They’re the first songs we ever learned as children and we still love and adore them, although, when you really deconstruct the lyrics and illustrations, nursery rhymes really don’t make an sense?
As kids, we’d collectively sing about a giant egg falling off a wall, a cow jumping over the moon and some dear called Mary who thought silver bells and cockle shells made great garden fertiliser.
However, despite the fact we’re enchanted by these songs during the most innocent times of our lives, along with the fact we remember them well into our adulthood, so many people don’t actually know the original origins of our favourite nursery rhymes.Well, you may think we were singing about friendly farmyard animals and village do-gooders, but in fact, we were singing about plagues, prostitution and persecution, as nursery rhymes were originally introduced as a way of parodying subjects such as the political actions of a government, utilising rhymes as a way for people to easily remember and spread the scandals.
Certainly not topics we’d usually deem appropriate for toddler;
‘Three Blind Mice’ (1805)
Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?
Tudor queen, Mary I was not only known as the Catholic daughter of King Henry VIII, but also as “Bloody Mary” due to her violent prosecution of those who adhered to the Protestant faith. With reference to ‘Three Blind Mice’, Mary is indeed the “farmer’s wife” in question, and the three blind mice refer to three Protestant Bishops – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer – who attempted to overthrow the queen’s reign.
However, their attempt was unsuccessful, and Mary I saw that they were punished for their actions. Did she blind them as the poem suggests? Nope… she burned them all at the steak. It’s reasons like that why this won’t be Mary’s first appearance on this list.
‘Ring Around The Rosy’/’Ring-A-Ring O’ Rosies’ (1881)
Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
“Ashes, Ashes”/”A-tishoo, A-Tishoo”
We all fall down
It is commonly believed that the lyrics to this particular nursery rhyme/child’s ring game, refer to the Great Plague of London in 1665, in which a quarter of London’s population was wiped out. The lyrics “ring around the rosy” refer to the red ring-shaped rash that would appear on the skin of those who transmitted the bubonic plague. The “pocket full of posies” refer to the fact many people at the time would fill their pockets with sweet smelling herbs (as they believed the illness was transmitted through bad smells.
The term “ashes, ashes” refers not only to the ashes of the cremated bodies that succumbed to the illness, but also the Great Fire of London which eventually put an end to plague. However, the “a-tishoo” lyrics in the English version refers to the violent see
The English version of “Ring around the rosy” replaces Ashes with (A-tishoo, A-tishoo) as violent sneezing was another symptom of the disease. We recommend the following site for comprehensive information regarding the Bubonic Plague.
‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ (1731)
Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!
One for the master, one for the dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.
Though most scholars agree that ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ is a rhyme regarding the Great Custom, a tax on wool that was introduced by King Edward I (the “master”) in 1275, its use of the color “black” and the term “master” led many people to wonder whether or not there is actually a more destructive racial message behind its origins.
Towards the latter part of the 20th century (definitely past 1997, because I can remember singing the original version), political correctness caused many schools from either banning the rhyme from their classrooms, or substituting the world “black” for something less offensive. In 2011, news.com.au reported on the proliferation of “Baa, baa rainbow sheep” as an alternative.
I’ve even met a teacher who was told the staff at her school were unable to sing the poem, unless it accompanied by a second first starting with, ‘Laa, laa white sheep…’.
‘Little Tommy Tucker’ (1829)
Little Tommy Tucker sings for his supper,
What shall we give him? Brown bread and butter.
How shall he cut it without a knife?
How shall he marry without a wife?
Although many kids still sing this humble nursery rhyme, chances are, none of them have it as bad as the original Tommy Tucker – or Tommy Tuckers – as that name was actually a colloquial term used describe orphans people would find begging on the streets or, ‘singing for their supper’.
The reference to Little Tommy Tucker knife is believed to be a reference to the orphan’s lack of wealth, and the lack of a wife reflects the difficulty of any orphan being able to marry due to their exceptionally low standing within society.
‘Goosey Goosey Gander’ (1784)
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.
Nothing says religious persecution more than farmyard birds and alliteration. Far from a fleeced nursery rhyme, this tale actually refers to the days when Catholic priests take themselves into secret “Priest Holes” in an effort to hide from the Protestants whilst they said their Latin-based prayers – something which was a definite no-no at the time, in fact, if caught, both the priest and members of any family found harbouring them were executed.
‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’ (1744)
Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.
Now we have to welcome back Queen Mary I, as this nursery rhyme is all about her creative methods of executing hundreds of protestants during her reign from 1553 to 1558. First of all, silver bells and cockle shells are certainly not innocent – they were torture devices. “Silver bells” were actually thumbscrews which crushed the thumb between two hard surfaces by the tightening of a screw, and “cockleshells” are believed to be instruments of torture which were attached to the genitals.
Next, the “maids” in question refer to “maidens”, which was a device used to ease the beheading of unwilling victims.
Looking back, “contrary” is quite a nice way to describe Mary.
‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’ (1840)
Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
So early in the morning.
‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’ is more commonly sung as part of the children’s singing game, in which children would act out the different activities.
According to historian, R. S. Duncan, who is also a former governor of England’s Wakefield Prison, the song originated with that 420-year-old institution’s female prisoners, who were chained together (hence the holding of hands in the game) and exercised around a mulberry tree. This would also explain the routine group exercises mentioned in later verses such as brushing teeth, washing faces and combing hair.
‘The Grand Old Duke Of York’
The Grand old Duke of York he had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.
When they were up, they were up
And when they were down, they were down
And when they were only halfway up
They were neither up nor down.
As most people would guess, this rhyme carries significant historical origins. In this case the ‘Duke of York’, is Richard, the claimant to the English throne and Protector of England and the Battle of Wakefield on December 30, 1460.
The Duke of York and his army marched to his castle at Sandal, which was situated on a hill 33ft above ground level, where they adopted a defensive position against the Lancastrian army.
Then, in a moment of madness, he ordered his army to exit the stronghold, and went down to make a direct attack on the Lancastrians (‘he marched them down again’). His army were conquered, and Richard the Duke of York was killed.
There we have it. So the next time you see a sweet and innocent child singing ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’, it’s probably best to deal with that satanic psycho in the most appropriate way possible.
Oh, and for those still wondering, ‘Humpty Dumpty’ was a large cannon.
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