10 Nursery Rhymes with Dark Origins


Posted in History | Nostalgia by on December 15th, 2011

Nursery rhymes familiar to us all probably bring back good memories of a time when life was simple; all you had to do was look cute and you were doted over. A time in our lives when you were carefree, when you didn’t have jobs or pressing duties and obligations. You would learn the sing-song rhymes and play happily, never contemplating that what you were saying might have a deeper, and sometimes darker meaning. After looking into the origins of some of our most beloved nursery rhymes, you might think twice before singing or reciting these seemingly whimsical poems to your tot.

Ring Around The Rosie

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Probably the most grim of all is Ring Around The Rosie. Throughout the ages it’s gone by many similar titles, but even if the one you know is slightly different, the origins and meanings are surely the same. This seemingly floral song is about the Black Death of 1665. The rosies would actually be the rash associated with infected people. The pocket of posies were the herbs carried about as air fresheners or possibly herbal medicines, which were ineffective. Ashes, or Atichoo, depending on the verse you learned, were either the ashes of the funeral pyres of burned victims of the plague or sneezes of the infected. Certainly at this point you can figure out why “we all fall down.”

Jack and Jill

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Jack and Jill has two possible origins, both stating the last bit of verse was added later to give a happier ending to a children’s poem. One speculation is that Jack is King Louis XVI who broke his crown by being beheaded, and Jill would be Marie Antionette whose head came tumbling after. Another theory is that the Jack refers to a half pint, and Jill is a gill which is a quarter pint measure. In the 17th century when King Charles I wanted to reform taxes on liquid measures, he was refused by Parliament. So being crafty, he decided to decree a downsize instead to make more money. So depending on which origin you pick, it’s either a grisly or greedy tale.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary sounds like a lovely English Garden poem. The fact is, the poem is about Queen Mary I of England, who became known affectionately as Bloody Mary by the end of her reign. The poem is about her graveyard of slain protestants, as she was a devout Catholic ruling England during a time of religious turmoil. The silver bells and cockleshells are torture devices, and the maids in all in a row refer to a device that’s the predecessor to the guillotine that was called “the maiden.” So much for the lovely English garden you may have envisioned as a child.

Three Blind Mice

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Three Blind Mice comes back to Queen Mary I as well. The three blind mice were three protestant nobleman who conspired against Bloody Mary. Once ratted out, they were swiftly dealt with. Nothing a little burning at the stake couldn’t take care of. That’s one farmer’s wife you didn’t want to cross.

Pop Goes the Weasel

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Pop Goes The Weasel goes back to England in the 1800s. Some say that the song is written in a type of slang so the meaning is about pawning their Sunday coat then retrieving it again before the next Sunday when they would need it. So it seems the song was written as a commentary on the financial state of the common folk, and how sometimes it really is easy come, easy go. One verse added a bit later was about going to an East End pub after visiting the pawn shop. At any rate, that’s the way the money goes, so says the song.

Old Mother Hubbard

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Old Mother Hubbard is theorized to be about Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and his denial to give King Henry VIII an annulment. In most drawings, Ms. Hubbard is depicted wearing a blue dress or gown, which also may be a reference to Cardinal Wolsey as he was said to have four blue leopard heads upon his robe and on his banner.

Little Boy Blue

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Little Boy Blue is also said to be about Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, as not only a reference to his blue leopard heads, but he was said to have been boastful, aka blowing his own horn. The last bit accuses him of falling asleep on the job, not caring much about anything but himself. In a time when it was not wise to openly voice your opinions, this would be quite the jab at him in metaphorical poetry.

Little Jack Horner

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The tale of Little Jack Horner and his Christmas Pie probably seemed a bit curious if you ever gave it a second thought. As the tale goes, a Christmas Pie was sent via courier to King Henry VIII from the Abbot of Glastonbury. There are two different theories on whom the courier was, but both theories agree that the pie was laced with 12 deeds to manor houses which were to bribe the King in favor of not destroying the abbey. Thomas Horner ended up with the deed to Mells Manor, whether he was the one who stuck in his thumb and pulled out the plum of a deed, or if he somehow managed to slyly get the deed through the help of convicting the courier who was said to have done the same. For many generations the Horner family dwelled in Mells Manor and were said to claim that Thomas Horner purchased the deed from the King. So, whichever story you hear, there was a Christmas Pie with deeds in it and a Mr. Horner who ended up with a deed from said pie. It’s certainly more than what most imagine when hearing the child’s poem.

Humpty Dumpty

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Whomever would have thought a giant egg sitting on the wall could reference a cannon during the English Civil War? Well, many think Humpty Dumpty, the cannon, resided upon a wall at St. Mary’s Church in Colchester, England. The tale says that during the siege of Colchester, parliamentarians shot their own cannon and crumbled the wall beneath ol’ Humpty causing the great fall, but the cannon was shattered and useless and none of the royalist were able to put it back together, causing their surrender.

Goosey Goosey Gander

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Goosey Goosey Gander is quite a horrid children’s poem at face value, with a goose throwing someone down the stairs. Delving deeper, it’s likely a reference to times of religious intolerance, namely anti-Catholicism in England’s history. Catholic priests were sometimes hidden away in secret chambers in homes, but if found everyone in the residence were severely punished, if not put to death. The theory of it being a reference to those of the Catholic faith is due to the mention of not saying prayers, as typically the prayers of those in the Catholic faith were spoken in Latin at the time. The idea being thrown down the stairs would be a light punishment for anyone found hiding in secret chambers, but any harsher wording of that would be far too heavy for a child’s poem.

Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick

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Jack be Nimble, Jack be Quick! A terribly short poem, so short that it’s origins are difficult to track down. However, most believe this poem to be a tribute the slippery to catch pirate, Black Jack who was adept at eluding the authorities. Hmm, this might make you wonder if a more recent fictional pirate named Jack might be based on the same tales?

London’s Bridge

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The children’s song or poem “London Bridge” is found in many different languages, which makes it very interesting and difficult to figure out the origins. The best speculation is that the song originated about a wooden bridge being burned by Vikings, and since they traveled so much, so did the song, creeping into different languages and cultures. London Bridge simply happens to be a very old and famous bridge, so it became an obvious choice for the song in the British, and later, American culture.

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