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The Hidden History and Humour in Nursery Rhymes
Many people think that only primitive tribes now follow the oral tradition of passing on history through songs and stories. Surely western societies are much too sophisticated to pass information this way. Children go to school and use the internet now they get their information that way, don’t they? It is a misconception to believe that school and the internet is where children get all their information, children’s earliest information comes from adults in the form of nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes are short, rhyming rhythmic poetry or songs, which parents, or other adults, recite or sing to very young children. Nursery rhymes contain history and much other information besides.
Universal literacy usually spells the end of the oral tradition in societies but, in England and in other countries, the oral tradition still survives in nursery rhymes. In former times, most people could not read and write, and there were no laws protecting people from the powerful. It was very dangerous to comment openly on political happenings, royal indiscretions, or anything that fringed on these things. The English have a long tradition of lampooning their politicians, the Royal family, and anything else for which they have a healthy disrespect. Laughing at frightening things is the way that English people deal with, understand, and make sense of, them. British people dealt with the Blitz and the bombing of their cities during the Second World War by laughing at Hitler, and inventing mocking songs about him and his generals. Laughing at things makes them just a little less frightening.
The rhymes probably began as mocking songs, or poems, with hidden subversive meanings. They were the pop music of their day and children heard them everywhere, much as today’s children hear pop songs. They rhymed, were easy to remember, and became popular. Many of them commemorate events to do with England’s different religious troubles and it is easy to think that some people passed them onto their children, at least in the beginning, as a way to remember these events.
“Humpty Dumpty” was one of Charles the I’s cannons at Colchester Castle, during the 1648 siege of Colchester, during the English Civil War. Its gunner successfully pounded Cromwell’s army keeping them out of Colchester until they blew it off the wall. The King’s cavalry, or horses, and the King’s infantry, or men, raced in vain to repair the cannon, and prevent Cromwell’s men approaching, but failed.
The “Three Blind Mice” were the Bishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer all executed by Mary I, or the farmer’s wife. “Old Mother Hubbard” was Cardinal Wolsey, who unsuccessfully applied to the Catholic Church, the cupboard, for an annulment, the bone, of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. The king of course was the disappointed doggie, who was eager to marry Anne Boleyn. His failure to secure the bone meant he lost the King’s favour and died after being arrested on the journey from York to The Tower of London. The old Children’s round song “London’s Burning” commemorates The Great Fire of London in 1666. ‘Ring O’ Ring O’ Rosie’ is about the symptoms of bubonic plague, which periodically ravaged England from the Middle Ages. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is a protest about a tax imposed on wool in 1272. Some nursery rhymes are even older; for example, “Old King Cole” was a third century Saxon king.
It is easy to believe that the oral tradition is dead in sophisticated western societies, but the British are still passing on their history and subversive humour hidden in nursery rhymes.