The Secret Life Of Nursery Rhymes

Christopher Fowler
jack-and-jill I've been searching for a new title for my upcoming standalone abduction thriller, so I conducted some research on nursery rhymes.
These seem to be surprisingly finite in number and variety, and are defaulted to by parents even though their topicality and meaning has long been lost. I learned, for example, that 'Humpty-Dumpty' was supposedly the name of a Royalists' cannon used in the Siege of Colchester in the English Civil War. Meanwhile, 'Little Jack Horner' is meant to be a representation of the steward to the Bishop of Glastonbury, sent to Henry VIII with a bribe of deeds to 12 manor estates hidden in a pie to thwart thieves - the poem first surfaced in 1725. But - pies to thwart thieves? That seems to be pushing it, although times were obviously different then. 'Jack and Jill' (or Gill) are apparently French. They're said to be King Louis XVI, who was beheaded (lost his crown) followed by his Queen Marie Antoinette - Jill.
But again, something doesn't ring true. Some nursery rhyme derivations are very well-known. For example, the Eagle pub featured in 'Pop Goes The Weasel' is still there, and the lyrics printed around its walls seem plain enough too appreciate, with its tale of pawning goods to spend in pubs. But 'Ring-A-Ring Of Roses' has lately caused controversy as many now say it is not to be about the plague at all, because the dates don't match. However, it does seem to be about illness, possibly the early Black Death, because there are too many lyrics in it that feel apposite, particularly
"Ashes Ashes" (the cremation of the dead). So, how trustworthy are these readings? It seems clear that London Bridge really did fall down, and that
Old Mother Hubbard was most likely meant to be Cardinal Wolsey, and 'Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary' may well be Mary, Queen of Scots, but was Jack from 'Jack Be Nimble' really a 16th century pirate? Was Mother Goose a witch? 'Mother' was the name for any older woman, but is also associated with witches. There's a book, 'The Secret History of Nursery Rhymes', but I suspect many need to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. Over so many centuries of embroidery, they've largely becoming nonsense-rhymes but why does there have to be a secret meaning to each at all? Is it just our desire to 'Dan Brown' everything and create conspiracies? If this is the case, why
isn't someone picking apart every fairy tale and ascribing it to a monarchy or a political movement? More research
is needed on my part.


Alan Morgan (not verified) Fri, 08/11/2013 - 09:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I love the derivation of nursery rhymes, and it means your kids get to irritate teachers everywhere as they pipe up with fascinating facts - though there's a rival now with Horrible Histories for that. I like the theory (though disputed) that London Bridge goes back to the 11th century but that's probably because I'm always tickled by the whole anglo-norse-saxon-engalish thing with the British left out entirely being busy as they were all bitter in Wales, and Cumberland, and Cornwell whilst having no shoes. Or in Brittany of course where they were the only British at Hastings. Digress much? Sorry.

The English Civil War was really three different wars with a bit of coughing in between whilst the Scots tried to work out whose side they were on, disagreed and decided on both, neither, and some. Mind even that ignores the War of the Roses, still really a late effort from the Plantagenets who squabbled alarmingly, all the time, but mostly so as to see who in later years would be Sean Connery. Or our least successful war when England was invaded by the Hanoverians - although that was pretty much by invite and no one actually minded so very much, and we got orange carrots. But without all our many Hanovarian Georges there'd be no The Grand Old Duke of York - which brings us neatly back on to nursery rhymes. Though some may dispute it was actually about Prince Frederick, but it's neater for the purposes of this already too long a ramble if we just nod and agree that it was.

Dan Terrell (not verified) Fri, 08/11/2013 - 13:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We once had a '40s book on nursery rhymes that claimed they were usually gently encrypted messages that were used to inform, mock or recount some happening in England or France. Everyone got the meaning and the teller wasn't picked up and slammed into prison or had a value bit lopped off in the market square.

Vivienne (not verified) Fri, 08/11/2013 - 16:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Isn't I Had A Little Nut Tree really about one of our kings marrying the King of Spain's daughter (was this the Infanta de Castile?) The silver nutmeg and golden pear are surely descriptions of not very impressive (and perhaps not very productive) male genitalia. Did that very proper woman who used to sing this so beautifully on Listen with Mother realise this?

John (not verified) Fri, 08/11/2013 - 19:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jack Zipes has made an entire career out of picking apart fairy tales. Read his books for intelligent discussions and dogged research into fairy tale meanings and origins. As for nursery rhymes we know I was taught that they came from European minstrel songs from medieval times and have been adapted and corrupted over the years.

Helen Martin (not verified) Fri, 08/11/2013 - 21:41

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jack and Jill planned to hike the hill
To get better cell connections
But Jack fell prone
And broke his phone
so they couldn't get directions.
(Michael Fry & T. Lewis in "Over the Hedge")

Bah, bah, blackberry,
Have you any aps?
Yes, sir, yes sir, with
Three finger snaps.
One for my e-mail,
one for my games,
one for the map quest
that leads all the way home. (or be Scots and say hame?)
(Helen Martin - exhibition pieces for 2011)

Updating might work you see. Mary Mary, quite contrary was definitely the English Queen Mary, although she'd fit the Scots queen as well, I suppose.
Jack Horner's pie (from which he abstracted a deed for himself) probably only had the deeds in it and was for presentation purposes.
Is the daughter in the nut tree poem Henry VIII' first Katherine - the princess of Aragon? The not very productive bit would fit.
When we started looking at the rhymes the comment was made that you'd have to be an idiot to go looking for water at the top of hill. Of course, if they were French... Still, I think it's older than Louis.
There are academic papers describing all these and more, but they probably mostly do derive from public events - think of Hark, hark, the dogs do bark - or are counting or teasing games for babies like "This little pig".

glasgow1975 (not verified) Sat, 09/11/2013 - 03:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

As you rightly say Helen, pastry was very much a decorative item and usually quite a stiff shell and not for eating at all, hence how all those blackbirds were able to fly out, I doubt Greggs would be up to the standard nowadays . . .

Dan Terrell (not verified) Sat, 09/11/2013 - 12:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Well, done Helen.

Anne Fernie (not verified) Tue, 12/11/2013 - 12:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Have always been struck by how many so-called 'nursery' rhymes appear to be about women of ill-repute and their noxious lifestyles e.g. 'See Saw Marjory Daw' to name one.....I suppose it's like a Carry-On film or a pantomime; younger ones can laugh at the obvious stuff and adults snigger at the innuendo...