By Maureen Hart
I wanted to go on a rant about the state of the universe in this month’s column (Brexit, Trump, Isis, Orlando), but I calmed myself down and started to think about what I’ve really been doing with my life lately.
Believe it or not, I’ve been singing nursery rhyme songs with my soon-to-be two-year-old grandson. And, just as it did three decades ago when my daughter was a baby, it made me wonder where these fantastic lyrics came from. I knew there were all kinds of hidden meanings, but I’d long forgotten them.
So, here’s your guide to Mother Goose:
Mary Had a Little Lamb: Several sources indicate that it is an American nursery rhyme, and one with a truthful and innocent origin. Attributed to Sarah Josepha Hale, the lyrics sprang from an incident when a young girl named Mary Sawyer, who lived in Sterling, Mass., took her pet lamb to school.
Georgie Porgie, Pudding and Pie: Okay, this one is far less innocent, and there are two suggested inspirations. The milder one is that is refers to Prince Regent George IV, son of mad King George III. The prince was not too smart and he was immensely fat. The X-rated version involves George Villiers (1592-1628) who was a handsome nobleman who caught the eye of James I. He was named Gentleman of the Bedchamber (there are any number of puns that could be made of that title) and later Duke of Buckingham. Georgie, however, was appreciative of both men and women, and had many affairs (so he kissed the girls and made them cry).
Baa, Baa, Black Sheep: This one teaches us some harsh history, as it dates back to feudal days and the institution of a harsh wool tax in England. While we say, one bag is for the master, one for the dame, and one for the little boy down the lane, in reality one-third went to the king and nobility, another third to the Church, and another third was left for everybody else.
The Muffin Man: This one’s actually rather cheerful. In Victorian England, fresh foods were purchased from individual vendors since supermarkets did not exist. The muffin men went through the streets ringing bells to advertise their tasty wares, just like ice cream trucks do today.
Little Jack Horner: Little Jack took a plum out of a pie, but, in fact, he represents Thomas Horner, a steward who was ordered to deliver a large pie to King Henry VIII. Instead of a plum, the pie contained deeds to a number of manors, a bribe from a Catholic abbot who hoped to save his monastery from the king’s anti-Catholic retribution. The nursery rhyme refers to suspicions that the original Horner reached into the pie and helped himself to one of the deeds—which would have been quite a plum!
Yankee Doodle: While Northerners like to call themselves Yanks, or root for the Yankees, this ditty was originally an insulting way for British soldiers to make fun of the colonists during the American.The reference to sticking a feather into a cap and calling it macaroni refers to the favorite food of London dandies, which in turn came to be used as a term to denote the height of fashion. But the soldiers were implying the Americans were hicks who thought that putting a feather in their cap made them as stylish as London socialites.
Hey Diddle, Diddle: Written during the reign of Elizabeth I in England, the true meaning behind this rhyme is dark. It refers to a love triangle that prevented Elizabeth from marrying the man she loved, Robert Dudley, Earl of Essex, who was married to Amy Robsart. Although Elizabeth and Dudley flirted, and she loved him, any possible liaison between the two was thwarted when Amy was found at the bottom of a staircase with a broken neck, and there were suspicions that Elizabeth had her murdered in order to have Dudley for herself. Consequently, the two could never marry, as it would seem to confirm those scandalous suspicions. Eventually Robert fell in love with Lettice Knollys, the queen’s beautiful cousin, and they married in secret, earning Elizabeth’s wrath and leading to Robert’s banishment. So, how does this fit in with Hey Diddle Diddle? Well, Robert is the dish; Lettice the spoon; the dog represents Elizabeth’s counselor Robert Cecil; the laugh refers to Amy being pushed down the stairs preventing Elizabeth and Robert’s love to be; the cow was the queen, and the moon was forbidden love. Now there’s another history lesson for you.
Three Blind Mice: Another unpleasant history lesson can be found in this rhyme. The mice are a reference to three noblemen who adhered to the Protestant faith during the reign of Queen Mary, a staunch Catholic also known as Bloody Mary. Convicted of plotting against the queen, represented in the ditty by the farmer’s wife, the noblemen were not blinded, just burnt at the stake.
Ring Around the Rosey: I knew this had sinister connotations, but had forgotten that it refers to the bubonic plague. Symptoms of the plague were thought to include a rose red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin. Another symptom was sneezing. So people filled their pockets with sweet smelling herbs, known as posies, because they believed bad smells helped carry the disease. Oh yes, and “we all fall down” refers to dying.
London Bridge is Falling Down: Well, this one has several theories behind it, dating all the way from the Vikings to Henry VIII. One even refers to child sacrifice. It’s also possible that it simply refers to the need to rebuild a bridge that was in bad repair.
Jack and Jill: You may not be pleased to know that this one supposedly concerns adultery. There are claims that a couple back in 1697 used to sneak up a hill in the small English village of Kilmersdon. Well, Jill got pregnant, and Jack died from falling on a rock (broke his crown), and Jill tumbled after by dying in childhood. Cheery, isn’t it? Another equally sobering interpretation refers to King Louis XVI of France, who lost his crown, and his wife, Marie Antoinette who “came tumbling after” during the French Revolution.
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary: You might have seen this one coming – we are back to Bloody Queen Mary and her vendetta against Protestants. The pretty picture conjured in this poem actually refers to instruments of torture and death—silver bells are thumbscrews; cockleshells were attached to the genitals, and maids refers to The Maiden, a device used to behead people. Oh, and that lovely garden is actually an allusion to graveyards. Ugh.
Patty Cake: This is one of my favorite clapping games with my grandson, so I was amazed that the first version of this rhyme appears in a play called “The Campaigners” written by Thomas D’Urfrey in 1698. I can’t believe how these rhymes have survived century after century, and are familiar to all of us from our own childhood. This little game next appeared in Mother Goose’s melody in 1765. It is thought that this song refers to baking in a communal oven, which was popular during the Middle Ages, and predated today’s bakeries.
This Little Piggy: Omigosh, this is Padraig’s favorite, and I hope I never have to tell him that while I’m wiggling his toes the words actually refer to the pig being slaughtered. Apparently, the piggy who went to market wasn’t on a shopping expedition. He was really going to the market to be killed. One assumes the piggy who stayed home was his widow or a piggy who wasn’t fat enough yet, while the one who ate roast beef is doing just that – being fattened for the market. The one who “ate none” is fat enough. And, the only good news involves the one who ran “wee, wee, wee” all the way home to escape the slaughter. Now I’m depressed.
Rockabye Baby: Although I’ve crooned this lullaby many times, it does always make me wonder why we have a baby falling to the ground in a cradle. I didn’t find a definitive answer. Some people think early settlers invented it to refer to how Native Americans often rocked their babies in cradles suspended from tree branches. It’s anything but soothing, however, since a baby falling out of a tree could easily be injured or killed. And yet, we sing our babies to sleep with that interesting image in our minds….
Old Mother Hubbard: This dates again from the reign of Henry VIII and refers to him as a dog seeking a bone (a divorce from Catherine of Aragon). Old Mother Hubbard is Cardinal Wolsey, who goes to the cupboard (Catholic Church) to get the bone, but the cupboard was bare (divorce denied).
So, I’m glad I skipped the rant about the state of the world today, but researching these nursery rhymes have proved to me that life has always been quite complicated.