10 Surprising Origins Behind Popular Nursery Rhymes
Initiated in 2013, World Nursery Rhyme Week (WNRW) emphasizes the significant role of nursery rhymes in shaping a child’s early growth and learning. Designed for those nurturing children below seven years, WNRW inspires participants to delve into activities centered around five specific rhymes annually. With a footprint in 113 countries and impacting five million young minds, WNRW celebrations have garnered global attention. To be a part of this unique initiative, one can follow WNRW’s updates on Twitter and Facebook.
Tracing back, the earliest records of nursery rhymes date to the mid-1700s, though their popularity surged as far back as the 14th century. Beyond their catchy tunes, these rhymes enhance rudimentary reading skills, acting as delightful and memorable linguistic tools for the young ones. Their rhythmic patterns bolster phonological recognition and also aid in fostering spatial understanding and cognitive growth. Amplified with music, their effect multiplies. More than just fun tunes, these rhymes deepen the emotional bond when sung together with kids.
But, have you ever wondered about the tales behind these age-old rhymes? A dive into their origins reveals a tapestry of intriguing, sometimes unsettling stories. From shadows of history to undertones of prejudice, and even the sheer bizarre — there’s more than what meets the ear. Drawing a parallel, think of Maroon 5’s “Wake Up Call”. The upbeat tune masks a rather somber narrative.
Join us, as we unravel some of the most captivating, eerie, and unexpected stories behind your favorite nursery rhymes.
10 Nursery Rhymes with Disturbing, Bigoted, or Dark Origins
"Baa Baa Black Sheep"
This gentle lullaby about sheep might be a toddler’s favorite, but its backstory might raise an eyebrow. It is believed to allude to the medieval wool tax introduced by King Edward I. The King’s share? A third of the proceeds from each sack. In this context, if you had three bags of wool, the monarch got one. The mention of the black sheep also sheds light on the fact that black wool wasn’t as valuable; it couldn’t be dyed, hence its diminished market value.
"Rub a Dub Dub"
This rhyme’s origin might raise a few more eyebrows. Originally, it centered around “three maids” in a tub, referring to a risqué spectacle at traveling fairs—a sort of peep show where audiences watched women bathing and, let’s say, enjoying their companionship. The spectators? Our famous butcher, baker, and candlestick maker. In an attempt to sanitize the narrative, the Victorians replaced the maids with the three men. Unbeknownst to them, the rhyme could still have a playful undertone—three men can also have a fun-filled tub session! Cheers to that!
"Jack and Jill"
This well-known rhyme, formerly “Jack and Gill”, is said to chronicle King Charles I’s efforts to levy a liquid tax. The connection? Jacks and gills were once liquid measurements. After his tax proposal was turned down by Parliament, a defiant Charles reduced the sizes of these measurements. While the practical impact remains debatable, who doesn’t enjoy tales of quirky royals? Another theory suggests a more tragic tale: A young couple sneaking up a hill for clandestine rendezvous. Following a tragic accident that claimed Jack’s life, Gill met a sad end during childbirth, leaving the village to care for her son. It’s believed the name ‘Gilson’ became a prevalent surname in that region.
"London Bridge Is Falling Down"
This popular rhyme might have some intriguing backstories. One prevalent theory is that the Vikings, during their invasion in 1014, sang this as they approached the bridge. Imagining Vikings, amidst their fierce conquests, pausing to sing taunting melodies is both amusing and slightly audacious. Another rather grim theory speculates that the “fair lady” in the song refers to child sacrifices, where children were purportedly entombed within the bridge’s structure.
"Ring Around the Rosie"
A widely recognized origin of this rhyme traces back to the Great Plague of 1665. The illness often manifested as a red, foul-smelling rash encircled by a ring. To mask the odor, those afflicted would carry flowers. Considering the common belief that diseases spread via unpleasant scents, flowers became a common accessory, thus “a pocket full of posies.” The ending, “ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” is believed to depict the burning of the deceased, a significant portion of London’s inhabitants.
This rhyme might hint at a historical conspiracy. Some historians argue it speaks of King James II of England, who faced challenges producing an heir. To shield the throne from Protestant influence, it’s believed he introduced another man’s child into the royal lineage, ensuring the throne remained with the Roman Catholics. But the House of Stuart’s reign was destined to topple. An alternative theory suggests the lullaby references a 17th-century ritual where stillborn infants were suspended from trees in hopes of reviving them.
"Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe"
This rhyme has a deeply problematic past, rooted in racism. While it’s often used innocently today, its original context was about capturing slaves. Certain words in the rhyme, now commonly replaced, were originally racial slurs. Several other nursery rhymes like “10 Little Monkeys,” “Do Your Ears Hang Low,” “Jimmy Crack Corn,” “Camptown Races,” and “Oh Susannah” also have racially insensitive backgrounds, having been featured in minstrel shows that caricatured Black individuals.
"Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush"
This rhyme might have roots in the prison system of old England. It’s believed to trace back to West Yorkshire Prison where female inmates would take mandatory strolls around the prison yard. Legend has it that these women, sometimes even accompanied by their children, would circle a mulberry tree in the yard as a form of exercise. The song stands as a testament to their daily routine.
"Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary"
This rhyme hides a dark tale behind its gentle facade. Many believe it speaks of Queen Mary I, infamously dubbed “Bloody Mary.” Known for her intense religious fervor, Mary ordered the execution of numerous Protestants. The references to “silver bells and cockle shells” might not be as innocent as they seem – they’re thought to symbolize medieval torture instruments. The rhyme “Three Blind Mice” is also theorized to allude to Bloody Mary and three Protestant bishops she had executed for heresy.
Unbeknownst to many, this rhyme might conceal a slice of queer history. Some posit that Georgie Porgy is a nod to George Villiers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham. Renowned for his romantic dalliances, Villiers is believed to have had an affair with James I while also charming several court ladies. After his advances led to teary rejections, he would reportedly seek the king’s protection, evading the potential confrontations his actions instigated. James I went to great lengths for Villiers, even dissolving Parliament twice to prevent any actions against him. Though Villiers’ life met a tragic end, his legacy offers a glimpse into the intricacies of court life and relationships.
To Sum Up
The innocent-sounding nursery rhymes we’ve sung for generations often conceal much deeper and darker stories. From historical events like the Great Plague and medieval taxation to stories of political intrigue, personal affairs, and societal norms, these rhymes offer a fascinating glimpse into past cultures and events. They serve as a reminder that the simple verses we teach our children often have roots grounded in complex historical contexts. The next time you sing about bridges falling or round-the-bush dances, remember the rich tapestry of history from which these rhymes emerged.
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Date of publishing: 15.10.2023