Springtime may remind us of our own childhoods–happy and/or unhappy–and the nursery rhymes which we heard and recited. This short video, however, reveals a few of the dark, hidden meanings of the most popular nursery rhymes–particularly references to the crimes and misdemeanours of the early modern period. First, though, it dispels the popular misconception that ‘Ring-a-ring o’ roses / A pocket full of posies, / A-tishoo! A-tishoo! / We all fall down’ is a reference to the bubonic plague in seventeenth-century London: it has long been thought that the rings refer to the buboes forming on the bodies of plague victims, that smelling posies was regarded as warding off contagion, that death is depicted as following upon sneezing, and that the later line ‘Ashes! Ashes! / We all fall down’ indicates cremation, burning houses, or even the Great Fire of London which broke out a year after the plague’s peak. But in fact the rhyme was not printed that century, not mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diary (which recorded the effects of the plague on the populace), and the lines fit better with a popular nineteenth-century children’s dance. So it seems that the association of this nursery rhyme with disease and death is a-pox-cryphal.
Fortunately, early modern violence and death stalk other corners of the nursery. For example, Queen Mary sought to return England to Catholicism after her father Henry VIII’s break with Rome in order to secure a divorce from her mother, Catherine of Aragon (and after the dissolution of monasteries, as reflected in the recent news that a 1536 letter written by Henry ordering the hanging, drawing, and quartering of an abbot will be put on public display starting today). The Marian persecutions, which began in 1555, may be the inspiration for ‘Three Blind Mice’: Mary offered the option of re-conversion to the Catholic faith to those who facilitated the divorce, but the Archbishops Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer refused. The three were thence blinded and burned at the stake. This application of Catholic fire and fury could very well have inspired an alternative Papist nursery rhyme about nauseatingly furry and bloodsucking parasites feasting off the Holy See, ‘Three Hairy-Ticks’.
The next period of intense strife in British history was the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century, thought to be the secret solution to the riddle of ‘Humpty-Dumpty’ (partially pictured above with Alice in the famous illustration by John Tenniel in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass). In 1648, the Parliamentary forces laid siege to Colchester Castle. Atop the castle or the city wall was a cannon nicknamed Humpty-Dumpty, which plummeted to the ground in the course of the siege. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men–viz., the Royalist cavalry and infantry–could not put the cannon together again. Thus the nursery rhyme reflects the egg-cesses of civil war.
Early Modern Times has commissioned its Department of Folklorism to investigate other, hitherto unsuspected early modern-themed nursery rhymes, and has come up with the following stunning results (another Kow!). The first reflects Sir Thomas More’s policy on Protestants before he got the chop: ‘Hot cross burns! / Hot cross burns! / One a sinner, two a sinner, / Hot cross burns! // If you have some children, / Throw them to the logs. /One a sinner, two a sinner, / Hot cross burns!’
The next century features a wry commentary on Paradise Lost, 1667: ‘Milton had a little iambic pentameter, / Its verse was blank (for show); / Freed from rhyming’s fetters, / His fame would surely grow. // He ranged from Satan’s fall, / Then to Original Sin; / But really dropped the ball / Justifying God’s ways to women.’
In the eighteenth century, here was a popular ditty sung by Rousseau’s enemies, real or imagined, on his unreliable Confessions, persecution complex, and hatred of modern man (in rather imperfect French): ‘Pauvre Jean-Jacques, Pauvre Jean-Jacques, / Mentez-vous? Mentez-vous? / Songez machinations! Songez machinations! / Damnez gens, damnez gens.’
Finally, Rousseau’s proto-feminist critic at the end of the century, Mary Wollstonecraft, is commemorated in this nursery rhyme on her two Vindications and enthusiasm (at least initially) for the French Revolution: ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrarian, / Who do your works condemn? / Antoinette and Edmund Burke, / Useless queens and sexist men.’
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Nursery Rhymes Studies Program