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The History Behind Nursery Rhymes

Updated on September 6, 2012
Humpty Dumpty
Humpty Dumpty

My twin sons (now approaching a year and half) have never enjoyed riding in the car. While it seems most babies are lulled to sleep by the passing scenery and lull of the engine, my usually happy-go-lucky boys just can’t stand the constraints of the car seat. Every outing is met with tears.

That is, until I discovered nursery rhymes on CD. I don’t know what it is about these silly songs and poems, but they have my kids giggling and clapping our entire trip. Sure, they make me a little nuts after a while, but it’s exponentially better than two screaming babies.

I have to admit, after the millionth time listening to the same nursery rhymes, I began to wonder about their origin and history. Many will remember that “Ring around the Rosy” refers to the Bubonic plague, so I figured there certainly must be other nursery rhymes operating in the same fashion. Also, as an English professor, I am very aware of the intrinsic connection that exists between history and literature. I felt confident that these silly poems have a deeper, social and historical context than meets the eye. I, thus, set out to explore the history behind a few popular nursery rhymes.

The History Behind Humpty Dumpty

"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"

When we think of “Humpty Dumpty” most of us picture a large egg in a silly suit and top hat, perched precariously atop a wall. This illustration was made popular by Lewis Carroll in his novel, Through the Looking Glass. And while the term, “Humpty Dumpty” may now be used to denote one who is heavy or uncoordinated, the poem itself does not refer to a person at all.

“Humpty Dumpty” actually refers to large cannon used during the English Civil war in the Siege of Colchester (1648). The cannon had been placed on a protective wall surrounding the city. When it fell, “all the King’s horses and all the King’s men” weren’t able to lift the heavy cannon back into firing position on the wall, costing them dearly in the battle.

The History of 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.
Up got Jack, and home did trot
As fast as he could caper
He went to bed and bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper."

Jack and Jill is a nursery rhyme originating from France and dating back to 1795. According to Linda Alchin’s book The Secret History of Nursery Rhymes, the “Jack” and “Jill” referred to in this poem are actually King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of France respectively. King Louis XVI was beheaded (and, of course “lost his crown”) in 1973 followed by his Queen (who came “tumbling after.”)

Alchin asserts that the nursery rhyme highlights their assent and of course fall from grace, but is given a happy ending to make it a more acceptable story for children.

The History of 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."

Mary Tudor was the daughter of England’s King Henry VIII and a devout Catholic. She earned the title “Bloody Mary” because of her policy to imprison, torture, kill those who practiced Protestantism. This rhyme is rich with symbolism. The “garden” refers to graveyards—ever growing in England during her reign of power.

The “Silver bells” and “cockle shells” are colloquialisms for different torture devices: thumbscrews and genital mutilation instruments, respectively. Moreover, “maids” is a term denoting the maiden, a device used for beheading. While the reader (or orator, more accurately) in the 16th century would have been familiar with such puns, they are usually lost on us today, rendering the nursery rhyme fanciful and whimsical.

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    • Kevina Oyatedor profile image

      kevina oyatedor 4 years ago

      Awesome hub. My sister and I have have also been researching about Nursery rhymes. as well "Ring Around the Rosie" for example was talking about the Bubonic plague. 'Pocket full of posies' was the plague. 'Ashes, ashes' or 'atishoo, atishoo we all fall down' is the sneezing and they die.

    • RobinGrosswirth23 profile image

      Robin Grosswirth 5 years ago from New York

      Very interesting---exponentially so!

      Actually, nursery rhymes tend to depict violent acts and oftentimes frightening themes for kids threaded into a catchy tune.

      Thanks for the lesson.

    • connorj profile image

      John Connor 5 years ago from Altamonte Springs

      fascinating research...