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Morbid History Disquised As Sweet Little Nursery Rhymes

Updated on July 10, 2011

History and Origins of Nursery Rhymes

I grew up reading Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes and have always loved them. Recently, while reading them to my grandchildren, it hit me how violent some of them seem to be. I thought I'd do some research and found some very interesting info I'd like to share. I hope you don't find it too disturbing.

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago........people were punished by death if they were caught gossiping or talking about the events of the time. Very cleverly, they disquised their converstions with short, easy to remember rhymes. These rhymes stuck and are still popular today, although, their morbid, violent history has been somewhat lost with time.

Here are a few of my favorite popular rhymes and their morbid history.

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.

This rhyme, without even knowing the history, seems sad. I picture a cute egg dressed in little boy bibs and striped knee socks sitting on a wall. However,Humpty was a huge cannon, which was mounted upon a high wall-like church tower. It was used in the Siege of Colchester during the English Civil War. Humpty had a great fall when the tower was blown to bits by enemy cannon fire. Of, course, they couldn't put it back together.

I find this rhyme very disturbing now that I know it's history, Ring Around The Rosie.

Ring around the rosie.........pocket full of posie.........ashes, ashes we all fall down.

This sweet little rhyme, that I so often repeated as a child, while I played, is actually about a horrible killer. It refers to the Black Plague, which killed 25 million people in the 14th century. Ring around the rosie is a "cute" way of describing the Horrific, itchy round, red rash, which was the first symptom of the plague. A pocket full of posie, this line refers to the practice of carrying flower petals in one's pocket and scattering them around the infected person's bed, as to protect themselves from the infection. (They really believed that would work ? ) Ashes, ashes, is imitating the sound of the ill person sneezing ( I would say achew, achew). We all fall down, meaning we are all gonna drop down dead. Sweet rhyme, huh?

BaaBaa Blacksheep........Have you any wool...........Yes, Sir, yes, Sir.........Three bags full........One for my Master........One for the Dame........And one for the little boy...........Who lives down the lane.

This rhyme relates to a 13th century tax on wool imposed by the King. One third went to the local Lord, or Master. One third to the Church, or Dame. Leaving a measly one third to the farmer, or little boy who lived down the lane. Fair deal, huh ?

Mary, Mary..........Quite contrary........How does your garden grow............With silverbelles....... and cockleshells..........And pretty maids.....All in a row.

In my mind, I see a pretty young maiden tending her beautiful flower garden. The truth, Mary is Bloody Mary Tudor, daughter of King Henry VIII. Mary, Mary, quite contrary, had many innocent people tortured and beheaded. She was a devoted Catholic and tortured Protestants into Catholicism. If one remained true to his or her Protestant faith after extreme suffering through torture, they were beheaded. The garden, actually the ever growing graveyard of innocent noncatholics. Silver bells were thumbscrews, which crushed the thumb between two hard surfaces by tightening the screw. Cockleshells ( I always wondered what this flower looked like ) were instruments of wickedly painful torture, which were clamped to the genitals. ( YIKES ! OUCH ! ) Pretty Maids, of course, referring to the guillotine, or Maiden.

I find all of this very interesting and very disturbing. Will I still read the rhymes to my Grandchildren? Hmmmmm. I'm not sure, but probably. What they don't know won't hurt 'em, right? I might get a body chill and my hair might stand on end while I'm reading them, though.

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    • profile image

      Arthur 

      4 years ago

      And to think I have been singing these nursery rhymes to my children and grandchildren

    • profile image

      Beth 

      5 years ago

      I was taught in school a couple of years ago that the cockleshells in the Mary, Mary poem were refering to her husbands affair, she was called a cockold (even though it is a term for a man, not a woman) and that the pretty maids all in a row were her miscarried babies line up in their graves

    • profile image

      Nobody 

      6 years ago

      Adam and Eve went up a hill. Adam was so depressed for having to leave the garden he threw himself down

    • profile image

      Anne 

      6 years ago

      I've heard of a story about The Muffin Man rhyme, that the muffin man was actually a kidnapper/murderer, and adults used the rhyme to keep kids away from him... I'm not sure how true that backstory is, or why they would pick a 'nice' name like The Muffin Man, but there ya have it.

    • profile image

      Dash McCallen 

      6 years ago

      Those that you are speaking of, are of old - even ancient(?) Sources. Howabout one that is of more recent origins?

      Lizzy Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks. When she had saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one!

      That was not that long ago, relativly speaking.

    • profile image

      Bri 

      6 years ago

      Yeah, these are pretty morbid stories; but you're missing a little context. Back when these stories were made, people were not as hygienic or moral as they are today. Bloody Mary was (at first) known as 'bloody' Mary because she put men -who were trying to assassinate her to put her sister Elizabeth on the thrown- to death. From there it went downhill with the torture and 'inquisitions' to other Protestants and she was eventually replaced by her sister. Also, when people spread posies on the dead it was more a superstitious way to honor them, hoping if they made them smell as pretty as the flowers they would be spared the plague.

    • Miss Married profile image

      Miss Married 

      7 years ago

      I had heard of the "Ring around the Rosies" but not the others.

      I had read an article (I don't remember where) that stated that the fairy tales were used to get the children to behave, hence Hansel and Gretel= Don't go into the woods", etc. Not much different than telling ghost stories around a camp fire.

      I grew up reading all these stories and ryhmes, loving them all. Thank you for the great hub Christine.

    • profile image

      Stephy 

      7 years ago

      Ooh. I had heard that the pocket full of posies was in reference to the flowers they'd put in the pockets of the deceased to help with the smell of their rotting flesh.

    • profile image

      seo4real 

      8 years ago

      thanks a lot for the great hub and share

    • profile image

      eli 

      8 years ago

      wow that is just disturbing

    • profile image

      dj tanzinite 

      8 years ago

      nursery rimes were always fun to read but after reading this it is disturbing lol! ill still read them to my nieces and nephews though

    • Ruby J Jones profile image

      Ruby J Jones 

      8 years ago

      Great hub, I know I am late to it. I actually knew about most of these. Have you ever heard the true story of the orgins of the fairytales? Talk about morbid turned into sweet!Where did they ever get the idea that all this was good for our children? Guess that shows where minds lay.

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      9 years ago from Ohio

      Hmmm, thanks so much for your comment, Megan. I suppose there are many stories stemming from and about the rhymes. That could very well be true. It is very sad, isn't it?

    • profile image

      Megan 

      9 years ago

      I was told (by a teacher) that in Ring around the Rosies The posies were put into pockets to counter the smell of death and that ashes ashes refers to the fact that people burned the bodies of the people who died of the plague.

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      9 years ago from Ohio

      Thanks, Mystery author, very awesome info.

    • profile image

      david 

      9 years ago

      lol wut

    • profile image

      MysteryAuthor09 

      9 years ago

      On the "Mary Mary Quite Contrary" nursery rhyme i know three versions. One is yours which will be the third I list but the other two are interesting too.

      One interpretation suggests that silver bells were Catholic cathedral bells, that the cockle shells were the symbol of pilgrimage to the Catholic Shrine of St James in Spain, and the pretty maids all in a row were Catholic nuns.

      A second interpretation views the cockle shells as a lewd comment on her relationship with her disinterested husband, Philip II of Spain. The question How does your garden grow? was a scornful attack of her inability to produce an heir. And the pretty maids all in a row was a reference to her miscarriages.

      A final interpretation goes to the heart of her persona as “Bloody Mary” with silver bells and cockle shells referring to instruments of torture: silver bells being thumbscrews and cockles shells being instruments of torture attached to the genitals. While the pretty maids would be a reference to early guillotine-type devices used to decapitate victims.

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      9 years ago from Ohio

      Hi, Ted. WOW ! very interesting, thanks for the info.

    • Ted Smith profile image

      Ted Smith 

      9 years ago from Bath, England.

      Hi Christine, yes it is fascinating how so much of folklore has been wrapped up in rhyme. Interestingly some of their actual meanings are still debated, particularly Ring-a-ring of Roses (how it is said in England) and I read somewhere that it could refer to the War of the Roses, between the armies of York and Lancaster but I was not convinced. It is true that the guillotine is an 18th century French invention which would place it far later than the 'Mary, Mary, quite contary' rhyme. As I understand it a maiden was an Iron Maiden which was a metal casket with spikes pointing inwards in which people were placed. They were used quite extensively around Europe during the Middle Ages. Seeya.

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      9 years ago from Ohio

      Thanks for commenting, Denise.

    • denise mohan profile image

      denise mohan 

      9 years ago from California

      Yes, I did know of this and I don't read them to my grandchildren.  We like to rhyme and we prefer the silliness of Dr. Suess & the poems of Shel Silverstein. Thank goodness WE have more to choses from.  It is wonderful how much information is out here. Thank the heavens for people like you who don't mind sharing. I'm sure this is insightful for many, who never comment.

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      9 years ago from Ohio

      Hi, Suzi..........thanks for commenting ! I will check it out, thanks.

    • profile image

      Suzi 

      9 years ago

      Evidently, others known as "maidens" were already around. I'll also bet they used many more devices than just "axes and swords!" Check out wiki.

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      Thanks, Lyssy

    • profile image

      Lyssy 

      10 years ago

      The gullitine wasn't invented until the 1700's in France.

      Before that, they just used axes and swords.

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      WOW ! Thanks, Sparkling Jewel. Those are so nice. I'll look for that book. Thanks, again. :>)

    • SparklingJewel profile image

      SparklingJewel 

      10 years ago from upper midwest

      The name of the book is "Positively Mother Goose" by Diane Loosman, Karen Kolberg and Julia Loosman Illustrated by Ronda E. Henrichsen; HJ Kramer Inc. Starseed Press; Tiburon, California

      "The Bold Woman Who Lived in a Shoe"

      There was a bold woman who lived in a shoe.

      She had many children, and knew just what to do.

      "You are all lovable, with special gifts" she said.

      She hugged them all fondly and tucked them in bed.

      "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater"

      Peter,Peter pumpkin eater,

      had a wife that was a leader;

      In a pumpkin they did dwell

      And loved each other very well.

      Just a couple of the more well known ones.

      Have a Positively glorious day !!

      SparklingJewel

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      Hahahaha ! Hi studygal, how are ya ! I loved Family Affair ! Thanks so much for commenting ! Morbidly interesting, huh ? heehee.

    • profile image

      Studygal 

      10 years ago

      I loved this information. Some of this I knew, but boy the Mary Mary I sure didn't! Maybe someday IF I get grandkids I'll look for the positive story book. I remember a Family Affair story where Uncle Bill decided the kids were watching too much TV so they were reading Hansel And Grettle. That sure did not turn out to be a such a good idea. Think about it!

    • profile image

      Studygal 

      10 years ago

      I loved this information. Some of this I knew, but boy the Mary Mary I sure didn't! Maybe someday IF I get grandkids I'll look for the positive story book. I remember a Family Affair story where Uncle Bill decided the kids were watching too much TV so they were reading Hansel And Grettle. That sure did not turn out to be a such a good idea. Think about it!

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      Thanks, SparklingJewel....I would like to read it.

    • SparklingJewel profile image

      SparklingJewel 

      10 years ago from upper midwest

      I found a positive nursery rhymes book when my kids were young. It turned every one of the negatives into positives -morals or values. Quite good. I will look for it and let you know the title.

      SparklingJewel

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      Hi, Lissie...hahahah........Yes, I find it fascinating, also. Thanks for commenting !

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      10 years ago from New Zealand

      I didn't know about the "Mary Mary" backstory! It's fascinating - but I suppose after 500 odd yearsof oral tradition the PC brigade will stop it dead!

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      Thank you for commenting, AuraGem ! You know very interesting medieval facts. I find that time frame fascinating, also.

    • AuraGem profile image

      AuraGem 

      10 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      "Ring o Ring o Rosie" is definitely an incredible rhyme to be given the descriptive title of "nursery rhyme". This rhyme was one of many, originating in medieval times, when superstitious fears of the unknown among the masses was rampant. The common people would develop a rhyming song, maybe more like a mini chant, to ward off the evil sources of those fears. They fought darkness with light! Viewing these rhymes with modern eyes, they almost appear as lyrical satire - something apparently sweet but with sour undercurrents. In many ways, these rhymes remind me of Jonathan Swift's famous pamplhlet about using Irish children for English dining tables! It had a surface of humour but a vicious undercurrent.

      A great hub, stirring up my long-standing fascination with all things medieval!

      Smiles and Light

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      Hi, thanks, Kenny. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed writing it, as well.

    • ChristineRitter profile imageAUTHOR

      ChristineRitter 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      Thanks, VioletSun. Yes, I agree. I am a huge fan of Dr. Dyer.

    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 

      10 years ago from Chennai

      LOl! I knew about this, but didn't know the details of all. I only knew the Jack Horner and Ringa ringa stories.

      Great job, telling us about it, thank you Christine!

    • VioletSun profile image

      VioletSun 

      10 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

      Hi, Christine: I find that these writings reflects the level of conciousness of the time; nowadays there are more enlightened stories for children; Wayne Dyer I believe has written children stories with positive messages in it.

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