Right at this moment, mothers of small children, around the world, are singing along to seemingly innocuous nursery rhymes that, if you dig a little deeper, reveal shockingly sinister backstories.
Medieval taxes, illness, religious persecution : these are not exactly the topics that you expect to be immersed in as a “new parent.” Babies falling from trees ? Heads being chopped off in Central London ? Animals being cooked alive ? Since when were these topics DEEMED APPROPRIATE TO PEDDLE TO TODDLERS ? — Since the 14th century, actually. That’s when the earliest nursery rhymes seem to date from, although the GOLDEN AGE came later, in the 18th century, when the cannon of classics that we still hear today, emerged and flourished. The 1st nursery rhyme collection to be printed was Tommy Thumb’s Song Book —- around 1744 ; a century later Edward Rimbault published a nursery rhymes collection, which was the 1st one printed to include “notated music” —— although a minor-key version of THREE BLIND MICE can be found in Thomas Ravenscroft’s folk-song compilation DEUTEROMELIA, dating from 1609.
The roots probably go back even further. There is no human culture that has not invented some form of “rhyming ditties” for its children. The distinctive sing-song metre, tonality and rhythm that characterises “MOTHERESE” has a proven evolutionary value and is reflected in the very nature of nursery rhymes. According to child development experts Sue Palmer & Ros Bayley, nursery rhymes with music significantly aid a child’s “mental development” and “spatial reasoning”. Seth Lerer, Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University California, San Diego, has also emphasised the ability of nursery rhymes to foster “emotional connection” & “cultivate language”. “It is a way of completing the world through rhyme,” he said in an interview on the website of NBC’s Today Show . “When we sing [them], we’re participating in something that bonds parent and child.”
So, when modern parents expose their children to “vintage” nursery rhymes, they’re engaging with a centuries-old tradition that, on the surface at least, is not only harmless, but potentially beneficial. But, what about those “twisted lyrics” & “dark backstories” ? To unpick the meanings behind the rhymes is to be thrust into a world not of sweet princesses and cute animals, but of messy clerical, political, religious violence, sex, illness, murder, spies, traitors and the supernatural.
Take a look at some of the nursery rhymes :
(1) BAA, BAA BLACK SHEEP : is about medieval “wool tax”, imposed in the 13th century by King Edward–1. Under the new rule, one-third of the cost of a sack of wool went to him, another went to the Church and the last to the farmer (in the original version, nothing was therefore left for the little shepherd boy who lives down the lane). Black sheep were also considered “bad luck”, because their fleeces, unable to be dyed, were less lucrative for the farmer.
(2) RING a RING o ROSES or RING AROUND THE ROSIE : may be about the 1665 Great Plague of London : the “rosie” being the rash that developed on the skin of plague sufferers, the stench of which then needed concealing with a “pocket full of posies”.
(3) ROCK-A-BYE-BABY: refers to events preceding the Glorious Revolution, The baby, in question, is supposed to be the son of King James –2 of England, but was another man’s child smuggled into the birthing-room to ensure a Roman Catholic heir. The rhyme is laced with “connotation” : the “wind” may be the Protestant forces blowing in from the Netherlands; the doomed “cradle” the Royal House of Stuart. The earliest recorded version of the words, in print, contained the ominous footnote : This may serve as a warning to the Proud & Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last”.
(4) MARY, MARY QUITE CONTRARY : may be about Bloody Mary, daughter of King Henry —VIII and concerns the torture and murder of Protestants. Queen Mary was a staunch Catholic and her “garden” here is an allusion to the graveyards which were filled with Protestant martyrs. The “silver bells” were “thumbscrews” while “cockleshells” were “instruments of torture”.
(5) GOOSEY, GOOSEY GANDER : is another tale of religious persecution, but from the other side : it reflects a time when Catholic Priests would have to say their forbidden Latin-based prayers in secret —- even in the privacy of their own homes.
(6) HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH : originate at Wakefield Prison in England, where female inmates had to exercise around a mulberry tree in the prison yard.
(7) ORANGES & LEMONS : follows a condemned man en route to his execution —– “Here comes a chopper / To chop off your head” ——- past a slew of famous London Churches —- St. Clemens, St. Martins, Old Bailey, Bow, Stepney and Shoreditch.
(8) POP GOES THE WEASEL : is an apparently nonsensical rhyme that, upon subsequent inspection, reveals itself to in fact be about poverty, pawn-broking, the minimum wage and hitting the Eagle Tavern on London’s City Road.
In our own sanitised times, the idea of presenting these gritty themes, specifically to an infant audience seems bizarre. It outraged Victorians, too, who founded the British Society for Nursery Rhyme Reform, and took great pains to clean up the cannon. As late as 1941, the Society was condemning 100 of the most common nursery rhymes including HUMPTY DUMPTY and THREE BLIND MICE for “harbouring unsavoury elements”. The long list of sins included —– 21 cases of death (notably choking, decapitation, hanging, drowning, shrivelling and squeezing), 12 cases of torment to animals and 1 case each of consuming human flesh, body-snatching and the desire to have one’s limb severed”.
A lot of children’s literature has a very dark origin. Nursery rhymes are part of long-standing traditions of parody and a popular political resistance to high culture and royalty. Indeed, at a time when to caricature royalty and politicians was punishable by death, nursery rhymes proved a potent way to smuggle in “coded or thinly-veiled messages” in the guise of children’s entertainment. In largely illiterate societies, the catchy sing-song melodies helped people remember the stories and, crucially, pass them on to the next generation. Whatever else they may be, nursery rhymes are a “triumph of the power of oral history”. Some of the shorter rhymes, particularly those with nonsense or repetitive words attract small children even without the tunes. They like the sound and rhythm of the words, of course the tune enhances that attraction. The result can be more than the sum of the parts.
Clemency Burton-Hill (BBC)