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.
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 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
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