mother and daughter reading nursery rhymes


Have you ever stopped to think about where those cute little nursery rhymes you read to your children came from? You might be surprised to know that many were actually protests against religious persecution, corrupt politicians and even sexual conduct. We talk to a librarian and author about where nursery rhymes came from and how they were used before they ended up in Mother Goose books.

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  • Chris Roberts, librarian, author of Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The reason behind the rhyme

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The Stories Behind Nursery Rhymes

Marty Peterson: Who doesn’t remember the first nursery rhymes they learned as a child, whether it was “Bah Bah Black Sheep” or “Little Boy Blue” or “Humpty Dumpty,” those short, simple poems remain with us into adulthood, and more often than not are passed on to our own children. Not many parents bother to search out the origins of the rhymes, but if they did, they might be surprised to find out that many of them have their roots in subjects that are definitely not for children. Chris Roberts uncovered the real stories behind some of the most popular poems for his book “Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme.” In addition to being an author, Roberts is a librarian and walking tour guide in South London. He enriches his tours by regaling his clients with tales of the people and events, that inspired many rhymes, which seemed to enjoy great popularity from the time of Henry VIII.

Chris Roberts: Some of them are so far back you can’t track them, some of them middle ages, the majority seem to appear from about 1500-1750, that’s the golden era if you like. It’s a time of our religious differences, shall we say. It’s really the formative period of British history, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, King James Bible, Shakespeare, the Reformation, and it seems there’s this upsurge in song and popular expression if you like.

Peterson: Some of the stories were sneaky political or religious protest, which if made in a straightforward way in the 16th and 17th centuries, weren’t welcome by the powers that be. That’s the origin of the old favourite, “Bah bah black sheep.”

Roberts: Today we have satires and satirical shows on tv and the internet if you and this is a wry way of reflecting it. Most of the wealth of England, certainly at that time that rhyme came about – the medieval ages, is based on war and so war seems the obvious metaphor. “Bah bah black sheep, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full. One for the master, one for the dame, one for the little boy who lives down the lane,” – the master in this context is the king or at least the king’s representative, so the local lord you would pass onto the king and the dame is the church and the third that’s left, for the little boy. So 60% taxation in medieval England is quite a steep thing, so it’s a rather wry reflection of who does the work and who gets the benefits.

Peterson: Others were cautionary tales meant to warn citizens what would happen if they broke the law. Back in the reign of Mary Queen of Scotts, a Catholic, it was illegal to own a bible that wasn’t written in Latin. The rhyme, Three Blind Mice, is a reminder to britains about their fate if they were caught with an English version.

Roberts: “Three blind mice/see how they run/they all ran after the farmers wife/who cut their tails with a carving knife,” and this – it’s one of the rare ones actually, where the historical figure, mostly its an anonymous complaints about a state of being, but Mary would be the farmers wife and some of the people who were executed – Joan Waiste and Uncle John; a priest, were actually blind and they’d saved up to buy the bible in English and have it read to them. But the blind mice, its more a metaphor – though these two people were blind – it’s more metaphor for insignificant people, if you like, being punished by the powers that be.

Peterson: Still others were sexual in tone, many of these contained slang that lost its meaning over the years and became safe for children’s consumption.

Roberts: There’s a rhyme, “See-Saw Marjorie Daw” – ‘Daw’ doesn’t mean anything now, it used to be ‘slut’ – there goes Marjorie this slut and it completely spins the meaning of the word and sometimes its lost meaning word.

Peterson: Sometimes the characters in the rhyme were changed to protect the not so innocent as in “Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub.”

Roberts: And who do you think were there? The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and all of them gone to the fair – and it’s about these respectful trades folk being caught out at a peep show essentially, which is a headline that could exist today – “CEO caught in lap dance venue shame” – I think it’s a reflection of these of these upstanding citizens who are at the fair perhaps, away from their wives, ogling these young ladies in a tub. This is what I’m trying to do in the book, is bringing contemporary examples to refocus them as adult rhymes if you like.

Peterson: Just like today, people back in early England often didn’t think much of their leaders. The rhyme, “Little boy blue,” was created to show displeasure with the state of government in the 17th century England.

Roberts: It’s been associated with a time when we had a republic in England for about 10-15 years, having executed Charles the First and the origins appeared to be around the time when Charles the Second was exiled in Europe and it’s a lament by the royalists by the monarchists that he’s not coming back to England to try and claim the throne. And everything’s in a state of chaos in the country, but I can be applied to any situation where a leaders isn’t doing their job.

Peterson: But how does “the sheep’s in the meadow in corn,” translate to protest against poor leadership?

Roberts: There’s animals where there shouldn’t be, natures out of order because there’s no king, there’s no central authority making sure things are going correctly and Little boy blue – the leader if you like – is asleep under a haystack paying no attention at all.

Peterson: Roberts says that sometimes can be attributed to a historical event, even when the facts don’t actually support the relationship. “Ring a ring a roses” is one of these – the idea persists that it’s about the Black Death, when in fact it began as a way for children to defy religious dictates.

Roberts: They alternative theory to that one ties in much more closely to the time the rhyme came about, is that it’s a means by which children could get around a ban of dancing by the puritan church authorities and some churches are stricter than others and dancing was seen as, well akin to the devils work basically and the “ring around the rosies/falling down” was the closest thing children could do to get around this ban.

Peterson: He says it can’t really be disproved that it’s about the plague but the timeline for when the rhyme appeared and the Black Death is iffy. Roberts says the last wave of the Black Death hit England around 1666 and the poem doesn’t appear until 150 years later – far beyond his criteria for linking a rhyme with an event. Still, the symbolism of the rhyme does coincide with the medical beliefs of the time.

Roberts: “ring a ring a rosie/a pocket full of posies/a tissue a tissue/we all fall down” or “ashes ashes/we all fall down” either way – the falling down bit is the death, ashes ashes is the burning of bodies – you got two different versions of that. “Ring a ring a rosie” is the boils that appear on the body of the victims, the blotches on the skin that would bleed and the “pocket full of posies,” posies is a flower, something sweet smelling you would have and people believed for many years that illnesses were caused by something called miasmas – they had believed this of cholera even – that it was bad air and bad air of necessity would smell appallingly. Therefore, as a mean of counteracting that, if you had something sweet smelling near you, that would ward off the disease.

Peterson: Some rhymes start out as moral lessons, such as “humpty dumpty.”
Roberts: The initial meaning is a warning about behavior, about what can happen, there are certain consequences of behaving in a certain way – you can’t fix it afterwards, it’s too late. By the 15th century, Humpty Dumpty was an ale and brandy based drink and by the 16th century it has become a clumsy person of either sex. So you have the same phrase meaning different things. Now, the rhymes in existence throughout this time – it’s a very old rhyme – and it was used during our civil wars, a nick name ‘humpty dumpty’ was given to a cannon on the walls of Colchester and cannons aren’t brittle like a egg but they are, they’re made of cast iron, if they’re mishandled they will shatter and this is a later association of the rhyme and the cannons knocked off the wall and shattered. And the king’s men, who were trying to fire the canon, couldn’t put humpty together again. So you have an old rhyme that’s acquired this new meaning.

Peterson: Of course, pointing out other people’s bad habits is something that humans have engaged in since time began. “Georgie Porgie,” was one way that Victorians used to admonish children who ate too many sweets.

Roberts: The rhyme doesn’t come into existence until the 19th century and what “Georgie Porgie pudding and pie/kissed the girls and made them cry/when the boys came out to play/Georgie Porgie ran away,” is actually about is childhood obesity – it’s a very simple rhyme about keeping trim actually. So, maybe that should be used today as government propaganda, save them food facts.

Peterson: One old rhyme that’s near and dear to the hearts of Americans, actually started out as a dance tune and evolved into a British taunt. “Yankee Doodle,” has an interesting history that dates back to time of the revolutionary war.

Roberts: The most famous surviving lyric is, “Yankee doodle came to town/riding on a pony/stuck a feather in his cap/and called it macaroni,” now this one was a taunt by the British about the American sense of style at the time and key to it is knowing what macaroni is – which is an Italian dish we all know this – but it was also a youth cult in London in the late 17th century, 1760’s early 1770’s, called the “Macaronis,” incredible dandified youth. Kind of like the “New Romantics” in the 1980’s if you like, peacock showing off, tight jackets, big hair, hours to get ready and what that version is saying is that it takes more than putting a feather in your cap to emulate the peacock youth of London town – you just haven’t earned it yet, you’re just not doing it well enough and that was the taunt thrown at the Americans.

Peterson: At the end of the war however, the Americans got the final word.

Roberts: I really liked the lovely bit of American comic timing and irony; they played it as the British signed the surrender documents.

Peterson: The history and myths surrounding many of our beloved nursery rhymed can be found in Chris Roberts book, “Heavy Words Lightly Thrown,” published by Gotham Books and available in bookstores and online. For more information on all our guests visit our site, You can find us on twitter @viewpointsradio. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook and Pat Reuter. Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.