Friday, March 25, 2011

The Mother Goose Code

Somehow my children's pediatrician and I recently got to discussing the origins of 'Ring Around the Rosie'. Anyhoo, he seemed kind of surprised that I knew it was about the Bubonic Plague and it got me to wondering: What other nursery rhymes have a deeper, darker meaning behind them?

Being a girl with an inquiring mind and access to all that Google offers, I set to find out. Here are some of the more interesting ones I found. Not the innocent sing-songs of childhood, these are cruel, mocking jests of rhymes. The cyber bullies of today have nothing on the medieval English when it comes to cruel taunting.

I was syndicated on
Ring Around the Rosie. Bubonic Plague.
This is about the plague of London. One of the symptoms of the disease was a red rash on the skin (a rosie ring if you will). People carried posies around in their pockets to ward off the smell of the disease, and "Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down" refers to the high mortality rate associated with the disease. (Side note: I've also heard that the phrase "In the dead of the night" refers to the plague, as people would take their dead out for collection and burial in the middle of the night.)

Georgie Peorgie. Adulterous royalty.

Georgie was George Villiers, 1st duke of Duke of Buckingham, who had an affair with the Queen of France, ruining her reputation (and making her cry because of it). Oh yeah, and he wasn't popular, which is why he ran away when the boys came out to play.

Jack be Nimble. A pirate's life is the life for me.

They say Jack is Black Jack, a notorious English pirate, who regularly escaped from the authorities (boy, was he nimble). Just to wrap this one up, they talk about candle leaping, which some English did at fairs back in ye olde medieval times(talk about starved for entertainment).

Jack Sprat. More royalty with issues.

King Charles I (Jack Sprat) declared war on Spain but Parliament wouldn't fund it (he was lean). His wife imposed an illegal war tax on the populace (to get some fat). He dissolved Parliament (licking the platter clean).

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. Sheesh, no wonder we rebelled. These people are a pain in the ass.

Mary is Bloody Mary Tudor. The old wench had many innocent people tortured and beheaded for failing to convert to Catholicism (Unsurprisingly, she was the daughter of King Henry VIII - talk about the head not falling far from the guillotine). The garden refers to the graveyard for non-converts, minus their craniums. Silver bells were thumbscrews, which crushed the thumb between two hard surfaces by tightening the screw. Cockleshells - again torture: look at the root of the word and you'll get an idea of what it involved. Ouch!

Of course, some say it's about Mary I of England and mocking her for her miscarriages. Her womb, or garden, was barren and that the original line was not "pretty maids all in a row" but "dead babies all in a row" (as in their little graves).

Jack & Jill. Because the French aristocracy sucked, too.

Since we're on the subject of guillotines, let's chat about Marie Antoinette and her hubby. Jack was King Louis XVI was beheaded (that's one way to lose your crown) and was then followed by Jill, or Marie Antoinette (hers came tumbling after).

Humpty Dumpty. Not the cute little egg on a brick wall you thought he was.

Actually a cannon used during the English Civil War. The darn thing fell off its perch and the Royalists (King's Men and their horses) tried to fix it and get it back up and running but couldn't because it was so big.

BaaBaa Blacksheep. The English and their taxes...

The wool tax in this instance. One-third went to the local lord (master), one-third to the Church (dame), leaving only one third for the farmer (little boy down the lane).



  1. I think you maybe ruined "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" for me.

  2. What a great idea for a post - yes I think all nursery rhymes seem to emerge from the dark side. I remember going to Disneyland for the 1st time w. our firstborn who was only 2.5 at the time and taking her on Frog and Toad's Adventure - oh my God! It was terrifying - you had to go through the flames of hell, literally, and satan was in there too - I was so shocked when I came out, and my husband reminded me that most fairytales, and Disney too sometimes, have a whole lotta dark side in 'em. Sheesh! Anyway thanks for stopping by my blog Dana - I love yours and am going to try to make that simple artisan bread recipe. I will give you a shout out on our FB page too. (-: Because I'm still pimping for followers...just like them Moonies! (-:
    - Ado

  3. Very cool! I love that you researched all of this! I had heard at one point (not sure where) that Humpty Dumpty was about Richard III in England, who was killed in battle, after - presumably - stealing the thrown from his nephew and locking him in the Tower to die. Interesting stuff!


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