Monday, November 5, 2018

The Origins of Children's Nursery Rhymes

Grey Horned Heidschnucke Heidschnucke Shee  I'm sure you remember reading children's nursery rhymes at some time in your life.  It might have been as a child or to your own children but you've read them. 

I remember one of my teachers mentioning that many of the children's nursery rhymes began as political satire or societal  commentary.  Of course, I didn't really believe her because, well as a teen, I knew better.

A few years later, I discovered she was right after all.  So today, I'm exploring the origin of several of those children's nursery rhymes.

1.  "Baa Baa Black Sheep" has someone asking them if they have any wool and of course they do but its only for the master, dame, and the last for a little boy who lived a bit a way.  Most scholars agree this is about a tax on wool, introduced about 1275 in England as part of the Great Custom. The tax was split between the king, the church, and the farmer leaving little for anyone else. 

The melody used when this is sung comes from an 1761 French tune, although its first known appearance in print happened in 1731At one point, people believed the poem actually had racial connotations which led to the poem being banned and a more politically correct version written but this allegation has never been proven. 

2." Goosey, Goosey, Gander" made its appearance in 1784.  Although it seems to be a fun rhyme, it was actually written about religious persecution when priests had to hide themselves in order to say their prayers in Latin because that was against the law.  At this point catholic practices were banned so they often hid in holes away and if found could be executed along with those who harbored them.

3. "Jack and Jill" seems so cool when you think of a couple of kids who end up falling down a hill but it appears the rhyme refers to King Charles I who tried to reform the taxes on liquid measures but when Parliament turned his suggestions down, he changed the amount in liquids to half and quarter pints.  The popular names for the half and quarter pints were Jacks and Gilles.  You might find a reference to this rhyme being about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette going to the guillotine but that the rhyme showed up in 1765, about 30 years before this event.

4.  "London Bridge is Falling Down" a wonderful ditty we sang as I was growing up and I vaguely recall some sort of dance we did to it but no one is certain for sure what it refers to.  The most popular theory is that this refers to Olaf II of Norway, a Viking, who came to London around 1014 and supposedly destroyed the London Bridge but there is no real proof of this.  It dates back to 1744.

5. "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" seems to ask about a garden growing.  Unfortunately, the rhyme is actually about Queen Mary I of England, nicknamed "Bloody Mary". She believed so much in Catholicism that she  killed hundreds of Protestants over a five year period. Silver bells and cockle shells were the name of torture tools of the time, not gardening items. The rhyme did not appear until 1744.

6.  "Three Blind Mice" appeared in 1805 and seems to be about three Protestant bishops who plotted to overthrow Queen Mary but were discovered before they could succeed.  As punishment, they were burned at the stake.  Scholars believe the term "blind" refers to their religious beliefs.

7. In 1840 "Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush" first showed up. According to sources, this song is about female prisoners at England's Wakefield Prison who were walked about a mulberry tree for their regular exercise sessions. 

8. "Rock a Bye Baby" is said to be about the child of King James II and his wife.  It is believed the child was not actually theirs but another who was brought in to replace their child.  The rhyme is said to be from 1765 but the claim cannot be substantiated one way or the other.

9. "Ring Around The Rosie" has two possible origins.  The most widely known theory is that it refers to the 1665 Great Plague that killed about 15 percent of the population.  The "rosie" is the rash associated with the plague and the posie is a handful flowers designed to keep the smell down and protect the holder.  The other theory says the song developed when dancing was outlawed in many Protestant areas in Britain and North America.  The younger ones got around it by playing ring games without musical accompaniment. This is a fairly recent rhyme dating back to around 1881.

10. "Old Mother Hubbard" is said to have been written about Cardinal Thomas Wosley who refused to grand King Henry VIII so he could marry his current favorite, Anne Boleyn. This refusal lead to the Cardinal's downfall.  It made its appearance in 1805. 

Hope you like this.  I'll do more later on when I've had a chance to check others out.  Let me know what you think, I'd love to hear.  Have a great day.


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