The dark side of nursery rhymes

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Not so innocent songs

You might think that English nursery rhymes are just childish songs which have survived from generation to generation. You would be right on the last count – most of our nursery rhymes are hundreds of years old, but not only do they refer to long-forgotten historical facts, they can also hold satire or political messages of the times. Here are a few examples.

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Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

The Humpty Dumpy rhyme is old. So old that in its earlier versions, it could have been a reference to Richard III who was both allegedly humpbacked, and humiliatingly defeated at Bosworth Field in 1485. It also was once a riddle about an egg and nowadays HD is generally characterised as a type of personified egg in children’s books.

In the fifteenth century, the expression “Humpty Dumpty” referred to a heavy, corpulent person. But maybe HD was not a person at all. The rhyme also appears to have been used in the story of an enormous cannon that was used by the Royalist forces against the Roundheads at the Siege of Colchester during the English Civil War of 1642-1651. During the siege, when the wall beneath the cannon was damaged, the cannon fell to to the ground and could not be repaired by the Royalists a.k.a the King’s men. The rhyme may have existed previously, but this adaptation is the one we are familiar with today.

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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

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

The elder daughter of Henry VIII is known as “Bloody Mary” due to the severe religious persecution practiced under her reign from 1553-1558. The only surviving child of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Mary was a devout Catholic who rejected the annulment of her father’s marriage to Catherine, and on becoming queen, she attempted to reverse the English Reformation and restore Catholicism, burning over 280 religious dissenters at the stake.

The opening line does not need much explanation, as obviously the author held opposing views to Mary. How does your garden grow? is allegedly a reference to Mary’s infertility, although it is also said to refer to Stephen Gardiner, a bishop who was also Mary’s Lord Chancellor. There is a chilling consensus that silver bells and cockle shells could be nicknames for instruments of torture used to make Protestants recant their faith. There are a couple of nterpretations of pretty maids all in a row. It could allude to lines of Protestant matryrs, or refer to yet another type of torture device. Wow.

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Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full.
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

This one is about money. To be more specific, tax on wool, which was an important commodity in the Middle Ages. Although the song was not published until the 1700s, it refers back to wool tax, first imposed in 1275, by Edward I, a tax which lasted until the fifteenth century. Tellingly, the original last two lines were But none for the little boy who cries down the lane. In other words, the authorities took their cut, leaving the farmer with next to nothing. Presumably when it was published as a children’s song, the ending was altered to make it more suitable.

Nursery rhymes – not quite as sweet as they sound.

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