The singing of nursery rhymes to children to entertain or help them sleep, seems to cross all cultural borders; certainly they are used here in Thailand where I live now and they were sung to me as a small child growing up in England.
But where do they come from and what do they actually mean?
As I delved deeper into some of the ones that were sung to me as a kid, I was surprised by the history of nursery rhymes and their actual meaning.
As A Child
To me, as a small child, rhymes like “Humpty Dumpty”, “Ring a ring o’ Rosies”, “Three Blind Mice” and “Jack and Jill” were soothing tunes; the words were quite funny but the main thing was the sweet tune.
Children tend to take everything at face value; there is no such thing as a hidden meaning, a metaphor or an allegory. A big egg-shaped man that falls off a wall and can’t be put back together means just that! There is no questioning of what’s behind that story. A child’s imagination knows no limits – it’s only as we grow up that those limits are imposed.
Let’s look at the words of a few of these rhymes:
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!
A Pocket full of posies
We all fall down!
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.
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?
As An Adult
Even without knowing the true meaning behind these rhymes, reading them in the cold light of day ( unattached, as it were, from their sweet tunes) reveals something of a blood-soaked scene that a few Hollywood directors might be interested in!
Falling off a wall and breaking? All falling down? Breaking one’s crown? Cutting off tails? Is this really what lulled me to sleep as a baby?!!
Well, it doesn’t get any better when we examine the true meanings behind these rhymes:
I learn that Humpty Dumpty wasn’t a person at all! It was a large cannon used during the English Civil War between 1642 and 1649. The cannon protected the city of Colchester held by the Royalists and when the Roundheads (Parliamentarians) attacked they knocked it down; attempts to raise the cannon to another part of the wall failed and the city fell to the roundheads.
This rhyme actually dates back to the Great Plague of London in 1665, often called the ‘bubonic plague’ or possibly to even before (1300s). One of the tell-tale symptoms of the plague was a rosy red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin and another was severe sneezing (‘a-tishoo’ is a sneezing sound). ‘Posies’ were pouches full of sweet-smelling herbs, which were carried because of the belief that you could catch the plague from a bad smell.
Jack and Jill
This cute little rhyme finds its origins in France during the so-called “Reign of Terror”! Jack is King Louis XVI and Jill was Queen Marie Antoinette, both of whom were be-headed in the late 18th century (which is when the rhyme was first published.) The ending was made happy to make it more acceptable as a nursery rhyme!
Three Blind Mice
This is probably the least surprising of the four we cover – it’s not about mice and farms at all! It refers to the Protestant-Catholic animosities in English history, when Queen Mary I (‘Bloody Mary’) persecuted the Protestants. She is referred to as the ‘famer’s wife’ because she was married to King Philip of Spain and between them they owned vast estates; the mice are noblemen accused of plotting against the queen.
Next time you’re listening to a nursery rhyme or reciting one to your child, think about where it comes from…all may not be as it seems! It may have its origins in war, religious persecution, serial beheading or a disease pandemic!
It would be interesting to know from readers if any of their local rhymes have equally horrific backgrounds as many of the English ones..