Plague, medieval taxes, religious persecution, prostitution: these are not exactly the topics that you expect to be immersed in as a new parent. But probably right at this moment, mothers of small children around the world are mindlessly singing along to seemingly innocuous nursery rhymes that, if you dig a little deeper, reveal shockingly sinister backstories. 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 canon of classics that we still hear today emerged and flourished. The first 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 first 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 and 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 connections and 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 last year. “When we sing [them], we're participating in something that bonds parent and child.”
Many nursery rhymes appear in books attributed to the fictional Mother Goose, who was first mentioned in a fairy tale book published by Charles Perrault in 1695 (Credit: Corbis)
So when modern parents expose their kids 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 and dark back stories? 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 politics, religious violence, sex, illness, murder, spies, traitors and the supernatural. A random sample of 10 popular nursery rhymes shows this.
The stuff of nightmares
Baa Baa Black Sheep is about the medieval wool tax, imposed in the 13th Century by King Edward I. Under the new rules, a 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.
Ring a Ring o Roses, or Ring Around the Rosie, may be about the 1665 Great Plague of London: the “rosie” being the malodorous rash that developed on the skin of bubonic plague sufferers, the stench of which then needed concealing with a “pocket full of posies”. The bubonic plague killed 15% of Britain’s population, hence “atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down (dead).”
Rock-a-bye Baby refers to events preceding the Glorious Revolution. The baby in question is supposed to be the son of King James II of England, but was widely believed to be 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 and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last”.
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 filling with Protestant martyrs. The “silver bells” were thumbscrews; while “cockleshells” are believed to be instruments of torture which were attached to male genitals.
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 home.
Ladybird, Ladybird is also about 16th Century Catholics in Protestant England and the priests who were burned at the stake for their beliefs.
Lucy Locket is about a famous spat between two legendary 18th Century prostitutes.
Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush originated, according to historian RS Duncan, at Wakefield Prison in England, where female inmates had to exercise around a mulberry tree in the prison yard.
Oranges and 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.
Oranges and Lemons has inspired a children’s game in which kids try to avoid being caught by the ‘executioner’s ax’ as ‘Chop! Chop! Chop!’ is shouted (Credit: Getty Images)
Pop Goes The Weasel is an apparently nonsensical rhyme that, upon subsequent inspection, reveals itself to in fact be about poverty, pawnbroking, the minimum wage – and hitting the Eagle Tavern on London’s City Road.
Not safe for children?
In our own sanitised times, the idea of presenting these gritty themes specifically to an infant audience seems bizarre. It outraged the Victorians, too, who founded the British Society for Nursery Rhyme Reform and took great pains to clean up the canon. According to Random House’s Max Minckler, 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, he notes, included “referencing poverty, scorning prayer, and ridiculing the blind… It also included: 21 cases of death (notably choking, decapitation, hanging, devouring, 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 own limb severed’.”
“A lot of children's literature has a very dark origin,” explained Lerer to Today.com. “Nursery rhymes are part of long-standing traditions of parody and a popular political resistance to high culture and royalty.” Indeed, in a time when to caricature royalty or 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. And the children merrily singing them to this day remain oblivious to the meanings contained within.
“The innocent tunes do draw attention away from what's going on in the rhyme; for example the drowned cat in Ding dong bell, or the grisly end of the frog and mouse in A frog he would a-wooing go”, music historian Jeremy Barlow, a specialist in early English popular music, tells me. “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, so that the words and the tune then become inseparable.” He adds, “The result can be more than the sum of the parts.”
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