I just love a bit of trivia, especially when it’s on subject matter that I love. Like nursery rhymes, for example.
What is it about nursery rhymes? What is it that enchants us even now as we slide into middle age? Is it because they send us back to an unfettered childhood of nonsense and whimsy? Or is because they harbour a deeper meaning that stealthily and almost subconsciously links us to our forebears – to genetic knowledge from our long forgotten heritage?
Let me explain.
When my son Riley turned one, I threw him a nursery rhyme-inspired party. Now, that was a lot of fun.
During the put-party-together stage (which is almost as fun as the resulting party), I happened to research a little on the history of common nursery rhymes. We all grew up with well-worn faves such as Jack and Jill and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and the visual imagery invoked by these verses is still vivid in our adults years… the three blind mice scampering from a knife-wielding madwoman… Jack taking a leap over a flaming candle… Humpty crumbling to rubble at the foot of the wall.
But did you know that many of these nursery rhymes came from historical events or situations? Many of the most popular nursery rhymes in our culture actually originate from British politics, and were invented as an unindictable way of spreading gossip about royalty. While these rumors have no bearing on our lives any more, the rhymes they produced continue to live on – as do the supposed meaning behind their creation.
Humpty Dumpty, for example, was meant to be written about King Richard III. The Three Blind Mice was supposedly an ode to Queen Mary I and Jack Sprat was purportedly King Charles I. The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe was referring to the British Empire trying to control its colonies.
A lot about nursery rhyme history is subject to interpretation, but based on anthropological evidence, it is believed nursery rhymes and tales actually date from prehistoric times, and have spread all over the world, shifting, growing and morphing via both migration and interpretation – from language to colloquialism to simple nuance.
Of course, new rhymes are being creating all the time – and each one has its origins and hidden messages – although more commonly the message is predetermined and deliberate rather than deliciously clandestine and metaphorical or – dare I say it – perhaps a little controversial.
So, in celebration of this latter form of nursery rhyme, I hope you enjoy this rundown on the origins of some of our best-loved nursery rhymes. Which is your child’s favourite?
Ring Around the Rosie
Ring around the Rosie
A pocket full of posies
Atishoo atishoo (ashes, ashes in the USA)
We all fall down
Originally Ring a Ring o’ Roses, this rhyme was believed to be about the black plague. Symptoms of this terrible pandemic included black circles around the eyes (ring around the rosies) and sneezing or coughing up dried blood (perhaps resembling ashes). Medieval folk believed that a pocket full of posies held curative properties against the plague and the last line of the rhyme was of course the inevitable death knell.
Three men in a tub
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker
Turn ’em out, knaves all three!
The most likely origins of this rhyme appear to be nothing more than a drunken boys’ night out. Apparently, three lay-about journeymen were out for the evening at a local side-show when they spied three beautiful young women sitting in a bath-tub. When the three enthusiastic men jumped into the bath with the girls, they were not only thrown out by the fair manager, they probably made local gossip rags. Naughty boys.
Jack Be Nimble
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack jump over the candlestick
Jack jumped over, Jack jumped over
A candlestick, a candlestick
Jump, jump, jump, Jack jump!
This one has a simple explanation. During wedding celebrations in years of yore, guests took turns leaping over a lit candle. If you knocked out the flame, you would attract a year of bad luck but if the candle remained lit, you were in for a good year.
Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater
Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her
Put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her, very well
Apparently, poor old Peter was an impoverished man with an unfaithful wife (he couldn’t ‘keep’ her), so he had her locked up in a chastity belt (pumpkin shell). Once locked up, he obviously kept her very well.
Baa Baa Black Sheep
Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full
One for my master, one for my dame
And one for the little boy who lives in the lane
Perhaps one of the all-time favourite nursery rhymes, this verse has a rather un-childlike origin. Baa Baa Black Sheep is said to have been written in protest against the export tax imposed in Britain in 1275. In this rhyme, the master symbolises the king.