- Books, Literature, and Writing»
- Poems & Poetry
Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes - not as nonsensical and innocent as you think
Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes
For much of our childhoods we were read and learned our first rhymes from Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes. We identified with "Georgie Porgie, " "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary," "Humpty Dumpty," and "Jack and Jill," just to name a few.
I remember my sister and I sitting on my Dad's lap as he read these nursery rhymes to us over and over again. We never tired over them and both wanted the Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes book when we left home. My sister won the coin toss and so the book went with here. Good thing, because she had three children who enjoyed the same rhymes when their grandpa read to them.
But, when did Mother Goose emerge as the traditional image of children's nursery rhymes? Who invented her? And, what is the true meaning of those simple nonsensical rhymes? As children, we accepted Mother Goose rhymes for face value. But, today, we know they were not just nonsensical ditties but political statements of the time.
In the days when one could literally loose one's head for talking against the crown or monarchy, the clever and creative people of the 17th and 18th centuries, made up these rhymes they could say aloud and in public without the subjects of the rhymes knowing they were about them and in protest about something in political life.
What we consider nonsensical rhymes for children today, were actually strong statements, parodies and satires of the times. Rhymes were easy to remember and pass down by word of mouth from generation to generation and those who were illiterate had a way of being part of the discourse even though they could not write or read the political pamphlets of the day.
Therefore, Mother Goose Rhymes are more important than originally thought today.
And, today, no one knows for sure who Mother Goose was or was originated after, or when she arrived, or where she was from.
- French fairy tales
Some of our favorite fairy tales we listened to as children were originally written and/or collected by these three top French fairy tale writers who introduced us to the genre of fairy tales.
The Origin of Mother Goose
Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander
Would fly through the air
On a very fine gander.
Mother Goose had a house;
It stood in the wood
Where an owl at the door
As sentinel stood.
This is the only rhyme in which Mother Goose herself is a character out of all the Mother Goose rhymes created and written in the 17th and 18th centuries. Her figure is an imaginary author of a collection of fairy tales and nursery rhymes.
Most of the time, she is depicted in literature and book illustrations as an elderly country woman in a tall hat and shawl that was a costume identical to the peasant costume worn in Wales in the early 20th century.
Sometimes she is depicted as a goose and usually wearing a bonnet. Mother Goose is given the name of the archetypal country woman.
English readers were already familiar with Mother Hubbard, a stock figure or character that Edmund Spenser created in 1590, for his satire, Mother Hubbard's Tale.
So, Mother Goose is credited with the Mother Goose stories and rhymes; yet no specific writer has ever been identified with such a name or being the originator of the character.
By 1650, the term Mother Goose was already familiar as a household term and name. Frenchman Jean Loret's La Muse Historique mentions comme un conte de la Mere Oye, which means "like a Mother Goose story". Other references to mere l'oye or mere oye occur in earlier French writings.
In Les satyres de Sainte-Regnier (1626), a compilation of satires does mention un conte d'Urgande et de ma mere l'Oye.
And, Guy de la Brosse (1628) in his writing, De la nature, vertu et utilite de plantes, also mentions contes de la mere oye.
These are just a few among others that allude to Mother Goose in their writings. As seen here, the first mentions of Mother Goose come from the French and Frenchmen Charles Perrault, who introduced the fairy tale genre to western literature and who also makes mention to her in his fairy tale collection.
The first known collection of Nursery Rhymes was Tommy Thumb's Song Book published in 1744 in England. John Carnan published the first book of Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes (1780) in England.
It seems though that everyone wants to take credit for originating Mother Goose and that includes America. Despite evidence to the contrary, America has claimed to have invented the original Mother Goose.
Boston, Massachusetts, claims Mother Goose as her own creation, and includes her in their tourist sights and scenes. It is said that the original Mother Goose was a Bostonian wife of an Issac Goose, either named Elizabeth Foster Goose (1665-1758) of Mary Goose (d. 1690 age 42) who is buried at the Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street and shown to tourists today.
These reports, however are doubtful according to historians. But, Eleanor Early, a Boston travel and history writer of the 1930's and 40's, claims the original Mother Goose was a real person who lived in Boston in the 1660's. She was reportedly the second wife of Issac Goose who brought six children of her own to ad to Issac's ten children.
After Issac's death, Elizabeth lived with her daughter who's husband, Thomas Fleet, was a publisher who lived on Pudding Lane (now Devonshire Street) According to Early, "Mother Goose" (Elizabeth) used to sing songs and ditties to her grandchildren all day and to other children who gathered to hear them.
Finally, Thomas, her son-in-law, gathered together her songs, rhymes and jingles and published them.
Writer, Katherine Elwes Thomas, author of The Real Personages of Mother Goose (1930) has said the Mother Goose images may be based on the ancient legends of the wife of King Robert II of France.
In concordance with Thomas, the character in Berthe la fileuse (Bertha the Spinner) or Berthe pied d'oie (Goose-Foot Bertha) is often referred to in French legends as spinning incredible tales that engaged and enchanted children.
Iona Opie, considered the authority on the Mother Goose tradition, does not give credence to either Elwes, Thomas nor the Boston suppositions. Instead she looks at Charles Perrault, father of the literary fair tale genre, who published in 1695, Contes de ma mere l'Oye or Tales of My Mother Goose. According to Opie his publication marked the first authenticated starting point for Mother Goose stories.
Interesting, the first public appearance of Mother Goose stories and rhymes in America was in Worchester, Massachusetts where Isaiah Thomas reprinted Histories of Tales of Past Times, Told by Mother Goose (Robert Sambels-1729) and published them in 1786.
John Newbery, also, was once believed to have published a compilation of English nursery rhymes entitled Mother Goose's Melody some time in the 1760's, but the first edition was probably published in 1780 or '81 by Thomas Carnan, one of Newbery's successors. Therefore, the name "Mother Goose" has been associated in the English speaking world, with children's poetry ever since.
One of the Christmas traditions of England is the pantomime performance of Mother Goose rhymes each year. The first pantomime of Mother Goose was at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London in December 1806.
In 1837, John Bellenden Ker Gawler published a book deriving the origin of the Mother Goose rhymes from Flemish (Dutch) puns.
It seems to me that Mother Goose anonymously originated in France, and has delighted and entertained children from Europe and America for many years. Mother Goose is such a delightful character that many want to take credit for her. I can't blame them, because I was always entertained and enchanted by these rhymes.
But, while I took the rhymes at face value, the rhymes really did have a message to convey back in the day they were originally created and written. Who knew that these funny little rhymes could carry the impact of a political statement or satire on a particular situation? See the rhymes below to understand the true meaning of these rhymes we know so well.
Ba Ba Black Sheep
Baa, baa, black sheep, Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,Three bags full;
One for the master,And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
Ba Ba Black Sheep (1731) is an English nursery rhyme and is really about the Great Custom, a tax on wool introduced in Britain in 1275. The use of the word "black" and the word "masters" have led some to wonder whether there was a racial message at its core.
In the latter part of the 20th century, some schools banned it from being read and/or repeated in the classroom because of its perceived racial message.
In 2011, news.com.au reported on the use of Ba Ba Rainbow Sheep as an alternative to be repeated. Another case of political correctness run amok.
Jack and Jill
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down
And broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Jack and Jill (1765) is one of the most popular nursery rhymes, and it too had a double meaning. Most common of the theories surrounding the rhyme's origin is that it was about France's Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. Both were found guilty of treason and subsequently beheaded.
The only problem with this version is that these events took place nearly 30 years after Jack and Jill and was first written.
Another possibility is that it was an account of King Charles I and his attempt to reform the tax on liquid measure. When Parliament rejected his suggestion, he instead made sure that the liquid volume was reduced on half and quarter pints, known as jacks and gills.
London Bridge is Falling Down
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
It is believed this rhyme is about a 1014 Viking attack on London and child sacrifice. or it could be the normal deterioration of the bridge. The most popular theory is the first one about the Viking attack on the bridge,
It is alleged that the destruction of London Bridge was done by Olaff II of Norway some time in the 1000's. Today, historians are not even sure if the attack took place and it just might be legend about which this rhyme is known.
Here is the much darker theory - it is about child sacrifice used to build London Bridge. There is no archaeological evidence to support this theory, but builders believed London Bridge was built on a foundation of human sacrifice. Children were sacrificed and used as the foundation for the bridge and those children that were sacrificed would keep watch over the bridge and maintain its sturdiness.
This is more like the horror of a Stephen King novel.
Mary Mary Quite Contrary
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
This rhyme was originally published in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (1744. The word contrary was one way to describe a murderous psychopath. Although it reads like gardening advice, it really is a recounting of the homicidal nature of Queen Mary I of England also known as Bloody Mary.
Mary was a staunch Catholic who during her short reign as queen (1553 - 1558) executed hundreds of Protestants.
"Silver Bells and cockle shells" were torture devices, not garden flowers or accouterments, as used in this rhyme.
Three Blind Mice
Three blind mice.
Three blind mice.
See how they run.
See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer's wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
As three blind mice?
Three Blind Mice (1805) is a nursery rhyme and a musical round as well. This is another rhyme about Bloody Mary's reign. The trio (three blind mice) are believed to be a group of Protestant bishops - Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.
All three men unsuccessfully conspired to overthrow Queen Mary and were burned at the stake for treason and heresy.
The blindness in the title refers to their Protestant religious beliefs.
Ring Around the Rosie
Ring around the rosie
Pocket full of posies
We all fall down.
This is the one nursery rhyme (1881) that I did know the true meaning of over the years. In a sing-songy verse and holding hands with others and moving in a circle, this rhyme refers to the 1665 Black Plague of London.
"Rosie" is the rash that covered the bodies of those afflicted with the plague. "A pocket full of posies" were needed to cover up the smell/stench of disease and dead bodies all over London.
"Ashes, ashes, we all fall down" refers to nearly 15% of the London population that was killed by the black plague.
The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
This rhyme (1797) is really a story of naughty children who go around murdering the elderly. At first glance, it looks like a poverty-stricken woman is trying to provide food and discipline to her children.
When the lights go out, the next stanzas take a creepy turn and tell of the children's revenge on the old woman by killing her. Thus, the children are free of the old woman and her harsh discipline.
Does this resonate in times today when there are many children who murder their parents for various reasons, sometimes the reason being the harsh treatment they receive from their parents?
The secret history of nursery rhymes reflect actual events in history and over the years the secret meanings have been lost. As the reader can see, the nursery rhyme was used to parody the royal and political events and people of the day.
The humble rhyme was used as an innocent vehicle to quickly spread subversive messages that if spoken plainly out loud would be cause for treason and ultimately death. The rhyme allowed free speech in a day when any remark against a monarchy would mean losing one's head.
A rhyme is short, sing-songy and easy to remember and easy to verbally pass down from generation to generation. And, thank heavens for that, because today we have the rhymes to read and sing to the children of today.
Not every single rhyme we know today had a secret meaning. But, these are just a few examples of nursery rhymes that do have double meanings.
Note: Watch the video below made by Disney Studios that explains more nursery rhymes and their secret meaning.