Parents have always used song and rhyme to entertain and soothe their children. Our modern nursery rhymes have their origins in the last couple hundred years from Western Europe. I had fun discovering the sources of some of the ones my kids and I like. While a few of the origins of our favorite rhymes are well accepted and documented, others veer more toward the legend category or have several explanations. I tried to indicate how firm the ‘history of’ is for each rhyme.
The rhyme “Jack Sprat” is a purported reference to the younger brother of King Richard I of England, John. Both Richard and John are well known today because they figure in the fictional tale of Robin Hood. John was cast as the villain, trying to usurp the throne from Richard the Lionheart while he was away fighting in the Crusades. While Robin Hood is a fictional story it did correctly portray that John was not a beloved figure. He was widely disliked for his lack of military success and because he was believed to have tried to take the throne from Richard. The rhyme therefore refers to John and his wife Isabella taking so much in taxes that they “licked the plate clean.”
Jack Spratt could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean,
And so between them both
They licked the platter clean.
The rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is commonly thought to celebrate England’s very important wool industry. There are suggestions that it contains political statements. The original rhyme, prior to its 1765 publishing in “Mother Goose’s Melody,” had the last two lines as “two thirds to the dame and none to the little boy who cries in the lane.” These previous lines are believed to refer to the tax on wool that the English King Edward I, known as “Longshanks,” initiated in 1275. The poem was a complaint that none of the money from shepherding went to the shepherd since one third went to the king and two thirds went to the dame (the church).
Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full,
One for the master, one for the dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.
There is some disagreement about the origins of “Ring Around a Rosie.” In the past it was understood to be about the Black Plague or the Great Mortality which killed a third of Europe in the 14th century (as well as a third of the Middle East and most likely China). This claim has been more recently disputed because no record of it was made until the 19th century. It is now starting to be understood as nothing more than a nonsensical children’s rhyme but there is disagreement.
Ring around a rosie
A pocket full of posies
We all fall down.
If “Ring Around a Rosie” does indeed reference the Plague there are several different versions of its meaning. One is that the rosie means rosary beads to pray to not get sick. Posies are flowers to keep the smell of dead bodies at bay or (for some) to try and prevent contagion (for those who thought bad smells transmitted it). Ashes refer to burning bodies when there were too many to bury and the last sentence is about dying. Another interpretation has the ring around the rosie referencing bruise-like purple splotches which were a part of bubonic plague.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey is famous in history for failing to secure Henry VIII of England a divorce from his first wife so he could marry his mistress. Eventually Henry VIII broke from the Catholic church over the divorce and started his own church. Wolsey’s failure with the divorce is documented in “Old Mother Hubbard” with the bone being the divorce.
Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor doggie a bone,
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
So the poor little doggie had none.
“Three Blind Mice” possibly comes from the reign of Queen Mary I. She was a Catholic who wanted to restore the Catholic church in England and therefore persecuted Protestants. Because of her vast farm estates she was referred to as the farmer’s wife. The three blind mice were three men of noble birth who plotted against her. She had them tortured and burned at the stake.
Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
She cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a sight in your life as three blind mice?
Queen Mary I is also featured in “Mary Mary Quite Contrary.” Her detractors called her ‘Bloody Mary’ because of her persecution of Protestants. The poem talks about torture and death. Silver bells and cockleshells were torture devices while “maids in a row” refers to her use of one of the precursors to the guillotine, called a maiden.
Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.
In “Rain Rain Go Away” the Spanish fleet is taunted by the English who, under Queen Elizabeth I, vanquished the Spanish armada in 1588 because they better understood the unpredictable weather in the English Channel. Sir Francis Drake famously waited and waited to launch against the approaching Spanish because he saw the weather was worsening. When he finally did launch, his ships were able to out maneuver the Spanish and won the day. Johnny was a term used to describe Englishmen.
Rain, rain, go away,
Come back again another day;
Little Johnny wants to play.
Rain, rain go to Spain,
Never show your face again.
“Goosey Goosey Gander” dates to the 16th century. It appears to refer to ‘priest holes’ which were secret rooms where Catholic priests could hide from persecution from Protestants during the reign of Elizabeth I. They were threatened with death if they practiced their faith. When the rhyme talks about an old man who would not say his prayers it means a priest who would not say prayers in the Protestant manner (English verses Latin) or swear allegiance to the Queen.
Goosey Goosey Gander where shall I wander,
Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber
There I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers,
I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.
Sometimes rhymes were used as a way of passing information. In an age where news of battle wins and losses could take weeks and months to hear, an easily remembered rhyme was a reasonable way to get news out. In the case of “Remember, Remember the Fifth of November” it was a way to get a punishment known as well.
In 1605 Englishman Robert Catesby and his band of terrorists, which included the infamous Guy Fawkes, tried and failed to blow up the Parliament building on the first day of its new session. If successful, their plan would have resulted in the deaths of most of the governing elite, including King James I. The plot was learned of when a member of the gang told a family member not to go to Parliament that day and that person tipped off the authorities. Fawkes was discovered hiding in the Parliament cellar waiting for morning to light the fuses. The rhyme was created as a way of commemorating the foiling of the plot and as a reminder of the dangers of high treason.
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot;
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, it was his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament;
Three score barrels of powder below,
Poor old England to overthrow.
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With dark lantern and lighted match;
Holler boys, holler boys, make the bells ring,
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King.
In the 17th Century George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham was a notorious scoundrel. His affair with the queen of France was featured in the story “The Three Musketeers.” He enjoyed the favor of the King of England, James I and was therefore mostly protected from his bad behavior. His sexual conquests and fear of retribution “when the boys came out to play Georgie Porgie ran away” are referenced in the rhyme “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.
We all know the classic nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty.” It is possible that Humpty Dumpty was a canon used during the English Civil War in the 17th century. Calling someone Humpty Dumpty was a slang term for fat. In the case of the rhyme it refers to a huge cannon used by the Royalists to defend the strategically key town of Colchester. When the Roundheads (which refers to the close cropped hair of the Puritans) or Parliamentarians were able to damage the wall underneath the Royalists huge cannon Humpty Dumpty they were unable to move it to another wall and thus eventually lost the town. Hence:
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!
So why then do we know Humpty as an egg? One of the first references seems to be in Lewis Carroll’s late 19th century story, “Through the Looking Glass” in which Alice has a deep conversation with Humpty Dumpty ‘through the looking glass’ as put back together in the form of an egg high up on a wall.
Oliver Cromwell was the leader of England from 1649-1660. He was the last person to rule it as a republic. There was much surprise when he appointed his rather unaccomplished son, Richard to succeed him. Richard was not up to the job and only served a year before he was removed. “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” may record his short duration in office. The clock striking one marks the one year he served. One of his nicknames was Hickory Dick.
Hickory, dickory dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory, dickory, dock.
In 17th century England “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John” was used to ward off evil spirits on Twelfth Night (the 12th day of Christmas, January 5th). It was repeated three times.
There are four corners at my bed,
There are four angels there.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,
God bless the bed that I lay on.
The nursery rhyme “Boys and Girls Come Out to Play” was published in 1708. It was written during a time when most children in England worked all day, usually for their parents on a farm and later in factories. Only wealthy children were educated. The rhyme is about kids going out to play when the work day was done.
Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon does shine as bright as day;
Come with a hoop, and come with a call,
Come with a good will or not at all
Lose your supper, and lose your sleep,
Come to your playfellows in the street;
Up the ladder and down the wall.
A halfpenny loaf will serve us all.
But when the loaf is gone, what will you do?
Those who would eat must work – ‘tis true.’
It is possible that the rhyme “There was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” was made about the English King George II who reigned from 1683 to 1760. He ruled at a time when Parliament was strong and the country’s economy was in a downturn. Therefore, in the rhyme the King is the old woman and the Parliament are the children. Giving them broth without bread refers to the King’s attempt at austerity and sending the children to bed refers to forcing them to attend Parliament sessions daily.
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do;
So she gave them some broth without any bread,
And she whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed.
The character Mother Goose was first mentioned in French writings in the 17th century, although not connected to the rhymes we associate with Mother Goose today. In the 18th century in England Mother Goose started to be associated with many of the rhymes we now know. Curiously she was depicted as an old lady flying on a Goose. This indicates some association with witchcraft and magic. During the time of her origination, natural disasters, disease, and life’s other hardships were sometimes explained by witchcraft. The first Mother Goose had many of the characteristics of a witch; she was an old lady living alone, she had the ability to fly on her goose, and she was associated with an animal that worked for her. Kids of the time would have been familiar with this connection.
Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander
Would fly through the air
On a very fine gander.
Mother Goose had a house;
It stood in the wood
Where an owl at the door
As sentinel stood.
“Rock-a-bye Baby” is a classic children’s lullaby, also sometimes recited as a nursery rhyme. It originated in America and a version of it was first published in the 18th century. It appears to have come from the practice of a few American Indians who would put their children in cradles made of tree bark and suspend them from tree branches to let the wind rock their babies to sleep.
Rock-a-bye Baby, on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
The poem Jack and Jill originates from the time of the French Revolution and possibly refers to the beheading of King Louis XVI and his wife who “tumbled after.” The ending is cleaned up for kids with Jack caring for his hurt head in a manner common at that time.
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 Jack got, and home did trot
As fast as he could caper
He went to bed and bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper.
The French rhyme “Frere Jacques,” meant to be sung in a round, translates to “Brother John” and is believed to be about a monk being told to ring the bells for morning prayers. The French version is first and then the translation.
Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques
Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines!
Din, din, don, din, din, don.
Brother John, Brother John,
Are you sleeping, are you sleeping?
Ring the morning bells, ring the morning bells!
Ding, dang dong, ding, dang dong.
Helping kids to eat healthy foods was the purpose of “An Apple a Day.” Its authorship is unknown. It was first mentioned in print in 1866.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Apple in the morning – Doctor’s warning
Roast apple at night – Starves the doctor outright
Eat an apple going to bed – Knock the doctor on the head
Three each day, seven days a week – Ruddy apple, ruddy cheek.
Our final rhyme, “Christmas is Coming,” reminds kids about the importance of generous giving during the Christmas season. It also is a fun lesson about the penny. Initially, the penny had a Christian cross on the back. This allowed the coin to be cut appropriately, in half for a halfpenny and in quarters for a farthing.
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat
Please do put a penny in the old man’s hat;
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny then God bless you!