote this song to mock him...

Dan said...

There is another version of the "ring a rosies" words where the third line goes --- "atishoo, atishoo"

--- referring to the coughing and sneezing of plague victims before the end.