When you think of nursery rhymes, do you think of innocent, silly games you played as a child? Think again. Most of the nursery rhymes that have become so popular with the children were never intended for them. Most began as folk songs or ballads sung in taverns. These songs (rhymes) all most always were written to make fun of religious leaders or to gossip about kings and queens (Brittanica pars. 1-5). Nursery rhymes are being studied the past few decades as a way to help children learn their alphabet and numbers. These rhymes have been proven affective in helping children's language skills improve. As I began to explore different nursery rhymes, I found that they opened up and disclosed some of the secrets, light and dark of the persons, animals, or familiar places they were written about. The Encyclopedia Britannica define nursery rhymes as verses that are customarily told or sung to small children. The oral tradition of these rhymes are ancient some dating back as early as the 1500's, but most date form the 16th, 17th and most frequently the 18th centuries. ( Brittanica pars. 1-5).
Nursery rhymes have been around for centuries, but the name has not. According to the World Book Encyclopedia the phrase "Nursery Rhymes" did not originate until 1824 in a Scottish periodical called Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine. Before this time, rhymes were referred to as "ditties" or songs. Many scholars believe that parts of these rhymes were taken from ballads, prayers, proverbs, street chants, or tavern songs. Some people believe that these rhymes may even have once been used for certain rituals or customs. Most were based on real people, places or things. These rhymes were mainly used to entertain adults and only ones pertaining to the alphabet or counting were meant for children. Many of these rhymes did not come about until the 1600's, but there is evidence of some being around earlier. There are eight categories of rhymes: Lullabies (Rock-a-bye Baby,) singing games (London Bridges,) nonsense (Hey Diddle Diddle), riddles (Humpty Dumpty), counting
(One, Two, Buckle my Shoe), tongue twisters (Peter Piper), verse stories (Queen of Hearts), and cumulative rhymes (House that Jack Built) (Pars. 5).
According to the World Book Encyclopedia the earliest known published collection of nursery rhymes was Tommy Thumb's SongBook in 1744, but in 1697 there was a book published in France called Tales of Mother Goose. This book contained eight fairytales including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty. The most influential collection was Mother Goose's Melodies: or Sonnet's for the Cradle published in 1781 (616-617). More than two hundred years since the first book of rhymes was published, interest in children and fantasy is again running high. The nursery rhyme now represents the oral history of hundreds of years and how understanding the struggles of authority and occasional mischief by the common people made with moral conventions and emotional expectations as well as with language. Often anonymous, such rhymes share interesting characteristics both in content and in linguistic patterning across a huge range of cultures. The origins and purposes of many nursery rhymes have evolved over time, and many people do not realize what the original intentions of the authors were.
The term "Mother Goose" had became synonymous with the phrase "nursery rhymes" in the 1700's (Sandin pars.5). No one is sure if Mother Goose was a real person or not, but there are many arguments about who she might have been. Kristin Sandin writes down the three theories about who she really was. One idea is that she was actually Queen Sheba of biblical times. Another theory is that she is Queen Bertha, the mother of the medieval military leader Charlemagne. She was nicknamed "Queen Goose-foot" because she was web footed or pigeon toed. Queen Bertha died in
783. Many people on the East Coast believe that the real "Mother Goose" was Elizabeth Vergoose. She lived in colonial times in Boston. Elizabeth entertained her grandchildren with rhymes and chants that she remembered from her own childhood. On her grave is a monument of the fictional character "Mother Goose" seen on the cover of the popular nursery rhyme books. No one can ever prove who she really was or where she came from, but in many people's opinion she is a combination of some real live characters and some fictional characters as well. Sandin states that "No matter how suppressive or scolding a patriarchal society is, it can not eliminate our need for the divine feminine" (Pars.5).
Many of the rhymes from Mother Goose take the political opinion of the common people of the time. Some examples as found in Maeschilde's writings show Mother Goose's political tongue.
Gorgie Porgie, Pudding Pie
Kissed the girls and made them cry.
This rhyme was attributed to a promiscuous monarch of the day. Another thyme that has
political implications is Jack Spratt:
Jack Spratt could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean,
And so between them both,
You see, they licked the platter clean.
This rhyme is a commentary of a fat, and greedy churchman, an Archdeacon named Pratt
Back in those times people could only keep a third of their income because the state and the church took a third each (sometimes more) as well.
Many other popular nursery rhymes were folk songs or ballads sung in taverns. According to Teresa Lightfoot one rhyme in particular "Pop! Goes the Weasel" was a song sung in a popular pub in England called the Eagle. The original rhyme goes as follows:
All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey thought 'twas all in fun.
Pop! Goes the weasel.
A penny for a spool of thread,
A penny for a needle.
That's the way the money goes.
Pop! Goes the weasel.
Up and down the city road,
In and out of the Eagle.
That's the way the money goes.
Pop! Goes the weasel.
Half a pound of tuppeney rice,
Half a pound of treacle,
Mix it up and make it nice,
Pop! Goes the weasel (Pars.1-3).
After knowing that this rhyme originated as a tavern song it is easily seen as an adult entertainment. People can just picture a bunch of drunkards sitting around drinking and singing this tale and it is easily imagined how the money goes "in and out of the Eagle."
Most children's first encounter with poetry is through the rhymes they learn at nursery school or in the playground. These are usually humorous rhymes that are repetitive and easily remembered. Others are specifically designed to help children learn to count, such as " One, two, buckle my shoe…" For as long as we have had an alphabet we have needed tricks to help us memorize the odd order in which the letters are
arranged. The repetition of the nursery rhymes helps children to remember counting and the letters of the alphabet. The education community is beginning to recognize nursery rhymes as an effective way to build vocabulary and reading skills and other educational purposes because of their attractiveness to children. In an article in the Times Educational Supplement, Hillary Robinson points out an example of this new use for nursery rhymes. In this instance a mother wrote a picture book about a girl spider and this helped her daughter overcome her phobia of spiders. Robinson also points out that some rhymes, such as "Little Miss Muffet" helped contribute to these fears of children, like arachnaphobia (B19).
In the past nursery rhymes were often recited by elders in the community to children as a way to transmit history and social values through the oral tradition. It is a proven method that if children are interested in the topic they are hearing about, that it will stick in their minds and will be more understood by them. These historical events are often recited as "silly rhymes," thus making learning fun.
The rhyme I recall singing and dancing around in circles to is "Ring Around the Rosie." This rhyme is believed to have significant meaning to the social history of the past. The origin and purpose of this rhyme is the most controversial between the scholars of today. There are three versions of the origins of this rhyme that are most commonly believed. The first and most wildly spread version is that the rhyme describes or was used as an incantation to ward off either the Black Death of the 14th century or the great Plague of London in the 17th century. This version of the origins of rhymes is what I had learned in school and programs I had watched on the History Channel. The original rhyme of this version as written down in the web site by Terresa Lightfoot is as follows:
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
The basic interpretation is that the first line refers to the rosie-red, round rash that were
the fist signs of the plague. The second verse refers to the superstitious method that the flower posies either would cure or ward off the disease, so that people would stuff their pockets full of the flowers. The third verse is the sound of sneezing and that too is a sign of the plague. The final verse "We all fall down," most believe refers to the fact that whoever got the plague would fall down dead. This rhyme has evolved over time and the third line nowadays is " Ashes, ashes!" instead of "A-tishoo, a-tishoo." This third line of the evolved rhyme is often translated as when the victims of the plague died, all of their belongings were burnt to kill any of the viruses that were left on them (Lightfoot pars.1-3). I have also heard that line to be interpreted as the bodies of victims of the plague being burnt in piles because of the mass amount of deceased. Many scholars are skeptical of this version because many sources print that this rhyme is indeed the memory of the Black Death of 1347-1350. Ian Munro, a professor at Harvard argues that if indeed this rhyme was a memory of the Black Death of the 14th century or even a memory of the Plague in London in the 17th century that the rhyme had to go underground for one hundred to four hundred years with no one ever writing it down because there is no mention of this rhyme until 1881 withKate Greenaway's collection Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes. Her version
of the rhyme is quite a bit different than the more popular version I quoted earlier. It goes like this:
A Pocket full of posies;
Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush!
We're all tumbled down.
No one knows if Greenway doctored these old rhymes for her own purposes or if this is the true original rhyme, but it is the first time it was ever published (4).
Phillip Hicock , an influential folklorist, agrees with Munro's ideas and is also skeptical that the rhyme refers to either of the plagues. He states that the facts clearly point to the second version of where the rhyme originated. He states in his column "Said and Done" in Folklore that:
The more likely explanation is to be found in the religious ban on dancing among many Protestants in the nineteenth century, in Britain as well as here in North America. Adolescents found a way around the dancing ban with what was called in the United State the "Play-party." Play-parties consisted of ring games, which differed from square dances only in their name and their lack of musical accompaniment. They were hugely popular, and younger children got into the act, too. Some modern nursery games, particularly those, which involve rings of children, derive from these play-party games. "Little Sally Saucer" is one of them, and "Ring Around the Rosie" seems to be another…(4).
Folklore rarely appears from nowhere and Hiscock thinks that although "Ring Around the Rosie" originated from the ban on dancing, that parts could have been borrowed from a rhyme describing the plague, but that the rhyme as we know it does not date from the plague years(4).
The third interesting variation of this rhyme states that it is based on a Hindu worship rite. Richard Stoney has researched mythology for years and is certain that the
origins of "Ring Around the Rosie" lies in the mythology of the Hindu god Shiva, who is the god of destruction. There is a dance that is used to re-energize life and the cosmos, and these represent the inseparability between life and death, and therefore, reincarnation. He interprets the first line of the rhyme as the ring of roses around another ring of roses, which is essential in the ritual "Twilight Dance." The ashes referred to are from the great fires at the ritual. The Hindu's also believe that because when children play this game they continually get up and sing the rhyme over and over after they fall down "dead," this they think is proof that the rhyme is talking about Hindu concepts of reincarnation. Hindu's readily believe that fun rhymes like this are reasons for celebration of life full of actions that are enticing to kids. They don't think that a rhyme for children could come from such a dreary event such as a plague (Stoney pars.7-8).
The popular rhyme "Jack and Jill" also has controversial views, but not as heated as the "Ring Around the Rosie" rhyme. The evolved rhyme as we have heard it for years in school goes like this:
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.
Charlotte Foltz Jones reports that according to several different sources, there was no girl names Jill in the original version of this rhyme. The rhyme was about two boys - Jack and Gill - who in real life were Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Bishop Tarbes. Wolswy and Tarbes served England's King Henry VIII (1491-1547). In 1518, Wolsey and Tarves tried to settle a feud between France and the Holy Roman Empire. They failed, and war broke out. Wolsey committed British troops to fight against France, and he raised taxes
to pay for the war, which the people resented. This rhyme mocked Wolsey and Tarbes (27). Charlene Winters of the Daily Herald also notes this version of the origins of this rhyme in her article about James Christensen's latest book, Rhymes and Reasons. He states that " The rhyme mocks the collapse of the men's "uphill" battle for peace" (Pars.14-15). Another interesting theory about the origins of "Jack and Jill comes from John Barth of The Paris Review. He believes that the rhyme has underlying adult implications about an incestuous affair between the two children and their fall depicts the societal disapproval of such a relationship (214). The most reasonable believed version comes from Chris Howell, a local historian. His research on this rhyme has made him believe that in the 15th century, a youth named Jack died of a broken crown in Kilmersdom, England. His wife died from a broken heart after giving birth to their son. Their surname was Gilson and there are descendants of the son still living in England today (111).
A favorite rhyme of my children's today is that of "Humpty Dumpty." The nursery rhyme goes like this"
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.
Charlotte Foltz Jones gives the explanation for this rhyme as Humpty Dumpty being a nobleman who fell from the favor of the King (26). Terresa Lightfoot writes down the widely publicized view. In her version of the origins of this rhyme, Humpty Dumpty was actually a powerful cannon that the English used during the English civil war (1642-1649). It was at the top of St. Mary's at the Wall Church in Colchester to be used to defend the city against the siege from the Royalists. The enemy hit the church tower and it was blown off, thus sending "Humpty" to the ground. The King's men did try and put the cannon back together, but to no avail (Pars.1-2).
Marli Murphy points out in her article that recently there has been quite an uproar over the old rhymes and their politically incorrect nature. Consider this standard of one of the old original rhymes:
Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn't keep her.
Put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.
The new age parents of today are worried that rhymes like this can damage the self-esteem of young girls. Some see this as a form of spousal abuse and in this age when people are finally cracking down on domestic abuse, this rhyme is sending the wrong message (CO2). A new book titled The New Adventures of Mother Goose has been written by Bruce Lansky. He states that "I'm on a mission to create a new body of children's literature that…reflects contemporary values"(110). In his new book the formally "Three Blind Mice" are the "Three Kind Mice." Lansky says that he first noticed how sexist and violent Mother Goose rhymes were when his children were small. He couldn't explain to his children why "The Old Woman in the Shoe" whipped her kids when today that is considered child abuse. This book is great for the new 20th and 21st century, conscientious parents, who want good reading material for their kids (qtd in Seligman 110).
Many people are appalled at the bawdy nature of some of these rhymes; in all actuality they were never intended for children, but once they had heard them, the children incorporated them into their play. Like any other things in history, we can only theorize about the origins and the purposes the authors had in mind because they are not around to ask. We can only look at the clues we have and try to put them together to find
the truth. There are many versions of these rhymes and different cultures have changed their words to fit into their own culture. Sadly we may never know for sure the original intentions these anonymous authors had in mind, so for now and maybe forever we can only speculate the truth. We must not overlook the importance of these rhymes, nonsense, ditties and songs. These rhymes are a piece of all the threads of time and talk that adults spin around growing children in their homes, in the street, or at school. These rhymes play a crucial part in the development, not only language, but also clapping, the skipping, counting out rhymes, and all other sources of inventive word play. Language in its patterning sets the course of young lives; the importance of acquiring expressiveness can not be overstated. Without linguistic agility, we can not be at our true potential.
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