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Traditional Nursery Rhymes

January 14, 2011

It seems a pity that these are going out of fashion. Children today, according to the media, can recite advertising jingles and sing television tunes, but are losing the words of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and ‘Humpty Dumpty’. They lack relevance or purpose, we’re told, not to mention political correctness. I would dispute their lack of relevance: many of them started life as lampoons or summaries of events, and sum up past events in very few words.  They ridicule kings and politicians with equal enthusiasm and many of them have lasted hundreds of years with the words varying through the generations.

An excellent example of this is Baa Baa Black Sheep. It may go right back to the Middle Ages. In my childhood the last lines of the rhyme ran ‘And none for the little boy crying in the lane’. A dire warning to all cry babies, it seemed to me then. These days the fleece is divided equally; ‘One for the Master, one for the Dame, and one for the little boy who lives down the lane’.

If it really does go back to the days when the wealth of England was principally derived from the sheep whose fleeces were exported all over Europe, but mainly to France and the Netherlands for weaving into high quality cloth, then it probably refers very critically to taxes. Even now the Chancellor has a huge padded seat in the Houses of Parliament which is called the woolsack and which is a reminder of King Edward I who introduced a tax which amounted to roughly a third of the total value of each sack of fleece. After the King had his share the Church demanded a tenth or tithe of what the farmer’s work  had earned. Most of the residue went to the landowner rather than the tenant farmer who had done the work. However, the black sheep had wool which couldn’t be dyed successfully so it was less valuable – the tenant’s share – and thus the whole rhyme is a very critical comment on a society which left the producer with too little to live on comfortably (or crying in the lane).

A couplet very popular at the times of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 makes reference to the importance of wool:

When Adam delved and Eve span // Who was then the gentleman? This revolt was the consequence of a king, this time Richard II, raising the level of poll tax unfairly . Apart from being a very early use of the word ‘gentleman’ it queries the inequality of society when it was still recovering from the population drop that resulted from the scourge of the Black Death during the 1350s and which had left animals and crops derelict with too few people left to care for them. Even today, our word ‘spinster’ derives from this period when almost every woman spent their unallocated time spinning the wool that had been produced.

A number of rhymes seem to derive from the turmoil of the Tudor period. Little Jack Horner who sat in a corner eating his puddingpie is generally thought to refer to a lay servant in the great kitchen of Glastonbury Abbey. This was one of the great religious houses of England in the early 16th century and the Abbot heard that the King’s men were beginning to investigate the churches for abuse of their privileges with a view to confiscating assets so he could swell the royal coffers. Trying to save the abbey (not to mention his position) the Abbot ordered a great pie to be made into which he slipped the ownership deeds of some of the abbey’s best properties, and which he then sent up to London to present to King Henry VIII. At some point the young Jack acquired a deed for himself (a plum) and left the Abbey to take over his ill-gotten gains. An act of foresight on his part as the Abbot’s bribe achieved nothing, and proved to the king that the abbey was far too wealthy which led to its prompt suppression. The ruins, along with the beautifully preserved great kitchen, can still be visited today.

Although there is disagreement about the origin of Humpty Dumpty, I always favoured the popular view that it related to Cardinal Wolsey, Chancellor to King Henry VIII and charged with resolving ‘The Great Matter’ of the King’s divorce from his wife of some 20 years, Catherine of Aragon. Certainly the words fit the facts very neatly. Cardinal Wolsey was in great difficulties as the servant of two masters – the secular king of England, and the Pope in Rome whose office had been responsible for granting the king permission to wed his dead brother’s young widow in the first place. He did indeed ‘sit on the wall’ desperately seeking for a solution that would keep everyone happy: an impossible task. The egg like character is a harsh bur fair comment on the large figure of the cardinal that we can see in paintings. That he had a great fall is true: he was stripped of his office and had to ask the King’s permission to retire to his remaining property, a broken man who had surrendered his great and beautiful palace at Hampton Court to no effect. The king, hearing that he had been taken gravely ill and was like to die of his depression, sent a troop of horse riding after him with a token gift of a ring and the promise that his life was safe. It was too late though and Wolsey dies, like Humpty, a broken man that couldn’t be put together again. The moral, of course, is in the old saying ‘Put not your trust in princes’.

So much for state and politics, kings and politicians. Whichever way you look at it, ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ seems to be having a go at the Roman Catholic Church. The rhyme seems to date from the second half of the 16th century. Silver bells were rung during the celebration of the Mass and cockle shells were catholic symbols, originally souvenirs worn by pilgrims who had made the long journey to the shrine of Saint James of Compostela in Northern Spain. By the 16th century they had become a generic pilgrim symbol and some say they were incorporated decoratively into the exteriors of houses sympathetic to the catholic cause during the reign of Queen Elizabeth so that fugitives would know when they were safe. I seem to remember having this pointed out at Mapledurham House on the River Thames near Reading which belonged to a Catholic family. The ‘pretty maids’ in this interpretation are thought to refer to nuns in church.

During the 16th century there are two Marys from which to choose.  Opinion is firmly divided as to whether the rhyme refers to the flighty and inconsistent catholic Mary Queen of Scots who got thorough two very different husbands before rushing to what she hoped was safety in England when the Scottish nobles rose against her. Her garden, in that case, is an ironic reference to her imprisonment which she spent plotting to obtain the English throne from Queen Elizabeth before finally being executed in 1587 for treason.

My personal preference is for Queen Mary, the elder half sister of Queen Elizabeth by Katherine of Aragon. The words seem to fit the case so well. When she came to the throne soon after the death of her vehemently protestant younger brother Edward VI she immediately reversed all the changes he (and those around him) had introduced and made the country catholic again. Thus she was quite contrary.  She appointed Gardiner as Archbishop of Canterbury and he enthusiastically helped to hunt out and persecute protestants, becoming both infamous and hated in the process. ‘How does your garden (Gardiner) grow? In this interpretation all the things mentioned in the garden, none of which are flowers, are the common names given to instruments of torture used to convince the protestants to renege on  their beliefs. The garden can also, perhaps, refer to Mary’s inability to produce an heir (she died of stomach cancer which mimicked the bloating effects of pregnancy) or lastly, as some variations on the rhyme say, ‘How does your graveyard grow’ – a reference to the bloody and tumultuous reign she had which saw many martyrs dying for their beliefs.

Early in the 17th century a new rhyme went around the streets of London: Hark, hark, the dogs do bark //  The beggars are coming to town. // Some in rags and some in tags (alt. dags), And one in velvet gown.  This damning verdict was the one Londoners gave to their new king in 1603, James the VI and I, son of Mary Queen of Scots and heir to Queen Elizabeth. The Scottish noblemen who accompanied him were mocked for their threadbare and unfashionable garments: under Queen Elizabeth’s watchful eye the court had been stylish and extravagant, and though King James rapidly became the same, he did so using English money. The Scottish noblemen were seen as invaders who were out for whatever they could get from wealthy England. The alternative use of the word dags which I remember hearing years ago is a reference to the medieval fashion of decorative edges.

Of course, everyone still knows and quotes

‘Remember, remember the 5th of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot

For I see no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

However, the tone is ambivalent. Is it celebrating the successful prevention of Guy Fawkes and his cronies who tried to blow up Parliament with the King and his representatives inside, or is it commemorating their failure? The burning of effigies has varied over the years, but it is by no means always Guy Fawkes on the bonfire of rubbish. He wasn’t burned, anyway: a far more gruesome end awaited the broken and tortured man.  An informed body of thought maintains nowadays that Guy Fawkes was victim or fall guy rather than master spy and plotter and that the whole thing, right down to the damp gunpowder, may have been engineered by those in authority to whip up anti catholic feeling.  If that was the case, it would explain the ambiguous tone of the rhyme.

Moving on to the 18th century, Mother Goose appears. Originating in France, lots of rhymes and children’s stories were collected together. Editions soon appeared in England. Stories and rhymes varied, and some had their roots deep in old legends and stories that had survived in oral traditions. Fortunately it more or less coincided with the emergence of the Romantic movement in poetry, art and literature when the innocence of childhood was celebrated by writers like William Wordsworth and William Blake amongst many. Nurseries which allowed children to be children rather than mini adults needed books and toys and the success of Mother Goose was assured amongst the middle and wealthier classes. (For the poor, child labour and exploitation would continue well into the 19th century before compulsory education arrived relatively recently).

There are so many nursery rhymes. This is just a very selective sample of my favourites, but they do illustrate the way common people have commemorated or satirised both events and characters. The tone is mainly critical. The themes are surprisingly universal: taxes, bad leadership, autocratic rule, pretentiousness. These themes are not just the stuff of history but the stuff of everyday life. Rhymes are a simple but memorable way of passing comment when newspapers were a rarity. Perhaps we should cherish our nursery rhymes for their universal content rather than consigning them to oblivion.

Baa Baa Black Sheep. Have you any wool?

Yes Sir, Nor, Sir. Three bags full.

One for the Master, one for the Dame*

But none for little boy crying in the lane.

* (Mother Church)

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

Little Jack Horner

Sat in a corner eating his pudding pie

He put in his thumb and pulled out a plum

And said ‘ What a rich boy am I’.

Mary, Mary quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells

And pretty maids all in a row.


Hark, hark, the dogs do bark

The beggars are coming to town

Some in rags and some in tags

And one in velvet gown.

There are many books that look far more exhaustively at Nursery rhymes. Some are very learned and thorough and some are positively dubious in the theories they present. However, I have just discovered a penguin book by Albert Jack called ‘Pop goes the Weasel’ which gives a very gentle introduction to the subject.

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