Go into the children’s department of any bookstore and you’ll find beautifully illustrated volumes of what we call nursery rhymes, though this is a somewhat recent term. They seem fairly innocuous to us now. There’s a good beat (goes great with jump rope), intriguing imagery (Little Miss Muffet’s spider, say), and rhymes that clearly suit early readers. Take this one:
There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse.
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.
But … what does it all mean?
Good question. Centuries ago one could literally lose one’s head for saying the sorts of things Jon Stewart says on national television today. So political comment was often disguised in clever verse. Wandering troubadours and beggars carried news from town to town, often disguising messages of dissent in rhymes or ballads.
Many of these—long after their historic urgency has passed—have survived as nursery rhymes. How these verses that often contain sexual innuendo (“Goosey Goosey Gander”), political chicanery, violence (“Three Blind Mice”), cruelty, and death (“Oranges and Lemons”) came to be songs and stories for children probably has a lot to do with illiteracy (it may have been the only rhyme a parent knew, recited in babytalk) and oral history. That and the fact that the Victorians sanitized a lot of them.
But the history is still there for those who have eyes to see. “Mary, Mary quite contrary” was Mary Queen of Scots. London Bridge really did fall down several times, and “ashes, ashes, we all fall down” refers to the fire and plague of 1666.
The content of “There was a crooked man” also originates from the history of England’s (Stuart) King Charles 1. The crooked stile refers to the border between England and Scotland, a line that was often in bloody dispute given the animosity that existed between the English and Scots. “They all lived together in a crooked little house” refers to a treaty made in 1641 as a result of Scottish military victories under Sir Alexander Leslie (the crooked man).
“Ring around the rosey” more than likely references the circular red rash that was a symptom of the bubonic plague. Pomanders—containers of preserved, scented flowers and herbs (or “a pocket full of poseys”)—were carried to stifle the stench of the burning city and bodies during the period of the Great Plague and fire in London in the seventeenth century. “We all fall down” refers to the indiscriminate selection of victims of the plague.
Verses were sometimes repurposed, as in “Hark, hark, the dogs do bark, the beggars are coming to town,” which refers to the epidemic of wandering vagrants during Elizabethan times (“Some in rags, some in jags,* and some in velvet gowns”). One hundred or so years later, tweaked to “And one in a velvet gown,” the verse references William III of England, a Dutchman, and the much-resented entourage (beggars) who came with him to England from Holland.
English-speaking culture is steeped in nursery (or Mother Goose) rhymes, so it’s hard to escape them, especially if you have young children. Just remember what you’re reading to your little ones in that pleasant, singsong voice … if you’d like an alternative selection, I’d be happy to make some suggestions. :)
(Thanks are due to my friend Margaret Lambert, who suggested this topic and did the initial research. Thank you! *Jags, by the way, were slits in clothing that exposed a different color of cloth underneath, popular during the Tudor period.)
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