The sometimes morbid truth behind 5 of our favourite nursery rhymes
As kids we would sing and dance around the playground innocently singing these popular rhymes, we were blissfully unaware of what the real meaning of these songs were. Where did they come from and what do they really mean?
Mother Goose is credited as the author of some of our most loved childhood stories and nursery rhymes. Surely you will have heard sometime in your life of a Mother Goose story. I know even my kids have. While she was responsible for authoring a lot of stories, it was her Mother Goose Rhymes for which she will be most remembered. These are also known as Nursery Rhymes. What may surprise you is for as famous as Mother Goose is, her real identitiy has never been confirmed, only speculated. Some people believe that in the 17th century she lived in Boston after being widowed by the death of her husband Issac Goose. She was said to move in with her eldest daughter and entertained her Grandchildren with rhymes and stories. Her name was thought to be either Elizabeth Foster Goose or Mary Goose (depending which source you check). Her daughter's husband was a publisher and published these stories and rhymes and so Mother Goose was born. While this is a popular speciation, a lot of history books indicate that this is impossible as Mother Goose is referred to in French literature as early as the 16th century. There is even a very old French legend that King Robert II had a wife who told amazing stories to children everywhere. We may never truely know who the real Mother Goose is, but what we do know is that the stories were originally published by Charles Perrault in 1697 in France. It went by the name 'Les Contes de ma Mère l'Oie (Tales of my Mother Goose)'. In 1729, it was translated to English as Robert Sambers Histories or Tales of Past Times, Told by Mother Goose and was republished in 1786 and brought to the US. When looking at this history, you can see why a lot of people have a problem with the speculated 'Boston based' Mother Goose.
The era in which the tales were written are obviously a lot different to today. Technology was no existent, life expectancy was a lot shorter, medical science had not quite evolved to today's standards and people were often wiped out by disease. Political correctness didn't exist and not all people were considered equal, which is why some nursery rhymes are no longer appropriate in today's society or words are slightly changed so they are less offensive. Here are the suspected origins behind 5 of your favourite childhood nursery rhymes!
Jack and Jill
Who doesn't know Jack and Jill? It is something that is still sung in classrooms today, but have you really listened to the lyrics?
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.
Up Jack got, and home did trot,
As fast as he could caper,
He went to bed to mend his head,
With vinegar and brown paper.
Another less well known version has the last 2 lines:
To old Dame Dob, who patched his nob,
With vinegar and brown paper
With today's humour I must say I am little concerned about Dame Dob and Jack's nob? Whether this was a checky intentional pun by the author we will never know, but we also know that words have a very different context in today's society and even certain words mean different things in different countries. Anyway, Jack and Jill are supposed to represent Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. They were said to be quite greedy and would often spend their money on the finer things in life which is indicated by going up the hill. They later had a spectacular fall from grace and both were beheaded. Again this is speculation and there are some that believe the timelines don't add up for this to be the inspiration for the rhyme but it certainly makes you look at Jack and Jill differently!
Source Wikimedia Commons
Mary Mary Quite Contrary
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
With pretty maids all in a row.
Seems nice and innocent enough? Well Mary is said to be based on Queen Mary I of England. Oh and she was also referred to as Bloody Mary. Yes that Mary. She was given the name due to the sheer amount of deaths she was responsible for during her reign as Queen. She was unable to have Children, and the 'How does your garden grow?' reference is said to be a bit of a dig. The Silver bells and cockle shells were in reference to her torturous devices and the 'maids in a row' are said to be in reference to all of those she murdered. Some also believe that she is the 'Bloody Mary' that you invoke by chanting her name 3 times in the mirror. Not quite the figure you expect a children's song to be about!
Image Source: Portrait by Antonis Mor, 1554
Rock a bye baby
I know I used to sing this to my kids when they were babies. Why? Because I just did, it was a tune I knew well. Even on a lot of modern day baby devices, they play the tune to this song, so you can't but help to sing it.
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.
I must say that in my later years, I did kind of find the lyrics to this a bit odd. I mean who wants to think of a baby falling out of a tree? The tale itself is said to be based on the son on James VII who was said to have been smuggled into the birthday quarters so that James would have a Catholic male heir. The bough breaking and the cradle falling is said to suggest Jame's family coming in to 'overthrow' the child. In the original version on the tale, the following was printed at the bottom :"This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last."
Image souce via Pinterest
Ring around the Rosie
One of my favourite games as a kid and my kids love it too. What is not to love? You hold hands, dance around in a circle and you all fall down. The meaning behind this song however, is not as happy!
Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
It has become a quite well known popular theory over the years that this rhyme was written in reference to the plague. In fact in the British version and the version that I knew as a child, the words Ashes were replaced with 'A tissue A tissue' to imply a sneeze and again referencing illness. The ring around a rosie implies some sort of red circle which some believe to be reference to a rash while others believe it to be reference to a rose bush. The pocket full of posies could indicate that people would try and use certain scents in order to cover up the smell of rotting bodies, particular in areas overrun by disease. The Ashes or sneezing and falling down indicates death. Morbid indeed!
Image source: Kate Greenaway's illustration from Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes (1881), showing children playing the game
London Bridge is falling down
I have to say, when I travelled to London in 2013, I was really excited to visit London bridge. First learning that it actually wasn't Tower bridge was my first surprise. Second was that it was a normal looking bridge with nothing special and that I only knew it was London Bridge as there was a sign telling me so as I travelled underneath on a boat. I do remember making a joke to my husband, I hope it doesn't fall down! I was also surprised to learn that there are actually around 12 verses to the song, and not just the one which I know of.
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair Lady.
The most popular theory behind this song of course is the bridge falling down. Big surprise there. London Bridge was originally a wooden bridge that was destroyed and rebuilt several times by the Vikings and the Saxons. There was also a fire in 1176 (which I do remember the tour guide telling me while I was on the boat). After this fire, the bridge was then rebuilt with a midievil structure made out of stone and was completed in 1209. It had a gatehouse and a drawbridge and was lined with shops. There was another fire in 1666 which didn't destroy the bridge, but it was already weak from all of the structures on top that it was in serious danger of falling once again. In the 18th century it was demolished and rebuilt again in the 19th century. As the song was first published in 1744, it is thought to refer to the various invasions by the Vikings and Saxons who destroyed the bridge on many occasions. It's popularity and republication ties it in with the history of the bridge. It is of course one of the most famous bridges in the world.
Image source Wikimedia Commons
So there you have it! 5 popular nursery rhymes and their morbid history. It is important to note that these are all interpretations, rumours and speculation. No one even knows who Mother Goose is, so they will also never know her true inspiration behind these tales. What we do know however is that people were alot more candid and perhaps cheeky with their references! Oh and never mess with the vikings!
Did you know these origins already? Have you heard a different story?
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