Nursery Rhymes: Not For Children?
You’ll guess I’m researching again when you read this.
Most nursery rhymes have a reason for their existence. They didn’t simply appear. Some are based on the sing-song two-note repetitive motion of rocking a baby, like ‘Cry Baby Bunting’. There are rarely words used with more than two syllables, and some are based on peels of church bells, which in the virtually silent rural Britain of yesteryear carried far and wide across the fields.
Lucy Locket, who lost her pocket, was a barmaid at the Cock Public House in Fleet Street. Kitty Fisher, also in the rhyme, was the legendary Mayfair courtesan (there’s still a restaurant named after her). It may be suggesting that the poor but honest barmaid earned no money while the prostitutes became wealthy. Possibly not a suitable subject for tinies?
‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary, how does your garden grow?’ has sinister connotations, for this was Mary Tudor, Bloody Mary, Katherine of Aragon’s daughter whose graveyards filled with Protestant martyrs. The ‘silver bells and cockleshells’ were instruments of torture, and the ‘maids all in a row’ were beheading devices that prefigured the guillotine. How much of this is truly traceable is open to question. ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ is supposed to refer to Thomas Wolsey, while ‘dog’ and ‘bone’ refer to Henry VIII and the infamous divorce from Aragon.
It’s interesting that so many nursery rhymes stem from this period. Many were definitively collected for an 1806 book called ‘Rhymes for the Nursery’. Minstrels often spread messages of dissent from town to town by providing secret meanings in their ballads which could lead to plots and uprisings. In Saxon England professional storytellers called Scops did something similar. By the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a huge number of monks and nuns were left destitute. They were run out of town after barking dogs alerted the residents to strangers in the area, hence ‘Hark, hark, the Dogs do Bark’.
Humpty Dumpty was not an animated egg but a very big cannon used during the English Civil War at Colchester. The cannon was knocked off its wall and proved too heavy to be put back together again. As a result, Colchester fell to the Parliamentarians after an 11-week siege. And Three Blind Mice is thought to refer to the bishops Latimer, Cranmer and Radley, all burnt at the stake.
There are more famous rhymes we could go through here, like ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, which means to pawn a coat, from the rhyming slang ‘Weasel and Stoat’, and references the Eagle pub, which is still there – and of course, ‘Ring Around the Roses’, which has gone from being a warning of the Great Plague to denial of same – and now back to its plague meaning once more, as newly uncovered evidence appears to prove that it was indeed coined around 1665.
For many more histories of nursery rhymes, not all of them very believable it must be admitted, try Linda Alchin’s ‘The Secret History of Nursery Rhymes’.