Why Nursery Rhymes Are So Violent

A few months ago, I was teaching my 4-year old nephew some nursery rhymes with a DVD. After a lot of singing, he slowly digested the story that the rhymes tell. And then he began asking rather uncomfortable questions.

image courtesy of littlefolkspuzzle.com

One of the first rhymes I taught him was Humpty Dumpty.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses, And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

He might have finally understood the rhyme when he gasped and said curiously, “Did he die?”

“Well,” I replied, “he’s an egg. Who cares?”

“I like eggs. Did they cook Humpty Dumpty?”

“Maybe. Who knows?” He looked sorry but we went on singing. And then there was Rock-A-Bye Baby.

Rock a bye baby on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

And again, my nephew asked, “Tito, did the baby die?”

“I hope not. But it was just a baby and it fell from a tree. So… Poor baby.”

“Why was the baby on top of the tree?”

“I dunno. Maybe it was a baby koala bear,” I dodged, not realising that a-koala-cub-in-a-cradle was a very stupid thought. But really, my nephew was right, why the hell is the baby on the tree top, anyway?

I went on teaching him more nursery rhymes. Itsy Bitsy Spider. Pop Goes the Weasel. Peter Peter Pumpkin-eater. Old King Cole. Baa Baa Black Sheep.

I’ve always noticed that many of our nursery rhymes are actually very violent. I don’t usually give a damn. But my nephew was smart enough to understand what he was singing and sensitive enough to actually feel for the characters. After almost every rhyme I taught him, he would ask me what happened to the character.

  • to Peter’s wife whom he kept inside a pumpkin. (Peter Peter Pumpkin-eater)
  • to the itsy-bitsy spider after going up the spout again (Itsy Bitsy Spider)
  • to the three blind mice after the farmer’s wife cut off their tails (Three Blind Mice)
  • to the four and twenty blackbirds that were baked in a pie (Sing a Song of Sixpence)
  • to Jack who fell down and to Jill who tumbled after (Jack and Jill)

I had to remind my nephew that it was bad to make fun of blind people (or blind mice, for that matter) and that pies don’t have dead black birds in them (at least, not usually). And guess what my nephew said after Jack and Jill. “Tito, did they die?”

Thank God he didn’t ask how many people were killed when the London Bridge fell down.

But even before this incident, I’ve always been wondering why these nursery rhymes have a sort of violent theme. Glenn once told me that they reflect history — what was happening at the time of the rhyme’s creation. It was only five minutes ago when I did some research and this is what I have found.

According to rhymes.org.uk: “Many of the words and nursery rhymes lyrics were used to parody the royal and political events of the day, direct dissent would often be punishable by death! Strange how these events in history are still portrayed through children’s nursery rhymes, when for most of us the historical events relationship to the nursery rhymes themselves are long forgotten!”

That being said, what are the events that our nursery rhymes mirror in their lyrics? Here are some answers from rhymes.org.uk.

HUMPTY DUMPTY

Humpty Dumpty was in fact believed to be a large cannon! It was used during the English Civil War ( 1642 – 1649) in the Siege of Colchester (13 Jun 1648 – 27 Aug 1648). Colchester was strongly fortified by the Royalists and was laid to siege by the Parliamentarians (Roundheads). In 1648 the town of Colchester was a walled town with a castle and several churches and was protected by the city wall. Standing immediately adjacent the city wall, was St Mary’s Church. A huge cannon, colloquially called Humpty Dumpty, was strategically placed on the wall next to St Mary’s Church.

JACK AND JILL

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Up got Jack, and home did trot
As fast as he could caper
He went to bed and bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper.

Jack and Jill  are said to be King Louis XVI – Jack -who was beheaded (lost his crown) followed by his Queen Marie Antoinette – Jill – (who came tumbling after). The words and lyrics to the Jack and Jill poem were made more acceptable as a story for children by providing a happy ending! The actual beheadings occurred in during the Reign of Terror in 1793. The first publication date for the lyrics of Jack and Jill rhyme is 1795 – which ties-in with the history and origins.

THREE BLIND MICE

Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?

The origin of the words to the Three blind mice rhyme are based in English history. The ‘farmer’s wife’ refers to the daughter of King Henry VIII, Queen Mary I. Mary was a staunch Catholic and her violent persecution of Protestants led to the nickname of ‘Bloody Mary’. The reference to ‘farmer’s wife’ in Three blind mice refers to the massive estates which she, and her husband King Philip of Spain, possessed. The ‘three blind mice’ were three noblemen who adhered to the Protestant faith who were convicted of plotting against the Queen – she did not have them dismembered and blinded as inferred in Three blind mice – but she did have them burnt at the stake!

RING AROUND THE ROSY

Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
“Ashes, Ashes”
We all fall down!

The words to the Ring around the rosy children’s ring game have their origin in English history . The historical period dates back to the Great Plague of London in 1665 (bubonic plague) or even before when the first outbreak of the Plague hit England in the 1300′s. The symptoms of the plague included a rosy red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin (Ring around the rosy). Pockets and pouches were filled with sweet smelling herbs ( or posies) which were carried due to the belief that the disease was transmitted by bad smells. The term “Ashes Ashes” refers to the cremation of the dead bodies! The death rate was over 60% and the plague was only halted by the Great Fire of London in 1666 which killed the rats which carried the disease which was transmitting via water sources. The English version of “Ring around the rosy” replaces Ashes with (A-tishoo, A-tishoo) as violent sneezing was another symptom of the disease.

PETER, PETER PUMPKIN-EATER

Peter Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her!
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well!

As for this rhyme. Well, it’s just talking about dressing up for the Halloween.

Thank God for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, not all rhymes are violent. LOL

source: rhymes.org.uk
image courtesy of littlesmarties.com






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  • http://www.samjuan.com Samjuan

    Ayus ah!
    Naalala ko parang nabanggit nga sa amin ng propesora ko ng maganda noong kolehiyo yung mga bayolenteng nursery rhymes na yan. Tapos pinabasa kami ng mga politically correct bedtime stories. Astig lang!

    Nga pala, ang talino ng pamangin mo!

    • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

      I had a book of politically correct fairy tale versions. But I lost it. Wuuuu.

      • http://www.samjuan.com Samjuan

        Yung kay James Finn Garner?
        Astig nun. Haha.
        Yung sa akin natiyempuhan ko lang na pakalat-kalat sa isang book sale sa mall

      • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

        hindi ko na maalala. Basta puro illustrations yun.

  • http://bittergrace.wordpress.com ayn

    haha same goes with fairy tales. little red riding hood gets eaten. sleeping beauty gets raped. the wicked stepmother is forced to dance wearing hot iron shoes. the ugly stepsister cuts off her toe to fit into the glass slipper…ang dami pa sobra. there’s the juniper tree where i think a little boy gets chopped up and eaten…donkeyskin where the king wanted to marry his own daughter…bluebeard kills his wives and keeps their bodies in a locked room. children’s lit has always been steeped in violence…until adults decided to “clean” them up. but in fairness to nursery rhymes, hindi cla masyado nagbago in time.

    • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

      little red riding hood gets eaten. the wicked stepmother is forced to dance wearing hot iron shoes. the ugly stepsister cuts off her toe to fit into the glass slipper

      I read about this somewhere. ANd I watched something that actually showed the stepsister cutting her toe off. Nyay.

      sleeping beauty gets raped.

      Now THIS is a shocker. hahaha. ANd hilarious.

      • http://bittergrace.wordpress.com ayn

        haha, she wakes up after her baby daughter sucks the splinter [whatever it was that pricked her finger] from her thumb. poor sleeping beauty. at least she sleeps through the birth of her twins…

        AND THEN…the prince comes back and takes her to his kingdom where his wife is, well, angry and not to mention an ogress so she decides to eat her husband’s illegitimate children for dinner…

        tsk. tsk.

        of course, it still ends happily ever after. but what fun those old versions were. haha.

      • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

        Ayayay. Some children’s story, huh?

  • Marvin

    Yes, Sleeping beauty being raped by her prince charming. haha

    PS:
    Thanks for commenting, Yoshke.

    It was a shocker for me. ^^

    • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

      WHAT?!?!? A shocker? Haven’t I commented on your blog before?

  • asta

    I like this! Very informative. ;)

    • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

      Hi Asta. How about Tagaytay this weekend?

  • http://odinhood.blogspot.com odin

    ay oo nga! just a few nights ago i was reading my old nursery rhyme book!

    i cant believe this is what they make us read and sing to when we were young!! grabe ang violence!

    • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

      Yeah. something we failed to notice when we were young. :)

  • http://www.antipatica.org/wp/ Eina

    Haahahaha, I learned this in my Children’s Lit class. Very interesting, I must say. Although to be honest, when I was a kid, I never bothered asking if Humpty Dumpty died or not. I was just content singing the rhyme. XD

    • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

      Ako naman, I knew he died. I mean, come on, he’s an egg. His innards must have splattered.

  • http://junanteola.wordpress.com/ jun.anteola

    interesting! i’ve often wondered too why fairy tales have such morbid themes… and how they came to be labelled as “children’s classics”? talk about Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood… even Snow White had to die!

    • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

      yeah. Little Red Riding Hood. The grandmother has to be eaten by the wolf. Traumatic. Haha.

  • http://akosidebbie.multiply.com/ debbie

    a few months back i bought this book titled GAMES AROUND THE WORLD and it has something about the game LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN. it says that primitive people had this belief that bridges trespassed on the powers of the gods of water and land. the materials of a bridge were not strong enough to guard it against the “offended spirits” so they had to offer sacrifices like a living man as part of the foundations of the bridge.

    the game involves making the players choose between two options like “orange or durian”, “shaider or maskman” (haha). the book says this was adapted from a belief that started in the MIddle Ages that the two sides of the bridge (it says “THE bridge”–so it must be referring to the London Bridge itself) represent good and evil. anyway, i also googled this nursery rhyme and one source said the concept came from the many times the London Bridge was hit by disasters, including several fires and the attack of Vikings. here is a version of the song with some of it copied from the book:

    London Bridge is falling down,
    Falling down, falling down,
    London Bridge is falling down,
    My fair Lady.

    How shall we build it up again,
    Up again, up again,
    How shall we build it up again,
    My fair lady.

    Build it up with wood and clay,
    Wood and clay, wood and clay,
    Build it up with wood and clay,
    My fair Lady.

    Wood and clay will wash away,
    Wash away, wash away,
    Wood and clay will wash away,
    My fair Lady.

    Build it up with bricks and mortar,
    Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
    Build it up with bricks and mortar,
    My fair Lady.

    Bricks and mortar will not stay,
    Will not stay, will not stay,
    Bricks and mortar will not stay,
    My fair Lady.

    Build it up with iron and steel,
    Iron and steel, iron and steel,
    Build it up with iron and steel,
    My fair Lady.

    Iron and steel will bend and bow,
    Bend and bow, bend and bow,
    Iron and steel will bend and bow,
    My fair Lady.

    Build it up with silver and gold,
    Silver and gold, silver and gold,
    Build it up with silver and gold,
    My fair Lady.

    Silver and gold will be stolen away,
    Stolen away, stolen away,
    Silver and gold will be stolen away,
    My fair Lady.

    Set a man to watch all night,
    Watch all night, watch all night,
    Set a man to watch all night,
    My fair Lady.

    Suppose the man should fall asleep,
    Fall asleep, fall asleep,
    Suppose the man should fall asleep?
    My fair Lady.

    Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
    Smoke all night, smoke all night,
    Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
    My fair Lady.

    the book says the last verse goes, “take the keys and lock him (her) up.” and that’s when the two “guards” lower their arms to enclose the player between them.

  • http://www.pinoyupdates.com Jason

    I didn’t realize this too until i read your post. Wow!

  • http://www.pinoyupdates.com Jason

    i saw your blog from vinsofvins btw. hehe.

  • dust

    this is so informative, i know about the “ring around the rosy” since it was sang to me by my teacher when i was at nursery. funny how this so-called nursery rhymes reflect the past. another one of the reasons why i visit your site.

    have a good day yoshke. :)

  • http://joyceagojo.wordpress.com The Lady in Green Ruffles

    talino pamangkin mo..isang henyong mana sa tito!

  • http://xanthique.i.ph kutitap

    i also read somewhere that Humpty Dumpty used to be a riddle.. of course now, everyone knows that HD is an egg but before, not everyone does. and with the birds inside the pie, i think it was based on the custom they had during the olden times.. they put birds inside a large cake to welcome or congratulate someone(I aint sure).. get the picture? there’ll be a cake, someone will cut it and then birds will be coming out of it.. kinda like a confetti but not really.. haha.. am i making any sense? and then with the baby on top of the tree, i also read somewhere that women, especially the middle-class types, used to hang their babies’ cradles on trees as they do chores outdoors..

  • http://jcajote@blogspot.com JAY ARCY

    Oh, so that’s why the three blind mice was such a violent rhyme! very informative. thanks!

  • http://czechhoff.wordpress.com rome :D

    kuya yosh, your posts are worth reading. :)
    this one’s interesting.hihi

    • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

      Hi there! Salamat! :D

  • Raychel

    This was very cool to read :)

    But I always thought that “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater” was about a man who was a little off his rocker- his wife cheated on him hence ‘but he couldn’t keep her’ so when he put her in the pumpkin shell… well if you put someone in a pumpkin you’re going to have to cute them up or something like that… so I’m PRETTY sure the wife died.

  • Wendy

    There’s another nursery rhyme which every time I tell to my son napapaisip ako:

    There was an old woman
    Who lived in a shoe
    She had so many children
    She didn’t know what to do
    She gave them some broth
    Without any bread
    And whipped them all soundly
    And put them to bed

    There have been versions where the “whipped them all soundly” was omitted and replaced with a family friendly one.

  • http://twitter.com/maryodie18/status/178150654227922944/ Mary Odyschelle (@maryodie18)

    Why Nursery Rhymes Are So Violent http://t.co/ikhcI5Yc.. funny it seems….but informative^^

  • http://theurbanomad.wordpress.com The Urban Nomad

    one of the reasons I am hooked up with your blog, Yoshke: amusing and informative.

    and yes, I am a sucker for useless facts. :)

    goodtimes!

    • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

      aaaaaaaw. Natunaw naman ako dun. haha

  • gbert

    Galing! This gave me one of those “ahhh” moments. I think, same goes with our very own “langit lupa” na meron “saksak puso tulo ang dugo”. Now I’m curious…

    • http://www.yoshke.com Yoshke

      Haha, hmmmm, now I’m curious about ‘em too! :P

  • http://farfrombrilliant.webs.com Christaline

    English major here, but don’t know about this facts. I only know about fairy tales that are dark.