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The Weird Origins Of 12 Beloved Nursery Rhymes Have Many Rethinking Their Childhood

Jun 12, 2019

Image: Mother Goose - clipartpanda.com
 
Admit it, there is something a little creepy about a chorus of toddlers chanting a nonsensical nursery rhyme according to boredomtherapy.com. Yet, every day, parents clap their hands encouraging their babies to memorize the seemingly silly tunes. But if you stop and examine the lyrics of these iconic ballads of the English lexicon, you’ll notice the songs barely conceal their wickedness.
 
Behind most nursery rhymes, there’s a hundred years of history that we routinely ignore. But finally, the veil of wholesomeness has been lifted, and you can think twice about humming these catchy tunes when you find out their dark origins.
 
1. Mary, Mary Quite Contrary:
 
    Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,
    How does your garden grow?
    With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,
    And so my garden grows
 
Vivid images of a sweet gardener pruning rose bushes swim in your mind when mulling over these lyrics. But the Mary in question was far more sinister than a horticulture enthusiast.
 
Mary I of England, otherwise known as “Bloody Mary,”  was given the gruesome nickname due to her ruthless persecution of Protestants. In the rhyme, the “cockleshells” and “silver bells” refer to instruments of torture. Not so kid friendly!
 
2. Three Blind Mice:
 
Three Blinde Mice,
Three Blinde Mice,
Dame Iulian,
Dame Iulian,
the Miller and his merry olde Wife,
she scrapte her tripe licke thou the knife.
 
Queen Mary was so bloodthirsty she inspired several nursery rhymes chronicling her behavior. The cleaver wielding “farmer’s wife” mentioned in the story? Yeah, that’s our deadly girl, Mary.
 
3. Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush:
 
    Here we go round the mulberry bush,
    The mulberry bush,
    The mulberry bush.
    Here we go round the mulberry bush
    On a cold and frosty morning.
 
Kids on the playground skipping in circles to the rhythm of the rhyme usually don’t know they’re singing a tune coined by the female inmates of England’s Wakefield Prison.
 
Circling laps around the mulberry bush was the daily exercise routine for prisoners. In fact, the bush in question still exists and can be spotted on the grounds of Wakefield. Running around it might not be the best idea if you’re there for a visit.
 
4. Pop Goes The Weasel:
 
    Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
    Half a pound of treacle.
    That's the way the money goes,
    Pop! goes the weasel.
 
If you grew up in the U.S., this rhyme was lumped together with “Mulberry Bush,” which makes sense. If you hum them both, they use the same musical tune. Across the pond, children were familiar with different lyrics…
 
“Half a pound of tuppenny rice, half a pound of treacle; That’s the way the money goes,” were the weekly groceries paid for by pawning off Dad’s suit, or “Pop! goes the weasel.”
 
5. Rub-A-Dub-Dub:
 
Rub-a-dub-dub,
Three fools in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,
And all of them out to sea.
 
As far as bath-time songs go, it’s a safer bet to teach your kids Ernie’s “Rubber Duckie” tune from Sesame Street. The well-known nursery rhyme is the opposite of squeaky clean.
 
In the 18th century, red-faced butchers, bakers, candlestick makers had to endure the shame of their indiscreet recreational behaviors, like visiting peep shows and bathhouses, being immortalized in song. How it ended up a Mother Goose staple is a head-scratcher.
 
6. Goosey Goosey Gander:
 
    Goosey goosey gander,
    Whither shall I wander?
    Upstairs and downstairs
    And in my lady's chamber.
    There I met an old man
    Who wouldn't say his prayers,
    So I took him by his left leg
    And threw him down the stairs.
 
Running through the lyrics, the peppy song describes a moral enforcer who busts into women’s rooms and tosses their unmarried — and therefore, sinful — partners down the staircase. This one doesn’t bother pretending to be kid friendly. But it still has a more layered meaning…
 
Back in the 16th century when Goosey Gander emerged, the Protestants offered rewards for Catholic Priests’ heads. Apparently, the rhyme details the popular execution method reserved for the clergyman.
 
7. Rock-A-Bye Baby:
 
Rock-a-bye baby
On the tree tops,
When the wind blow
the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
and down will come Baby,
Cradle and all.
 
Believe it or not, the gentle lullaby stems from the scandalous familial drama surrounding King James II’s first son. Rumor had it the King and his second wife, Mary of Modena, arranged to take in someone else’s baby and presented him as their male heir.
 
8. 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.
 
Sorry to break it to you, but this one is definitely not about a pair of clumsy siblings. Jack falling down, and subsequently breaking his crown, was the twisted spin on France’s King Louis XVI’s death by guillotine.
 
As history played out, Jill, now known to refer to King Louis XVI’s wife, Marie Antoinette, went the same way as her husband. The nursery rhyme paints her grim guillotine ending as “tumbling down after.”
 
9. 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 none for the little boy
    Who lives down the lane.
 
This baaad boy was serving a “yeah, you know I’ve got wool” face. But, rules are rules, and even with a hefty coat like the one wrapped around this fluffy guy, somebody is going home wool-less.
 
“None for the Little Boy that cries in the lane,” seems like a harsh snub for that poor child. That’s exactly what the originators intended since the rhyme was a commentary on the high wool taxes in medieval England.
 
10. Georgie Porgie:
 
Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry,
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.
 
 
The crude rhyme poked fun at the weight of George IV of  England, who apparently had a habit of stepping outside of his marriage. Georgie notoriously fathered many illegitimate children and recognized a second wife, ignoring the public perception.
 
11. London Bridge Is Falling Down:
 
    London Bridge is falling down,
    Falling down, falling down.
    London Bridge is falling down,
    My fair lady.
 
Over the years, there hasn’t been a definitive explanation of the bizarrely cheery ballad of structural collapse. However, in 1844,  a travel writer named Samuel Laing spotted a big clue while translating a Norwegian text.
 
Tracing through the Norse text, Heimskringla, he found a verse about Viking King Olaf II leading a brutal attack on the famous bridge in the years 1009 or 1014. Still, it was never corroborated, so you have the option to attribute the rhyme to Fergie’s saucy hit of the same name.
 
12. Humpty Dumpty:
 
    Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
    Four-score Men and Four-score more,
    Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.
 
If you take a quick scan of the lyrics, you’ll notice there’s not even one eggs-ample of identifying Humpty as a creature of the yolky variety. Nevertheless, everyone is sure he’s an egg.
 
Still, as every high school literature teacher would say, there’s more to the story. Humpty Dumpty represents two different subjects: one human, one weapon. The man, King Richard III, nicknamed “The Hunchback King,” the device, a trusty English Civil War cannon.  


 


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