The Strange Origins of 7 Nursery Rhymes

The Strange Origins of 7 Nursery Rhymes
Posted on: July 28th, 2023

Origins of Nursery Rhymes

My keen interest in history has always drawn me towards the intriguing origins of nursery rhymes. These seemingly innocent verses, belonging to eras significantly different from our own, possess the unique ability to transport us back in time. They offer fascinating insights into what life was like in the past, a period often characterized by harsher conditions. Let’s delve deeper into a few well-known nursery rhymes and evaluate if they are as innocuous as we believed them to be during our own childhood.

Mary had a little lamb

Firstly, let’s examine the quaint tale of “Mary had a little lamb”. Initially brought to life in 1830 by Sarah Josepha Hale as a poem, its inspiration is said to have been drawn from an actual incident. Sarah was employed as a teacher at a modest school in Newport, New Hampshire. A remarkable day unfolded when a young student named Mary arrived at school, accompanied by her pet lamb.

The unusual companion caused quite a disruption, compelling Sarah to have the lamb removed from the premises. However, the devoted lamb patiently waited outside the classroom, eagerly reuniting with Mary at the day’s end. This event aroused the curiosity of other students, questioning the reason for the lamb’s deep affection for Mary. Sarah seized this opportunity to emphasize the bond between Mary and her beloved pet.

This charming incident prompted Sarah to pen down the poem which, after a few years, caught the attention of Lowell Mason. Mason enhanced the poem’s rhythm by incorporating a pattern of repetition, transforming it into a catchy tune. This nursery rhyme subsequently etched its name in history when Thomas Edison recorded it on his freshly invented phonograph in 1877, marking the first instance of a recorded song in English. While “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is indeed one of the more innocuous nursery rhymes we will discuss, be prepared as we venture into rhymes with decidedly darker undertones.

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Transitioning from tales of lambs to narratives about sheep, the origin of the nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep” takes a contrasting turn. The genesis of this rhyme is steeped in economic history, specifically that of the 13th century when King Edward I introduced a substantial tax on wool.

During this period, the taxation laws decreed that for every three sacks of wool one owned, two sacks had to be given away — one to the King and one to the Church. This left the wool owner with just a third of their original amount. It was an instance of real-life mathematics playing out and the consequences were directly reflected in the rhyme.

Why, then, does the rhyme specifically mention a ‘black sheep’? Well, the wool derived from a black sheep held less value compared to its white counterpart because it could not be dyed into other colors, thus limiting its marketability. This less desirable black wool often got left behind, hence the phrase in the rhyme that there was ‘none left for the little shepherd boy who lives down the lane.’ The seemingly innocent nursery rhyme, thus, serves as a reflection of the wool industry’s circumstances and economic policies in 13th-century England.

Ring around the Rosie

Diving into one of the grimmest historical periods, let’s explore the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie”, which is believed by many to reference the devastating 1665 Great Plague of London that claimed roughly 15% of Britain’s population. Each line of this rhyme seemingly alludes to a grim aspect of this catastrophic event.

The ‘Rosie’ in the rhyme is often thought to represent the rash that was one of the tell-tale signs of the bubonic plague. The phrase ‘a pocketful of posies’ is believed to refer to the common practice of carrying flowers or herbs in one’s pocket to mask the unpleasant odor associated with the disease.

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “ashes, ashes we all fall down,” often considered a haunting reminder of the high mortality rate during the plague. However, the original line was actually “A-tishoo, A-tishoo, we all fall down”, symbolizing the sneezing symptom that heralded the onset of the deadly illness.

Over the centuries, several variations of this rhyme have been passed down. Here’s one of the earliest versions of this stark nursery rhyme, serving as a chilling historical artifact from a time of widespread suffering and loss.

A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.
James FitzGerald

Rock-a-bye Baby

Moving on to another renowned nursery rhyme, “Rock-a-bye Baby”, we find a narrative entwined with royal intrigue and religious tensions. According to one interpretation, the ‘baby’ in the rhyme is believed to be James Francis Edward, the son of King James II of England.

In an attempt to secure a Roman Catholic successor, it’s rumored that baby James was smuggled into the birthing room to replace the King’s firstborn. Mary II, King James II’s first child, was a Protestant, posing a potential obstacle to the continuity of the Roman Catholic dynasty. Thus, James Francis Edward was seen as the answer to ensure a Catholic lineage.

Embedded within this nursery rhyme are subtle hints to a pivotal event in British history — the Glorious Revolution. This event marked the overthrow of King James II, a Roman Catholic, by his Protestant daughter, Mary II, and her husband, William of Orange. In this light, “Rock-a-bye Baby” may be read as more than a soothing lullaby — it’s a piece of historical commentary, echoing the complex religious and political struggles of the time.

Rub a Dub Dub

Next on our list is the ancient nursery rhyme “Rub a Dub Dub”, which traces its roots back to the 14th century. Originally, this rhyme told a tale quite different from the benign version we know today. Instead of ‘three men in a tub,’ the original version referenced ‘three maids in a tub,’ presenting a scene akin to a modern-day peep show.

The underlying message of the rhyme served as a social commentary, disapproving of those who would seek to catch a glimpse of undressed women. The verse essentially acted as a critique of voyeuristic tendencies, embodying societal standards of propriety of the time.

However, societal norms have significantly evolved since then, leading to a more relaxed approach to such issues. This shift in attitudes is reflected in the modern version of the nursery rhyme, where the ‘maids’ have been replaced with ‘men,’ altering the rhyme’s original connotations. Thus, this nursery rhyme offers an interesting lens through which we can observe the evolution of societal attitudes over centuries.

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

The historical tapestry behind the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is woven with elements of religious strife and violence. It’s believed that the Mary in question is none other than Queen Mary I of England, often referred to as ‘Bloody Mary’. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and ascended to the throne as a staunch Catholic, intent on reversing the Protestant Reformation initiated by her father.

This rhyme is thought to hint at the brutal religious persecution carried out by Queen Mary I, under whose reign hundreds of Protestants were burnt at the stake. The ‘garden’ mentioned in the rhyme is thought to symbolize the graveyards brimming with the remains of these Protestant martyrs.

What about the ‘silver bells’ in the rhyme? Well, they take us into even darker territory. These ‘bells’ are believed to allude to a particularly gruesome form of torture device, attached to male genitals, a metaphorical ‘ball buster.’

This seemingly innocuous nursery rhyme thus masks a grim narrative of religious conflict and extreme violence, echoing a time of great turmoil in England’s history.

“Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.”

Dark history

In the contemporary era, the idea of children casually singing about the harsh realities and atrocities hinted at in these nursery rhymes seems quite unimaginable. Over the centuries, these rhymes have been considerably softened, their darker undertones mostly forgotten. The disconnection from their origins has turned them into simple, amusing tunes designed to entertain or lull children to sleep.

However, tracing their lineage reveals a very different purpose. These rhymes often served as a form of political satire or commentary, offering a means to covertly criticize authority or highlight societal issues. To draw a parallel with modern times, they could be considered the equivalent of today’s satirical news outlets, such as The Onion.

This multi-faceted aspect is what makes the origins of nursery rhymes so intriguing. Beneath the surface of these simple ditties lies a rich tapestry of historical context, societal commentary, and political satire — a testament to the fact that, sometimes, the most profound truths can be hidden in the most innocent of verses.

Want to know the origins of Thanksgiving? Click here.

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